What is leaven? This question is fairly easy to answer. What leaven pictures in the plan of salvation is more complex and remarkable.
Most breads, cookies and crackers list “leaven” (in one of its forms) as an ingredient. It’s what makes the dough rise. But what it pictures in biblical usage may surprise you. Could something so commonplace be such an important spiritual metaphor that God actually designed a week of holy celebration around it?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes! In Leviticus 23:4-8 God proclaims that we are to observe seven days in the spring in the northern hemisphere (in the first month of the year on the Hebrew calendar) during which avoiding leaven and eating unleavened bread has deep spiritual meaning. Regrettably, this and the other “feasts of the LORD” found in the same chapter are largely ignored today.
Though this passage comes from the Old Testament, these same days were observed by the New Testament Church. More than 20 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, the apostle Paul instructed the gentile congregation at Corinth to keep the Days of Unleavened Bread. He then explained their spiritual application to New Testament Christians (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
So, just what is leaven?
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the definition of leaven is: “1. An agent, such as yeast, that causes batter or dough to rise, especially by fermentation. 2. An element, influence, or agent that works subtly to lighten, enliven, or modify a whole.”
Leavening includes yeast and chemical leavening agents, such as baking powder, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and potassium bicarbonate.
(Other ingredients that are sometimes confused with leaven include brewer’s yeast, yeast extract, torula yeast, autolyzed yeast, cream of tartar and cornstarch. These are not leavening agents.)
So why would God use leaven as the subject of a set of special days that are holy to Him? Leaven is an ordinary household product that most of us eat every day. What spiritual lesson does God want us to learn? To understand this, it helps to look at some history for context.
The early history of Israel
The Bible teaches us about the ancient nation of Israel. It was to these descendants of faithful Abraham that God revealed His law at Mount Sinai. Their ancestors had come to Egypt to find relief from a terrible famine and subsequently stayed. In time, they became enslaved. They looked for a deliverer to free them from slavery and take them to the Promised Land—the land God had promised to Abraham.
Moses was appointed to lead them out of Egypt; and after a series of plagues sent by God, including the death of the firstborn of Egypt, Pharaoh ordered them to leave. They left by night in haste, taking bread dough, but not taking the time to allow it to become leavened (Exodus 12:33-34).
At last, they were freed from the slavery and oppression of Egypt.
Celebrating leaving Egypt with unleavened bread
God gave Moses specific directions concerning how the Israelites were to prepare to leave Egypt. God further explained that the people were to commemorate their exodus from Egyptian slavery by keeping seven days of Unleavened Bread as a festival or memorial.
“So this day shall be to you a memorial; and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD throughout your generations. You shall keep it as a feast by an everlasting ordinance. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses. For whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day there shall be a holy convocation, and on the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation for you. No manner of work shall be done on them; but that which everyone must eat—that only may be prepared by you.
“So you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an everlasting 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. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread” (Exodus 12:14-20).
Leaven pictures sin
The departure of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is symbolic of an individual leaving the slavery of a sinful life. Romans 6:17-18 explains: “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”
God is more concerned with our learning how to live righteously than He is with how we prepare our bread to eat. Still, God teaches human beings through the use of physical examples or analogies to drive home a point.
Notice that principle in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8: “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
Keeping the Feast of Unleavened Bread is still important today, and God certainly teaches us a deep spiritual lesson through that observance.
Leaven pictures hypocrisy
Jesus Christ showed little tolerance for the religious leaders of His day who represented themselves as righteous but didn’t have regard for their fellow man when it came to love, mercy and kindness. In Matthew 23 Christ referred to them as hypocrites who should have known better.
He had warned His disciples to avoid this type of behavior by using leaven as the metaphor of this sinful conduct: “Now when His disciples had come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.’ And they reasoned among themselves, saying, ‘It is because we have taken no bread.’
“But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, ‘O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up? How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’
“Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:5-12).
Leaven pictures disobedience
The apostle Paul also referred to leavening when teaching the Galatians about obedience to God’s laws. There were those who distorted God’s grace into license to sin. Paul made the point that a small amount of misrepresentation of the truth can lead to large amounts of confusion and deceit.
Galatians 5:7-10 contains his warning: “You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion does not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in you, in the Lord, that you will have no other mind; but he who troubles you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is.”
Once again, sin is shown to be like leavening, expanding into the surrounding “bread”—in this case, other Christians. God has little patience with those who would deter others and cause them to misunderstand and disobey His Word.
Are you leavened?
The biblically relevant question we need to ask is: “Am I leavened?”
In other words, do I still live a sinful life in God’s eyes? Have I learned to worship God with the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth,” or am I living a sinful, hypocritical life? If I am truly spiritually “unleavened,” shouldn’t I be observing God’s meaningful holy days, including the Feast of Unleavened Bread?
For more on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, read the article “Feast of Unleavened Bread: Pursuing a Life of Righteousness.”