“‘Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. And on the first day you shall have a holy assembly, and another holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except what must be eaten by every person, that alone may be prepared by you. You shall also observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a permanent ordinance. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. Seven days there shall be no leaven found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is an alien or a native of the land. You shall not eat anything leavened; in all your dwellings you shall not eat unleavened bread.’”
The word ‘leaven’ is used to refer to an agent, such as yeast, that causes batter or dough to rise, especially by way of fermentation. Wikipedia says that yeasts are microorganisms that are part of the Fungi kingdom. They are unicellular, for the most part. Through fermentation (the conversion of sugar to acids, gases and/or alcohol using yeast or bacteria), the yeast converts carbohydrates (fermentable sugars in the dough) to carbon dioxide and alcohols (primarily ethanol). For thousands of years the carbon dioxide has been used in baking and the alcohol in alcoholic beverages. So, why did God say “absolutely no partaking of anything assisted by leaven and don’t even have it in your house” during this special celebration period each year?
The words translated ‘Leaven’ and ‘unleavened’ are mentioned many times in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. When the word ‘leaven’ is mentioned it usually refers to sin or evil. Any reference to ‘unleavened’ had as its symbolic meaning, a pointing to Christ. Here in our passage the Hebrews were commanded to celebrate the “Feast of Unleavened Bread” which immediately follows as a continuum the Passover Meal which is referred to in verse 14. The weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread goes from the 14th day of the 1st month of the Jewish calendar to the 21st day. During that period the Israelites also had to remove all leaven (representing sin and evil) from their houses.
The thinking was, as can be drawn logically from the simple scientific explanation provided above, the ‘leaven’ causing the rising of bread or dough is due to the corruption of the dough with which it is mixed. Some historical scholars believe each year just prior to the beginning of the Feast week, the Jews would search their houses with extreme care to make sure every particle of leaven was removed.
The symbolism for us today may well be that we need to regularly search our hearts and remove every immorality we find therein. If we are leaders in the Church, we also need to make sure that we remove from our heart and our teaching any false or corrupt doctrine which is not crucial to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but is held on to because of tradition or in the name of ‘separated uniqueness’ – unfortunately often keeping us from fellowship with our own brothers and sisters in Christ. The reason for this purging, we read much later in the New Testament, is that a “little leaven (corruption) has the effect of corrupting the whole loaf of bread”. We know from experience in life that one lie begets many; one sinner pulls many down; a little legalism in our gospel destroys the purity of the message; and so on.
You can see therefore the significance of God saying, “Eat anything that was made using leaven and you are cut off from Israel.” And here’s the symbolism I find interesting – that goes for both genuine biological children of Israel and those that joined their family as “aliens”. So, does God’s willingness to cut off from Israel both His original children and those ‘non-native Israelites’ that were adopted into their families, because they ate food with leaven, or for having sin or evil in their houses, mean anything for us today? I believe it does. I believe and as the references to ‘leaven’ and ‘unleavened’ in the New Testament indicate, we can indeed be cut off, become unrecognizable to the Lord, perhaps because we “never knew Him”. While many today say under the new covenant we do not need to worry about sin and evil if we are believers washed in the blood of Christ (as the Israelites had sprinkled the blood of the lamb on their doorposts), I am not finding it is that simple a matter in the Scriptures.
I also find it interesting that this week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread was to commence and end with a “holy assembly” or ‘convocation’. God required the people to be called together for a special purpose – that is what convocation means. When we celebrate our Feast memorials I believe the Church has a role to play. It must “call us together”. It must “encourage us to celebrate”. It must ensure we celebrate in the way acceptable to God, so that we are not “cut off”. And the Church does this at the beginning and the end of the Feast. This is not a time to begin the Feast as a spiritual memorial and to end it as heathen holiday. For the entire Feast God wants us to live it, celebrate it, without ‘leaven’, without sin or evil in our lives. And to help ensure that very thing in the days of Moses, God made it clear that the only thing the Israelites could do on those two “assembly days” was to have their food cooked for them. The days were to be treated like Sabbaths by them. Later on, God would have more to say about the keeping of the Sabbath both in the Ten Commandments He gave to Moses and in the New Testament.
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