…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.

…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.