Bible Review: Exodus 8-13 (An Appreciation of Unleavened Bread)

They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. – Exodus 11:8

Seven days they you shall eat unleavened bread.  On the first day you shall remove leaven out of yours houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. – Exodus 11:15

And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever. In the first month, from 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 is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread. – Exodus 11:17-20

The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. – Exodus 11:33-34

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. – Exodus 11:39

Then Moses said to the people, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the LORD brought you out of this place.  No leavened bread shall be eaten…” -Exodus 12:3

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the LORD.  Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory.  You shall tell your son on that day, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.” And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt.  You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year. – Exodus 12:6-9

There, I think I got them all.

At first glance, this fixation on unleavened bread seems to be a perfect example of a nonsensical Old Testament law, the kind many of us have read about and shaken our heads over.  That was how I felt the first time I went through this portion of Exodus a few nights ago.  I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the Book of Armaments: “And the LORD spake, saying, ‘First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.’”  A simple but seemingly-arbitrary rule is reiterated in different ways until it begins to sound rather ridiculous.

On my second read-through, though, the unleavened bread ban doesn’t seem quite so nonsensical.  The rational for it is stated rather explicitly: it’s a way of remembering that the Israelites left Egypt hurriedly, without having even leavened their bread.

At this point I feel I should look up what leavening actually is.  One moment… ah, here we are, thank you Wikipedia:

leavening agent (also leavening or leavenplay/ˈlɛvənɪŋ/ or /ˈlɛvən/) is any one of a number of substances used in doughs and batters that cause a foaming action which lightens and softens the finished product.

Leavening is the process of adding gas to a dough before or during baking to produce a lighter, more easily chewed bread. Most bread consumed in the West is leavened. Unleavened breads have symbolic importance in Judaism and Christianity. Jews consume unleavened bread called matzo during Passover. Roman Catholic and some Protestant Christians consume unleavened bread during the Christian liturgy when they celebrate the Eucharist, a rite derived from the narrative of the Last Supper when Jesus broke bread with his disciples, perhaps during a Passover Seder. In contrast, Orthodox Christians always use leavened bread during their liturgy.

I’m sure I’ve eaten unleavened bread before, but I’d have to have the two kinds side by side to register an opinion about their relative merits in taste and texture.  I wonder if eating unleavened bread is considered a material sacrifice because it’s more difficult to chew or tastes worse; I suspect there are a lot of people who prefer it according to personal taste, so perhaps not.

I consider myself an admirer of Jewish culture.  More so than Christian or Muslim culture (sorry Christian and Muslim readers, if you’re out there), the oldest of the Abrahamic religions seems cloaked in an aura of noble antiquity.  Its strict dietary rules, for example, hearken back unapologetically to a distant past almost beyond recorded history.  That such rules would still be followed is, to my mind, not absurdly anachronistic, but powerfully affirmative of the culture’s unique identity.  The story of the Hebrews’ exit from Egypt and their subsequent observation of an unleavened bread ritual is a memorable and, I daresay, sensible explanation for a longstanding tradition that is still in effect.  It’s encouraging to me to think that this colorful, harmless (except perhaps to those who fail to observe it) food custom is still followed, and that fact makes this segment of the Bible seem strangely relevant and alive rather than inexplicably arbitrary as some Old Testament rules are sometimes portrayed.

This has been my favorite portion of the Bible so far.  To gain new and useful information and to learn to appreciate the Bible as a historical and cultural artifact are two of my main goals in this project, and the unleavened bread passages have been a fulfillment of those hopes.

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Comment by matt.clerke on August 9, 2012 at 1:41am

I imagine unleavened bread would be very dense and possibly chewy. Something like a bagel maybe?

Comment by Joann Brady on August 9, 2012 at 1:23pm

more like a cracker actually

Comment by David Conrad on August 10, 2012 at 12:08am

At a Greek heritage festival or something to that effect last year I had "manna," which I was surprised to learn is still a food that people make and consume.  It was alright, but not something I could eat in large quantities.


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