[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]
Leaven when used figuratively in the bible is most often used to denote something that is corrupt. The initial conception of it in the leaven parable (see previous post) is of a favourable component in the dough, this implies that Jesus is contradicting its symbolic use in the Bible.
The Leaven Parable. Illustration by Jan Luyken from the Bowyer Bible.
This parable could be interpreted in many ways. The leaven is taken by the woman and hidden in the meal or flour. The leaven may represent the subtle way that evil can permeate through the dough. In this manner leaven still represents something that corrupts, disintegrates and breaks up. The woman is impregnating the pure symbol of heaven symbolised by the meal with evil symbolised by the leaven. The first indication that leaven was associated with corruption in the Bible was when Lot baked unleavened bread for the angels:
But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without leaven, and they ate.
Lot did not give leavened bread to the angels because he did not want to offer them anything containing impurities. The next reference to leaven is in the book of Exodus when the Hebrews left Egypt. They received a command from the Lord, through Moses, not to eat leavened bread for seven days. Similar sentiments occur in later sections of the Bible when the Lord demands that leaven should not be offered in sacrifices to him.
Do not offer bread made with leaven when you sacrifice an animal to me. Do not keep until morning any part of an animal killed at the Passover festival.
Leaven was excluded from any sacrifice because it was thought of as a contaminant that did not reflect sinlessness. Leaven during the Biblical era would have contained many undesirable elements in addition to microbes that fermented bread dough. It’s unlikely that the primitive baking processes used at that time would have destroyed all pathogenic microbes and therefore there was the potential for leaven in bread to transmit diseases. This is perhaps why it earned such a bad reputation and why people tended not to offer it to guests during festivals or at other times. Perhaps one person’s leaven was another person’s poison. Interestingly, animal sacrifices were disposed of before they started to decompose or they could become contaminated also. Perhaps there was the additional fear that Egyptians would look unfavourably upon this practice and there would be consequences for the Hebrews if they were caught with animal remains:
If we use these animals and offend the Egyptians by sacrificing them where they can see us, we will be stoned to death. We must travel three days into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, just as he commanded us.
The words leaven and unleavened occur over sixty times in the Old Testament and nearly twenty times in the New Testament. In every instance, except for in the leaven parable, it is used to denote something corrupt or sinful. Mostly, Jesus uses leaven figuratively in the same way as it is used in the Old Testament to denote corruption. For instance, Jesus compares the doctrines of the Pharisees with leaven:
Be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees, I mean their hypocrisy.
In Mark’s gospel “and the leaven of Herod” is added to the above quote [Mk 8.14-15]. According to Lockyer the leaven of the Pharisees can be interpreted to represent the hypocritical formality and ritual of their beliefs. The leaven of the Sadducees was rationalism and the denial of supernatural events. The leaven of Herod was the consequence of these two doctrines, a departure from God and his teachings to a devotion of secularism and indulgence.
Throughout history the nature of leaven has led it to be seen with similar connotations. A rabbi reportedly said “Trust not a proselyte till twenty-four generations, for he holds his leaven.” Here leaven is used as a symbol of hostile infidelity. It was also used by the Talmund to signify “Evil affections and the naughtiness of the heart.” The ancient interpretation of leaven by the Greek historian, Plutarch, presented a figurative meaning that had similar connotations:
Leaven is both generated by corruption, and also corrupts the mass with which it is mingled.
Paul‘s also uses leaven to illustrate corruption[1 Cor. 5.6]. Paul encouraged the purging of a sinful man because if his sins remained unpunished they would spread amongst the group. This statement by Paul cements the traditional meaning associated with leaven of being a corruptive persuasive and a permeating influence.
Of the leaven parable Martin Luther states that:
Our Lord wishes to comfort us with this similitude, and gives us to understand that, when the Gospel, as a piece of new leaven, has once mixed itself with the human race, which is the dough, it will never cease till the end of the world, but will make its way through the whole mass of those who are to be saved, despite of all the gates of Hell. Just as it is impossible for the sourness, which it has once mingled itself with the dough, ever again to be separated from it, because it has changed the nature of the dough, so it is also impossible for Christians to be ever torn from Christ. For Christ, as a piece of leaven, is so incorporated with them that they form with Him one body, one mass… leaven is also the Word which renews men.
Martin Luther assumes that leaven is used merely for its permeating quality and not in relation to corruption. He has interpreted leaven in this parable as depicting faith rather than corruption. Christ is the piece of leaven that is incorporated into the dough, which is portrayed as the human race. Once the leaven has mingled into the dough it can never be separated.