[The following is the prepared text for a sermonette delivered at the United Church of God congregation in Portland, Oregon on March 17, 2018.]
When it comes to deleavening and the avoidance of eating leavened bread during the Days of Unleavened Bread, most of us have some stories that we could share. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I’m sure that many of you can think of times when you thought you had completely removed leavening from your home or car or office only to find out months after the fact that this was not the case. Maybe you found a muffin in the pocket of a coat, or maybe you made that embarrassing stop at Subway during the Days of Unleavened Bread while the person or people you were with graciously tried to prevent you from what was about to happen. What practical advice, though, does the Bible give when it comes to setting the standards for deleavening, though?
The Bible contains only a few verses that give us practical advice on what we should do physically speaking to prepare for the Days of Unleavened Bread, and these verses can be found in the same section of the Bible, specifically in Exodus 12 and 13. Let us read these three verses quickly and see what points are repeated. Let us begin with Exodus 12:15. Exodus 12:15 reads: “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.” Four verses later, in Exodus 12:19-20, this point is repeated: “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.’” Then, in the next chapter of the Bible, in Exodus 13:7, we read: “Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days. And no leavened bread shall be seen among you, nor shall leaven be seen among you in all your quarters.”
Given how the way that these verses repeat the same points over and over again, let us ask ourselves what exactly these verses want us to do. There are three aspects of the removal of leavening that are noteworthy here. First, we must remove leavened bread for seven days and not eat it, with the penalty of being cut off from among the congregation of Israel if we do so. This does not mean that we must remove anything that may remind us of leavened bread or that is leavened but not bread, like, say, wine, but rather that we must remove leavened bread. As one might imagine, the commentaries of the Jewish laws attempt to specify exactly what grains count as leavened bread, and we will return to this point later on to discuss it in more detail, but on a general level at least this prohibition is clear in that we must get rid of leavened bread and eat only unleavened bread during the Days of Unleavened Bread. Next, we are to remove leavening during the course of the week. Not only are we forbidden the finished product of bread, but we are also forbidden the raw materials that make bread leavened. For those of you who bake your own bread using sourdough starters, you have some idea of how this worked in the ancient world. In the modern world, we tend to think of these raw materials in terms of baking powder and baking soda, but chemical leavening was, at least to our knowledge, not something the ancient world was familiar with, only being invented in the nineteenth century or so. We will discuss both of these elements in a bit more detail given their symbolic importance shortly.
The third element is one that we must spend a bit of time on, though. Over and over again these verses tell us that we shall remove leavened bread and leavening from our dwellings or houses. In a practical sense, this is telling us to remove leavened bread and leavening from where we spend our lives. We should make a conscientious effort to remove leavening and leavened bread from our homes, our cars, and our offices, where we tend to spend our time and where a search for leavening can be made without extreme difficulty. We do not have to tear down our house and remove the carpeting or worry about leavening in our floor boards or tear apart our storage units or barns or other outbuildings in the search for leavening. In the ancient world, of course, the Israelites had rather rudimentary dwellings, and it would likely have been very difficult, as has been said before, to sweep dirt floors entirely clean of every possible crumb that may have fallen on it during the course of a year. The same is true of our own houses, even if they are much fancier. How do we make this task more fun? That is up to us. We can attack it with checklists so that we feel our preparations are as complete as possible, or we may enlist our little ones to treat leavened products as if they are in a game of hide and seek, or to enlist them to ask us questions about the ingredients on our food storage items, whatever makes the task less tedious for us.
However, in a sense that we do not often realize, it is impossible to get rid of leaven entirely, and always has been. The main reason for this is that there is leaven in the air, and even if we could with some machine zap all of the air inside of our house and kill every particle of yeast that was inside our dwelling or office or car, every time we opened a door or window, we would be letting more air in that would have yeast inside of it. Indeed, it is the pervasiveness of the yeast around us that allows us (and allowed people in ancient Israel) to make those sourdough starters in the first place from which leavened bread was traditionally made. In the contemporary world, a lot of leavening comes from chemical leavening. It is this type of leavening that we find when we read boxes or cans of food that we find in the grocery store or pantry. Where we do not see yeast as an ingredient we may see, for example, the following chemicals on food packaging: sodium bicarbonate, monocalcium phosphate, cream of tartar, sodium acid pyrophospate, and ammonium bicarbonate, to give but a few examples of the chemical names for baking soda and baking powder. There are even ways where leavening can happen without any chemical leavening being added. For example, this happens in choux pastries where the eggs serve the role of encouraging the leavening process through steam, often used to create a hollow shell where eclairs can be made. This is similar to the process of mechanical leavening where one whips eggs in order to force air into a dough so that steam escapes during cooking, making leavened bread without having to add chemical leavening. This is possible because leavening is in the air around us and that which stirs up the air allows for the spread of that natural source of leavening.
There are spiritual implications to this that are worth examining . In our lives, leavening can come in several means. The corruption can be in the air and work on something that remains receptive to it and is left out in the open. The corruption can come ready made in packages for our convenience and ease of use. Finally, the corruption can be stirred up through the mechanisms of our behavior. The work of yeast in the air or the working of carbon dioxide from chemical reactions is symbolic of the working of the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that works in the sons of disobedience, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:2. The attention that we pay to physical leavening is because there are spiritual implications and symbols in the physical leavening that we would do well to pay attention to. Although eating leavened bread is not sin 51 weeks out of the year, during the Days of Unleavened Bread leavening and leavened bread serve as a symbol of the sin and corruption that so easily overtake us in this present evil world, which is why we are commanded during this time to remove leavening and leavened bread from our dwellings and not to eat leavened bread or to have leavening around us during the seven days of the Days of Unleavened Bread.
Hopefully in the last few minutes I have given you all some practical tips on what the Bible expects of our deleavening efforts as we approach the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread. I would like to close to my message today by reminding us what Paul told the brethren of Corinth during this time of year in 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8. Breaking into the thought of verse six, we read: “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.” In this way may we all keep the upcoming Days of Unleavened Bread as Paul instructed the brethren of Corinth to do so nearly two thousand years ago.
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