Unleavened Bread (in the Bible)

views updated


Round, flat cakes of bread made from flour and water without yeast. The ordinary bread of nomadic peoples was unleavened (Hebrew maâ ), as it still is today in the Near East, and was baked on hot coals or on a grill over an open fire. It can be quickly prepared, as there is no delay in waiting for the dough to rise; hence, it is mentioned in the Bible in cases where haste was required: Sarah baked unleavened bread for "the three strangers" (Gn 18.6), Lot did the same for the two angels (Gn 19.3), and the sorceress of Endor for Saul (1 Sm 28.24).

The legislation of the Pentateuchal priestly writers prescribed the use of unleavened bread for various cultic offerings. However, this usage was much more ancient; it was probably for religious reasons that gideon provided unleavened bread with his sacrifice of a kid (Jgs6.19), and the laws prohibiting the use of leavened bread with a sacrifice occurred as early as the book of the covenant (Ex 23.18) and the ritual decalogue (Ex 34.25). The priestly legislation described the cereal offering (Hebrew minâ ): when baked, it had to be unleavened and made with oil instead of water (Lv 2.410). The unleavened cakes accompanied a bloody sacrifice (Lv 7.12; 8.2; Nm 6.15).

The principal cultic use was for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Ex 23.15; 34.18; Dt 16.16), which lasted seven days, during which all leaven was to be banished from homes and only unleavened bread eaten (Ex 12.1520; 13.610; Nm 28.17). An agrarian feast, it marked the beginning of the barley harvest; probably it was borrowed from the Canaanites, though it early assumed distinctive Israelite characteristics. The feast fell in the month of Abib (near the spring equinox), but in ancient times the precise day depended upon the maturity of the crop. Since the Feast of passover was celebrated at the full moon of the same month and also required the eating of unleavened bread, the two feasts were combined shortly before the Exile, the Passover being fixed on the 14th of Abib (later called Nisan) and the Feast of Unleavened Bread from the 15th to the 21st of this month (Ez 45.21; Lv 23.58). The Feast of Unleavened Bread ( ορτ τ[symbol omitted]ν ζύμων) is mentioned several times also in the New Testament (Mt 26.17; Mk 14.1, 12; Lk 22.1, 7; Acts 12.3, 20.6).

In a figurative sense, the Feast of Unleavened Bread provides a point of comparison in 1 Cor 5.68, where yeast stands for moral corruption, unleavened bread for newness of life in the risen Christ. Leaven is a symbol of corruption also in the saying of Jesus about the "leaven of the Pharisees" (Mk 8.15; Mt 16.6, 12; Lk 12.1). But there is no connection with Jewish ritual practice in the proverb quoted by Paul (Gal 5.9; 1 Cor 5.6) or in the parable that compares the kingdom of heaven to a small piece of yeast that leavens a whole mass of dough (Mt 13.33; Lk 13.21); in the latter case the leaven is not symbolic of corruption, but has a beneficial effect.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 251718. j. c. rylaarsdam, g. a. buttrick, The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville 1962) 4:734. h. windisch, g. kittel, Theologesches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 2:904908. j. thomas, Dictionnaire de la Bible, ed. f. vigouroux, 5 v. (Paris 18951912) 1.2: 131114. r. devaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 470473, 484494.

[c. j. peifer]