…how to avoid the Destroyer

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

During the Passover, Moses claimed that the Lord would ensure that every first born in Egypt would die at midnight.  The Passover was an ancient ceremony practised uniquely by the Hebrews, and not  the Egyptians. It was a ritual  practiced by shepherds, at the first full moon of spring, to ward off evil spirits in order to protect lambs and goats during birth. This explains the logic behind the species chosen as the sacrificial beast, either a young sheep or a goat. They believed the evil spirits would kill newly born animals. If the blood of a sacrificed animal was smeared on to door posts it would keep away the Destroyer. The Destroyer was most likely to be the bringer of disease or plagues. The ovine meat was later eaten during a nocturnal family festival and may have included herbs to enhance the smell and make it pleasing to the deity concerned. This is another way by which the community dealt with uncertainty. They did not understand the epidemiology of disease or the causative agents and therefore attributed stillbirths to the retaliation of an angry supernatural being.

A lamb prepared for sacrifice. Josefa de Ayala c1670s

The following paragraphs explain how the Passover had been modified by Moses to prepare for the Exodus. It describes how the sacrificial blood spread on the doors would be used by the Lord to distinguish Hebrew houses from those of the Egyptians:

 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: “This month is to be the first month of all the others for you, the first month of your year. Speak to the whole community of Israel and say: On the tenth day of this month each man must choose either a lamb or a young goat for his household. If his family is too small to eat a whole animal, he and his next-door neighbour may share an animal, in proportion to the number of people and the amount that each person can eat. You may choose either a sheep or a goat but it must be a one-year-old male without any defects. Then, on the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, the whole community of Israel will kill the animals. The people are to take a sprig of hyssop, dip it into the bowl containing the animals blood and strike the doorposts and above the doors of the houses in which the animals are to be eaten. That night the meat is to be roasted, and eaten with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled, but eat it roasted whole, including the head, the legs, and the internal organs. You must not leave any of it until the morning; if any is left over it must be burnt. You are to eat it quickly, for you are to be dressed for travel, with your sandals on your feet and your stick in your hand. It is the Passover Festival to honour me, the Lord.”

“On that night I will go through the land of Egypt, killing every first-born male, both human and animal, and punishing all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood on the doorposts will be a sign to mark the houses in which you live. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and you shall escape the destroying plague when I strike the land of Egypt. You must celebrate this day as a religious festival to remind you of what I, the Lord, have done. Celebrate it for all time to come.”
[Ex. 12, 1-20]

It is evident that the Hebrews continued eating unleavened bread when they left Rameses heading for Sukkoth, as they had no time to put leaven back into their dough:

The Israelites set out on foot from Rameses for Sukkoth. There were about 600,000 men, not counting women and children. A large number of other people and many sheep, goats and cattle also went with them. They baked unleavened bread from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for they had been driven out of Egypt so suddenly that they did not have time to get their food ready to prepared leavened dough.
[Ex. 12.37-39]

In an address by Moses to the Hebrews, after the exodus, he stated that the day they left Egypt was to be commemorated by the festival of unleavened bread to remind them of the haste with which they departed, having no time to put leaven in their dough.  The festival of unleavened bread traditionally occurred the day after the Passover:

The Lord said, “For seven days you must not eat any bread made with leaven- eat only unleavened bread. On the first day you are to get rid of all the leaven in your houses, for if anyone during those seven days eats bread made with leaven, he should no longer be considered one of my people. On the first day and again on the seventh day you are to meet for worship. No work is to be done on these days but you may prepare food. Keep this festival, because it was on this day that I brought your tribes out of Egypt. For all time to come you must celebrate this day as a festival. From the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month to the evening of the twenty-first day, you must not eat any bread made with leaven. For seven days no leaven must be found in your houses, for if anyone, native born or foreign, eats bread made with leaven, he shall no longer be considered one of my people. You must eat no leavened bread; wherever you live you must eat unleavened bread.”
[Ex. 12.15-20]

It is interesting that at the time diseases and plagues were spreading through the Nile Delta area the Hebrews abstained from eating leaven. It was a normal practice of the Egyptians to allow the dough from bread to rise in the sun, this would make it a vulnerable target for disease carrying insects that would inevitably lead to the spread of communicable disease. By not eating leavened bread for several days the Hebrews were unwittingly protecting themselves from a potential reservoir of pathogenic organisms. Eating only freshly killed meet in the cooler climate of the evening, then completely burning any leftovers would offer further protection from any contaminating microbes. Perhaps as a consequence of this, and segregation in other social practices, the spread of disease that occurred within the Egyptian population permitted the Hebrews too escape at a time when resistance was weakened.

Bread containing leaven is traditionally burnt before the Jewish Passover. Image by Valley2City.

When the Hebrews left Egypt they continued to treat leaven as an impure substance that could displease God. The removal and burning of leaven is still carried out before Passover in some religions. During the Jewish celebration, it is traditional to hunt for any leaven (also known as Chametz) remaining in the house, the evening before Passover, by candlelight with a wooden spoon and  feather to dust away and scoop up crumbs to be burned the following day. Blood is no longer smeared on door posts though.

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…yeast symbolically represents both purity and corruption

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

The term leaven originates from the latin word levere, the French equivalent being the noun levure meaning to rise. The English term yeast, probably originates from the Greek term for fermenting which was zestos. Derivatives from later European influences resulted in the medieval English terms zeest, which eventually became yest.

Fermentation procedures and the art of making leavened bread was first introduced by the Egyptians over 4000 years ago. In ancient Egypt, brewing and baking were practiced together on the same premises. Wooden and plaster models depicting Egyptians working in a brewery and bakery have been recovered from a tomb dated around 1975 BC during the reign of Amenemhat I. Egyptian hieroglyphs that show pictures of dough rising next to bread ovens have also been found. The Egyptians were therefore aware that both processes used the same substance.

A funerary model of a bakery and brewery, dating the 11th dynasty, circa 2009-1998 B.C. Painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes. Image by Keith Schengili-Roberts

To the Egyptians, bread was an important commodity used as a type of currency for trading and for the payment of services. In fact, the workers who built the pyramids were believed to have been paid in bread. Bread was also used to pay homage to Osiris the God of grain. The Egyptians believed that Osiris had given them the gift of leavened bread to make it lighter to carry, especially in the journey to the afterlife.

In contrast to the Egyptians who revered fermented dough, the ancient Palestinians were extremely suspicious of it. Perhaps this could be due to the different methods by which the bread was leavened. Palestinians would reserve a piece of leavened dough from a previous baking to make the next batch of bread. This dough could easily have been contaminated by harmful microbes which may not have been completely destroyed by the baking processes. If a person died all leaven was thrown out of the house and from all neighbouring houses because Palestinians thought that it may have contributed in some way to the individual’s demise, they believed that the angel of death may have thrust his sword into it.

In Britain during the 15th century, as in ancient Egypt, brewing also took place on the premises where bread was baked. The thick layer of dormant yeast cells that sank to the bottom of the brewing or wine vessel was usually referred to as the lees, while froth from the top of beer was known as barm. Barm from a good batch of beer would be reused to make more beer and to ferment bread dough. Barm, the brewer’s equivalent of leaven, used to be referred to as Godisgoode because it was thought to be a gift from God. Yeast used in brewing and baking seemed to be received in a different manner to leaven that was used to make sourdough. In fact during the 17th century the Paris Faculty of Medicine tried to ban leaven because in the New Testament St. Paul had signified that it was a substance that denotes corruption.

So it seems that fermentation generated through leaven was not viewed in the same way or as a similar process to the fermentation that produced wine. It is clear from passages in the Bible that leaven is used figuratively to symbolise the permeating influence of certain types of human behaviour, especially corruption. Traditionally unleavened bread is used to symbolise the purity of Christ’s body whereas wine symbolises the blood of Christ. This is not without some irony, as wine is made in a similar process and perhaps more likely to lead to acts of sin and corruption when consumed than is bread. Indeed, some religions do recognise this and at the beginning of the 20th Century, alcohol became prohibited for a time in a number of Nordic countries and North America due to Protestant led objections. Alcohol is also prohibited in some countries that follow Islamic laws. The contradictory views relating to fermentation in wine and bread will be discussed at greater length in a later chapter.