…give us this day our Showbread

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

It becomes apparent while reading the Bible, that bread is an important part of Hebrew life and was frequently allied to rituals and ceremonies. Moses is instructed through God to always leave an offering of bread in the presence of the Lord. Precise instructions were given to Moses on how a table for serving the bread offering should be made:

Make a table out of Acacia-wood, 2 units long, 1 unit wide, and 1.5 units high. Cover it with pure gold and put a gold border around it. Make a rim round it and a gold border around the rim. Make four carrying-rings of gold for it and put them at the four corners, were the legs are. The rings to hold the poles for carrying the table article are to be placed near the rim. Make the poles of Acacia-wood and cover them with gold. Make plates, cups, jar and bowls to be used for wine-offerings. All of these are to be made of pure gold. The table is to be placed in front of the Covenant Box, and on the table there is always to be the sacred bread offered to me.
[Ex. 37. 10-16]

Perhaps this precision offered some kind of order to the Hebrews in what was an otherwise unpredictable life. The bread that was displayed on this table was called Showbread or Bread of the Presence. There were very specific and precise instructions on how this bread should be placed on the table:

Take twelve units of flour and bake twelve loaves of bread. Put the loaves in two rows, six in each row, on the table covered with pure gold, which is in the Lord’s presence. Put some frankincense on each row, as a token food-offering to the Lord to take the place of the bread. Every Sabbath, for all time to come, the bread must be placed in the presence of the Lord. This is Israel’s duty forever. The bread belongs to Aaron and his descendants, and they shall eat it in a holy place, because this is a very holy part of the food offered to the Lord for the priests.
[Lev. 24. 4-9]

The twelve loaves of Showbread are thought to represent the twelve tribes of  Israel. The loaves were changed every Sabbath, then eaten by the priests who replaced it. The bread used would have been unleaven as  leaven was regarded as an impurity and it may indeed have contained pathogenic microbes. It would not be implausible to suppose that ritualistic ceremonies that excluded leaven, like this and the Passover, inadvertently offered protection from disease thereby giving the impression that a supernatural power had spared the worshippers.

Twelve loaves of Showbread and two cups of frankincense displayed on a golden table until the Sabbath. Image by Ori229

No grain offerings presented to the Lord were permitted to contain leaven, but must contain salt, perhaps because its preservation qualities may have prevented contamination  from taking place, by inhibiting the growth of microbes:

None of the oblations that you offer to the Lord is to be prepared with leaven, for you must never burn leaven or honey as an offering to the Lord. You may offer them up to the Lord as an offering of first-fruits, but they must not go as an appeasing fragrance at the altar. You must salt every oblation that you offer, and you must never fail to put on your oblation the salt of the Covenant with you God.
[Lev 2.13]

This regulation also applied to grain when it was given as part of a sin offering [Lev 6.17] and when Aaron ordained his sons as priests, the consecration offering was bread made without leaven [Ex 29.2]. In the book of Numbers the ceremony to become a Nazarite involved a complicated ritual of animal sacrifice and head shaving in addition to an offering of unleavened bread:

When a Nazirite completes his vows, he shall perform a ritual. He shall go to the entrance of the Tent and present to the Lord three animals without any defects: one-year-old male lamb for a burnt offering, a one-year-old ewe lamb for a sin offering and a ram for a fellowship offering. He shall also offer a basket of bread made without leaven.
[Num 6.13-15]

Although leaven was not permitted in sacrifices to the Lord it was allowed in thanksgiving celebrations in appreciation of the Lord’s many blessings. In this ritual the food was shared amongst the offerers and leaven was often added perhaps to symbolise the expanse of the harvest. The Harvest festival was performed to celebrate the first harvests of corn as a kind of thanksgiving ceremony:

You must bring from your houses to present with the gesture of offering- two loaves, made of two-tenths of wheaten flour baked with leaven, theses are first-fruits for the Lord.
[Lev. 23.17-18]

The authoritative and God-fearing message presented by the Old Testament is in sharp contrast with the philosophies of the New Testament. The Old Testament clearly states that if the Torah is disobeyed serious repercussions will occur. Following the Torah may have had beneficial affects in an era before antibiotics and vaccinations revolutionised disease control. These doctrines would also protect a community from diseases that have no known treatment or vaccine. Currently controlling microbial contamination and disease still preoccupies society but is no longer shrouded in mystery as in the past. Immunisation is now so commonplace, that disease in the 21st century is generally less feared than in the Biblical era, when life expectancy was rarely above thirty-five years.

In addition to transmitted diseases there were also many environmental and incidental health concerns like silicosis from breathing sand, the development of tetanus from infected wounds, conditions caused by malnutrition such as osteopetrosiscongenital diseases and malignant tumours. Some of these conditions such as malignant tumours and congenital diseases occur to this day and are still the subject of scientific research. The difference being that these diseases are not contagious  obviously would not have had the same social impact as those caused by transmissible pathogenic microbes. The symbolic portrayal of leaven as a sign of permeating corruption in the Old Testament seems an accurate interpretation of what the Hebrew society most feared at the time, the threat of disease through contamination by microbes.

Advertisements

…the metabolic habits of microbes have earned them a bad press

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

Based on archaeological evidence, it is thought that the Earth was created approximately 4.6 billion years ago and that life originated in the form of bacteria 3.8 billion years ago. Multicellular organisms, in various microscopic forms, are thought to have first existed about a billion years ago and are thought to have given rise to simple animals,such as sponges and anemones. More complex forms of animals started to appear 550 million years ago (mya). Arthropods are thought to have appeared first, followed by fish, land plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds and flowering plants respectively. First primates that resembled humans arrived on the scene 2.5 mya with humans resembling the present form arriving just 200,000 years ago. Neanderthals disappeared fairly recently, only 25,000 years ago. A short time in evolutionary terms but still a vast time scale  for a human with an average life span of 62.5 years to visualise. When the Bible was written human life span was only 28 years.

Trilobite fossils, early anthropods that are now extinct. Image Moussa Direct Ltd.

The Bible condenses the time scale that humans arrived on earth within the space of a few days. On the first day God created light which was divided into day and night. The next day, water were divided from the sky and earth was divided into land and sea. It was not until the third day that Life first appeared when God created vegetation. During the fourth day planets and stars were added with time being divided into seasons, days and years. On the fifth day God creates birds and sea creatures,  commanding them to be fruitful and multiply. Finally on the sixth he adds wild beasts, livestock and reptiles, creating humanity in his own “image”. The humans are instructed to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. In the book of Genesis the Bible draws a distinction between animals and humans, with emphasis on human superiority.

God said, ‘Let us make humans in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the ground.’
[Gen 1. 26]

There are a number of misconceptions in the account of creation within the Bible. The stars and planets must have existed before the introduction of life.  Seasons would  prerequisite the existance of vegetation. We are now also aware that reptiles existed before mammalian species on account of dinasaur fossil records. These restrictions in knowledge also result in no reference to the creation of microbes within Genesis but there are several references to disease and of fermentation processes throughout the Bible.

An early reptilian Apatosaurus louisae skeleton in the Carnegie Museum. Image by Tadek Kurpaski

Ancient civilisations would be completely unaware of the causes to many diseases. In general, injuries resulting from accidents or animal bites were understood and treated by various dressings, including sesame oil, wine and balsams, some of which contained naturally occurring antibiotics. In contrast the mechanisms behind diseases involving parasites or microbes were a complete mystery and thought to have been placed in the body by evil forces. Consequently, these illnesses were treated by making the body hostile to the invader through intense cleansing with various noxious substances. Diseases were largely viewed as a punishment brought through sin or disobedience.

The Lord said, ‘If you will not obey my commands, you will be punished. If you refuse to obey my laws and commands and break the covenant I have made with you, I will punish you. I will bring disaster on you- incurable diseases and fevers that will make you blind and cause your life to waste away.
[Lev 26.14-16]

As microbes where viewed as some kind of mysterious, unexplained power they were also used to represent the spread of sin and corruption. For instance, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul the Apostle uses the permeating character of leaven to illustrate the spreading of corruption within a community.

You know the saying, “A little leaven makes the whole batch of dough rise.” You must remove the old leaven of sin so that you will be entirely pure. Then you will be like a new batch of dough with no leaven, as indeed I know that you actually are. For our Passover Festival is ready, now that Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us celebrate our Passover, then, not with bread having the old leaven of sin and wickedness, but with the bread that has no leaven, the bread of purity and truth.
[1 Cor. 5.6-9]