What a Sourdough Baker Knows About Leaven and the Passover

Yeasty sourdough bread is synonymous with life itself in my world. Imagine my indignance at being told that the God of the Bible equates leaven (yeast) with sin and corruption because yeast is made by fermentation (hence denoting spoilage). Where are my compatriot, traditionally-minded bakers to help me defend the good name of leavened bread? We just happen to know something the world of Wonder Bread seems to have forgotten. 

Traditionally leavened bread is "Slow Food" at its best. One little lump of sourdough has the power to transform ground grain flours, loaded with anti-nutrients, into a digestible, healthful comfort food. It is a marvel how ancient cultures knew to treat their grains this way, even before the discovery of a substance in all seeds called phytic acid which we have found will bind to essential minerals in the body, depleting them over time and robbing us of health if not prepared properly. I have a crock of living yeast slowly bubbling in my fridge as we speak. 

How could leaven be thought to be synonymous with sin and corruption? I used to WONDER. We use leavened bread in our Sacrament, after all! Jesus taught the parable of the leavened bread, where He likens His humble disciples to the leaven that will raise the whole lump (Matthew 13:33). And at the feast of pentecost, only fifty days after the feast of the Passover, an offering of leavened bread was required along with the animal offering. Is the Lord so fickle that He can't decide if leaven is good or bad? Hmmm...

This is what every old-timey baker knows: leaven is a culture. It is a civilization of living things, teeming and eating and giving off by-products of life processes. Every crock of leaven is unique, the sum of its citizens. When the Lord instructed the Israelites, in regards to the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, to search out all the old leaven in the house (traditionally by candlelight) and collect ever crumb of bread and every steeping slurry of whetted flour and gather it to be burned the next morning in preparation for the coming Passover He was teaching them about casting off the old and becoming new creatures through Christ.

The Passover was a time to purge out all the old yeast culture and for seven days Israel would neither consume, eat nor own leaven or its products. The result: after the period of cleansing they would begin afresh and create a new, live-active colony of little carbon dioxide-belching organisms. This was to point their minds toward the idea that they were to become new as individuals and as a chosen people through Christ's atoning sacrifice, which sacrifice was represented so powerfully by the Passover. 

At the time of the Exodus, the Lord instructed through the prophet Moses: "And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this self-same day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt..." Did he specify that the bread be unleavened because there wouldn't be time to let it rise? Maybe. Was it to be unleavened because that kind of bread traveled better (like hardtack)? I dunno. But I DO know that theirs was to be a clean break with Egypt. The Lord's people were going to start over with a clean slate. Their passage through the Red Sea was like their figurative baptism as a nation. They were destined to be a fresh, new lump. 

How interesting to this grain-lover is the fact that unleavened bread, if consumed for brief periods of time like the 7-8 days of the Passover, can serve to cleanse the body by binding to things like toxic heavy metals (much the same way it does to essential minerals) and ushering them out of the system. And how interesting that to create a strong, viable sourdough starter takes about 7-8 days to develop from scratch.

Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
— 1 Corinthians 5:7-8

The reason for Paul to say to the Corinthian that they were unleavened I'll bet has something to do with the dawning of a new culture of "Christianity" and of theirs being a time of cleansing and purging; it was another new beginning. The old leaven was "the leaven of the Pharisees," (Matt. 16:6), of which they were told to beware. It was a once potentially delightful civilization that had degraded into an overpowering ferment of false traditions. So then, leavening does not mean sin and corruption so much as it seems to indicate the old, degenerate culture of our former selves or community, before becoming a new lump through Christ and His cleansing blood. Israel was commanded "Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifices with leavened bread." (Ex 23:15). Wouldn't that be like taking the Sacrament while simultaneously harboring an unrepentant attitude?

If bread is so fundamental that the Son of God, sent to save, succor and feed us, bears the title "The Bread of Life," the significance and nature of the lump that raises the loaf is worth investigating. In a quest to find the consistent message among all the sayings about leaven, I feel at peace, at last.  

What say ye?

Listen to our discussion on this topic here