Last Spring, I decided to learn how to bake bread. When I was a kid, I baked a couple of loaves from a recipe my aunt gave me, but I had done nothing since. I thought it would be fairly easy, mix up the four, water and yeast, let it rise for a bit, and then bake. This proved grossly optimistic. I tossed several loaves before I finally baked one fit for use.
Along the way, I did learn many things about bread and bread baking that expanded my understanding of Scripture. In the Old Testament, of course, bread is an important part of worship, as special loaves were baked for the priests to present to God and then consume as their daily bread. Bread stands as a symbol of sustenance, and a key element of fellowship.
Most significantly of course is Passover, the Feast of Un-Leavened Bread. For years, I thought I understood Passover. Jews were required to eat bread without yeast. That seemed easy enough. The yeast causes the dough to rise, so matzos are flat. Except there was no such thing as yeast back then.
Our word “yeast” comes from the middle ages. People believed it was the bubbles that appeared in fermenting grain or liquids. Scientists first observed yeast through a microscope in the 1680s. It was not until 1850, however, that Louis Pasteur successfully isolated yeast and identified it as a living organism responsible for fermentation. Within ten years, scientists developed a process for the manufacture of yeast for commercial and domestic purposes. Fleischmann demonstrated this yeast to the American public during the Centennial celebrations in 1876. The rest, as they say, is history.
So how did they make bread without yeast? They didn’t. We now know that yeast is naturally occurring in the air, on the ground, and even on the very grains ground to make bread. Almost five thousand years ago, our ancestors discovered that if you ground grain, mixed it with water, and left it out for a couple of days, it would start to ferment, creating hundreds of tiny bubbles, that could yield a substance that we much more pleasant to eat. With time, they took things a step further, reserving some of the fermenting dough to use in the next loaf. That reserved portion was called the “leaven,” or if you want to be fancy, “levain.”
A good leaven was valuable, an absolutely essential requirement for any household. Travelers would carry their leaven with them, usually in a pouch, close to their person. It might be passed down through the generations. Even after commercial yeast took over retail baking, the use of leaven remained. It is the foundation of San Francisco sourdough.
This is what the Israelites were forbidden from using to make their bread during Passover. More importantly, they were ordered to remove the leaven from their homes (Ex. 12:15b). They would need the leaven to make their bread after Passover, but it takes time for the leaven to develop. In the interim, they were literally trusting God for their daily bread.
In the hands of Jesus, the Passover un-leavened bread becomes something more. In Christ’s hands, it becomes his very Body, the Living Bread. Just as the yeast in bread dough, unbaked, is alive, so Christ is alive in us, suffusing us and enlarging us. He has become the “Mother Dough,” replicating Himself in the lives of every one of His saints.