Reflections: Leaven During Jesus’ Day

What does leavening represent?  “Sin,” is often the knee-jerk reaction.  However, have you thought about why it has come to be viewed that way?

Consider the words for “leaven” in the Bible:

  1. Strong’s H7603 seor means “leaven”.  Gesenius’s Lexicon says it means “fermentation, leaven”.
  2. Strong’s H2557 chametz means “the thing leavened, leaven”.  Gesenius’s Lexicon says “that which is leavened”, but also says it means “probabl that which is gained by violence and wrong”.
  3. Strong’s H4682 matstsah means “unleavened (bread, cake)” and is sometimes translated “without leaven”.  Interestingly, Gesenius says it can mean “what is sweet” or “specially sweet, i.e. unfermented bread”.
  4. Strong’s G2219 zyme means “leaven” or “metaph. of inveterate mental and moral corruption, viewed in its tendency to infect other”.  There is also a note that leaven is a substance which “thoroughly pervades a thing by its influence.”  In short, something cannot be partly leavened any more than someone can be partly pregnant.
  5. Strong’s G2220 zymoo is the verb form of zyme.  It can mean “to leaven” or “to mix leaven with dough so as to make it ferment”.

Archaeology has found that yeast was used in ancient Egypt.  They used yeast both to brew beer and to make bread.  There is earlier evidence that Mesopotamians were brewing beer even before then.

Leaven, then, would mostly have been viewed of as a fermenting, or corrupting, agent. The physical connotation would carry over into spiritual symbolism as corruption of one’s character. Of course, we would identify this corruption as “sin”.

Since the primary usage of “leaven” is “a substance … [or] material” (according to Merriam-Webster) and Strong’s indicates “fermentation” by an added agent, the COG has traditionally viewed leavening as chemical or biological agents that are added to dough in order to raise it.  The list includes yeast, baking soda and baking powder.

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