…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.

…movement of Jah people

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

Leaven cannot be regarded as an entirely synonymous term for yeast as, in reality, it was a lump of dough contaminated with actively multiplying microbes from a diversity of species; that would have mainly included yeasts but other microbes would have also been present. Leaven would most certainly also have contained pathogenic contaminants spread by animals and insect vectors. Nevertheless the fermenting characteristics of leaven and yeast are most likely to be very similar and, from an uninformed perspective, the biological process behind the ability to ferment would have been shrouded in mystery. Leaven is still used to make bread in the 21st century, both commercially and domestically, but now it is normally referred to as sour-dough.

Investigating how leaven was perceived in the Bible gives a surprising insight into the socio-politics of the period. It allows the investigator to come face to face with the uncertainties and fears that the people of that period experienced. One particular pattern to be identified is the lack of control certain groups in society had over their lives and destiny, some comfort may have been derived from following certain rituals and rites. Through participating in ceremony there was a degree of control and organisation. Therefore,  some satisfaction may have been gleaned in believing that these actions could bring about change, whereas ordinarily uncertainty and fear of suffering would have been the predominate factors. During the times preceding the Old Testament,  the most populated areas were in the valley of the Nile and Fertile Crescent, which is the region between Palestine and the flood plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Heat, stagnating water and human waste would have provided exceptional breeding grounds for a host of pathogens. The most common  health conditions would probably arise from parasitical or insect borne infections, such as bilharzia, malaria and trachoma, and viral or bacterial diseases, perhaps including bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, anthrax and cholera.

The story of the Hebrews exodus from Egypt is where the symbolic importance of leaven in the Bible is first introduced. At first, it seems that the Hebrews were welcome in Egypt, enjoying a reasonable life-style. Amenenhat III is thought to have been the pharaoh that had made Joseph an advisor and allowed him to settle in the Delta. This was during, what archaeologists described as, the Middle Kingdom, which occurred from 2050 to 1786 BC. Joseph was a Semite, the favoured son of Jacob and descendent of Abraham the prophet. His popularity, believed to be a blessing from God, enabled him to become an important Egyptian governor. Joseph is noted for having dreamlike premonitions, through which he saves Egypt from famine and brings prosperity to the land. Around this period the Hyksos, renown for instigating the use of horse-drawn chariots, may have invaded vulnerable parts of Egypt. The Hyksos are thought to have built a town called Avaris in the Delta area and would have perhaps looked favourably upon the Hebrews, through empathizing with their predicament.

Joseph welcomed by Pharaoh. Watercolour by Tissot c1903

The Bible implies that as time passes the fate of the Hebrews became uncertain when a new Egyptian king, who did not remember Joseph, became ruler. This possibly occurred during the second intermediate period in Egyptian history, between 1786 and 1567 BC. A political change may have took place about this time when Ahmose I is thought to have expelled the occupying population of Hyksos from the Delta region, destroying Avaris and similar towns constructed by them. The Egyptians needed labour to carry out ambitious projects so enslaved vulnerable Hebrews and other tribal nomads.

Despite being condemned to slavery the Hebrew population flourished. The Bible states that the new king, fearing the growing population of Hebrews, tried to crush their spirit with hard labour by forcing them to build the store cities of Pithom and Rameses. In theory this could have been the rebuilding of towns on the sites of destroyed Hyksos cities. The city known in the Bible as Rameses is thought to have been Pi-Rameses an ancient town that would have covered most of Avaris but is now the site of a modern village called Qantir. As time passed, despite cruel and harsh treatment the Hebrew population still began to flourish. Fearing this growing population, the King of Egypt ordered all Hebrew male newborns to be killed and demanded that they be drowned in the River Nile. The validity of these events is supported by recent excavations that have uncovered a large number of graves found at the ancient site of Avaris. Strikingly, over 65 percent of the burials were of children below the age of two. It is thought that the Exodus took place sometime during the rule of Rameses II, around about 1290 BC. Although there is mounting evidence that points to an earlier date, perhaps in the rule of Dudimose, around 1447 BC. Discrepancies could have arisen because the Bible may be referring to Avaris as the city built by the Hebrews, but used the later name of Rameses. Nevertheless the Exodus is thought to have occurred during the New Kingdom, between 1567 and 1085 BC. Although other theories suggest that the Hyksos may have invaded after the Exodus, when the Israelite population had deserted and there was little resistance.