Symbols in Leviticus: Yeast & Honey

Wheat Glass
Image from Daniel Ventura on Wikipedia Commons

“Why is the Bible so obsessed with yeast?”  I had no idea how important that question would be.  I was reading chapter 2 of Leviticus.  It was my second attempt at the book after putting it down in disgust the previous evening in chapter 1.  I had gotten to the part about squishing a bird flat without actually tearing apart its little corpse, and I gave up for the night.  Today was a new day, however, and I was determined to get through the first four chapters.

No grain offering that you present to the Lord is to be made with yeast, for you are not to burn any yeast or honey as a fire offering to the Lord.
–Leviticus 2:11, CSB, emphasis added

This was the verse that stopped me.  My sweet and long-suffering husband was trying to go to sleep in the bed next to me when I reached over and shook his shoulder.  “Why is the Bible so obsessed with yeast?” I asked.  He opened his eyes the tiniest bit, reached back to pat my knee, and sleepily responded with something totally unintelligible.  “Well,” I thought, “I’ve lost him for the evening, so I’m on my own.”  I was lit up with renewed energy over this yeast question.  Having just finished reading Exodus, which has 6 separate warnings about not using yeast, and one of the Gospels that mention the “leaven of the Pharisees,” my brain lunged at the opportunity to research something that had piqued my curiosity and didn’t involve the ritualistic slaughter of animals.

I spent the next several hours inhaling everything I could find about the meaning of yeast/leaven.  I didn’t really pay attention to honey on that first day, but it would come back to mind when I read about Samson in the book of Judges several months later.

Yeast is an important symbol in Leviticus, and I will talk about the yeast and honey at length in March, as we study through the book chapter-by-chapter.  For today, however, I thought it might be useful to just set out some general information

Holy Spaces and Holy People
Leviticus, as you will discover when we go through it in-depth, is very concerned with the preservation of sacred space.  God is holy, so to spend time in God’s presence, God’s people and the space around God’s presence must also be holy.  This maintenance of holy people and holy space is a very big job because, as it happens, unholiness is contagious.

A Modern Analogy That Helps Me
In my own mind, I came to think of the specific and laborious rules of Leviticus in the same way I view a surgical team preparing and maintaining a surgical theatre.  The room must be sterile.  Everything in the room must be sterile.  The people who walk into the room must take great pains to keep their own hands and clothing sterile.  This is done with tremendous care and attention so that no contagion on the tools, the furniture, or their bodies can slip in and harm the patient.  The whole point is to heal the patient, so closing off access to any threat of contagion is an ever-present concern.

In Leviticus, we are seeing the ancient Tabernacle system at work.  God’s holy presence has come to physically manifest itself and live among the people of Israel.  Israel is being invited back into a facsimile of Edenic fellowship with God.  In Eden, God walked freely in the garden with Adam and Eve.  With the Tabernacle, God has given humanity a way to walk in his presence again, but God is holy, so the people must be holy and the ground must be holy and the tools and furniture for ritual must be holy.

Like he seems to do in many other parts of Scripture, God teaches his people this lesson through the use of imagery.  Like my modern image of doctors preserving sterile rooms, God’s ancient image of yeast is useful to demonstrate an invisible force that can spread by contact.  He began teaching Israel this imagery way back in Exodus with the prohibition of leavened bread during Passover.

Leavened vs. Unleavened Bread
In ancient days, yeast was procured by means of what we know today as a “sourdough starter.”  People would take some flour, mix it with a little water, and wait for the tell-tale bubbles and the familiar aroma of sour yeast to appear.  This starter would be used to leaven all of the loaves in a household, and you could share your leaven with others for their loaves, too.  As sourdough enthusiasts will tell you, a starter can be used for years.  In practice, this means that the organism you use to raise your first loaf of bread will be the same organism raising every loaf you make in the future.

God thought it was important to teach his chosen people that leaven should be avoided on holy days.  During the week of Passover, each year, every speck of leaven in the nation was to be discarded.  Old leaven could not be used for new bread.  It was to be cast out, cast away, and forgotten, and this was a very serious matter.  

“Anyone who eats bread made with yeast during the seven days of the [Passover] festival will be cut off from the community of Israel.” Exodus 12:15b, NLT

See Also: Exodus 13:3-7, 23:18, and 34:25

Almost all of my commentaries on Leviticus agree with the answer I found in my internet searches that first night:  Yeast is a symbol of Sin.

Sin is being illustrated for us in God’s imagery of leaven.  It is contagious.  It infects everything it touches, and it spreads from a tiny spoonful to fill up every part of the dough.  The entire loaf contains the original yeast, and sin can spread like this, too.  Sin can start small but grow into something so big we don’t know how to confront it, anymore.  Sin can infect others who follow our example or fall victim to our transgressions.  Sin can infect an entire household, darkening the lives of every member in a family.  Sin, as God is illustrating with the Passover prohibition for all of Israel, can even infect entire nations.  It starts with a tiny pinch out of a starter, but its nature is to grow and corrupt and fill up every bite of every loaf you eat.  Unless you cast it off and cast it out, it will never stop growing.

Yeast = Sin

Unleavened bread symbolizes and calls to mind the notion of leaving old sin behind.  Bread without leaven is a fresh start, a clean slate.  At the end of Passover, every household in Israel would be setting out a fresh bowl of flour and water, waiting for new leaven and starting a new cycle.  We’ll leave this symbol here for now and look at it again when we get to the study in March.  Before I close out this post, however, there is another symbolic use of yeast in Leviticus, and that’s where honey joins the party.

What Does Honey Have to Do With Anything?
Honey’s significance is never fully explained in the Bible.  It’s one of those things that commentators have several ideas about, but one of these ideas tends to dominate the others.  It makes the most sense to me, so I’ll lay it out for you here, and we’ll talk more about the other ideas in March.

Honey, in the ancient world, didn’t necessarily mean the sticky stuff made by bees.  Honey was a word for anything used to sweeten food.  It was a generic term for “sweetener.”  This could be juice from dates, grapes, and other fruit.  It could also refer to the honey from bees.  When you see the English word, honey, in the Bible, you should think of sugar and sweetness before you think of beehives.

I mentioned earlier that honey came into my Leviticus study after I read the story of Samson in the book of Judges.  In chapter 14 of Judges, Samson does something very strange and very wrong for a Nazirite.  He scoops a handful of honey from the carcass of a dead lion and eats it.  Samson then takes this honey to his parents and gets them to eat it, too.  I went through this story in my article on Judges 14, but suffice it to say:  eating that honey was really bad.

Judges 14 reminded me that Leviticus talked about honey, too.  Honey is forbidden in all altar offerings to the Lord, but it was not unlawful for people to eat it.  I knew that the honey in Samson’s story had something to do with sin or disobedience, but I couldn’t make sense of it.  I was grateful to discover that I am not alone in that.  Very smart people who spent their lives in scholarly study of the Bible have also been flummoxed by the honey.

The image that makes the most sense to me is the one that puts honey together with wine and yeast. These three substances are forbidden in “fire offerings” on the altar, but they are all acceptable in gratitude offerings.  I found that noteworthy, and it became rather obvious that these three things must hold something significant in common.

And they do:  fermentation.

Yeast is part of the fermentation process.  Honey, with its high sugar content, was often used to fuel fermentation. Wine, as we know, is created by fermenting grapes.  Yeast, of course, is the agent of fermentation.

Honey and Wine in Judges 14
In Samson’s story, we don’t see yeast and honey together, but we do see honey put together with wine.  Samson is a Nazirite, and he is standing in a vineyard (wine) eating honey from the body of a lion he killed (death). The grapes, the honey, and the dead lion are linked in the image of Samson’s downfall because they all symbolize the same thing.

Nazirites were not allowed to consume grapes or drink wine.  Why?  Because they are to be holy, completely set apart for God.  Something about grapes and wine is not compatible with holiness.

Samson eating that honey was a sin, and honey is not a suitable offering to the Lord. Why? Something about honey is incompatible with holiness.

Fermentation requires death.  It is a process of decay.  Wine is made from fermented grapes.  Mead is made from fermented honey.  Leavened bread is made from fermented wheat.  Yeast is the organism that ferments them all.  Fermentation symbolizes death, therefore wine, honey, and yeast are associated with death.

Wine & Honey = Death & Decay

God is holy. God is life. Death…is wrong.  Death is only in our universe because of sin.  Sin corrupted everything and death is the consequence.  God is holy.  Death is unholy.  God’s holiness can have nothing to do with death, and symbols of death cannot be sent up to him as an offering on the altar.  These images were given to Israel by God through Leviticus, and they’re here to show us who God is and who we are in relation to Him.  Keep them in mind when you see yeast and honey in the Bible.  We’ll talk about all of this more deeply when we cover the relevant chapters of Leviticus.

Sin (Yeast) causes Decay and Death (Wine and Honey), and these things are not compatible with God’s holy presence.  Make sense?

Thanks for reading.  See you next time.

 

 

 

 


5 thoughts on “Symbols in Leviticus: Yeast & Honey

  1. Great analysis.

    And as the baking books will tell you, adding a little sugar or honey to your yeast while it’s softening up in water or milk will nourish it and make it take off faster …

  2. Hi, Mrs. Nix, I very much enjoy your musings. I’d like to complicate them a bit. Let’s start with Yeast, also a favorite symbol of mine and one I’ve looked to reconcile with the Parable of Leaven in Luke and Matthew because yeast there is connected with the Kingdom of Heaven.
    What if Yeast was not simply equal to sin, but a few things like our reliance on ourselves. I wonder if getting rid of all leaven means that God has to resupply it annually. Somewhere in Germany, people have maintained a starter for centuries, through wars and plagues. It’s amazing, but it points more to their hard work and not God’s provision. Could yeast be neither good or bad?
    In the parable, we get a positive connotation that the Spirit is at work and breathes into all of us.
    However, in other places, we get a sense of “bad air” from bad ideas. Ideas, like yeast, are invisible but they have visible results.
    Also, when I read about the prohibition on the yeast and the honey, I saw something different. For the complete sacrifice, they gave things pretty much required for living in that time: salted meat, wine, bread made with water and oil. Salt preserves food and our bodies need it. Wine purifies drinking water. Basic bread, but the kind you can survive on. Animal sacrifice where you put your hand on that animal and recognize it’s death is what I deserve before God.
    I realized the burnt offering is about recognizing God as Provider of life and all that is required to live so that we can stop relying on ourselves.
    So why not yeast and honey?
    My modern response: Because we’d make it into “Cake Wars.”
    Think of all the stuff we ‘give’ to God. We are so proud of our offerings. We have notions that God should be pleased and give us a gold star or recognition of our ‘important’ efforts.
    We still do it today in the church.
    We put our names on windows and pews or building extensions.
    We don’t see ourselves as stewards of God’s gifts.
    We have been keeping and growing our yeasts and not noticing that the strain became polluted at some point.
    Perhaps the idea of yeast has more to do with its perceived source.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and vulnerable posts!

    1. I have to go pick up my daughter from school soon, but I didn’t want to leave this without a reply. First, I LOVE THAT you had thoughts about yeast and honey! Thank you so much for engaging with me on this. I’ll come back to it later tonight.

      The symbolism for yeast and honey is very different in Leviticus than it seems to be in the rest of the Bible. Jonathan, for example, is refreshed by wild bees’ honey in Samuel. Samson’s parents readily take the honey, not understanding the circumstances under which Samson gathered it. It’s clearly not forbidden, and it clearly doesn’t carry a stigma outside of the Tabernacle/offering context. It’s very thought-provoking.

      Commentary on the yeast is also interesting because yeast in the Old Testament is about contagion and sin, but in the New Testament, they focus on the contagion aspect only. It’s both good and bad, as you noted. It’s endlessly fascinating. I’ll come back to your comment again when I get home. Hugs and such.

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