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This article belongs to a series on the Old Covenant’s Sabbaths or holy days. This present part concentrates on the Days of Unleavened Bread and their symbolism.
The apostle Paul noted that the Old Covenant’s high days were a “shadow of things to come”, Colossians 2:17 – that is, they were types and symbols of future things. It is true that literally, many of them pointed to things that happened to the ancient Israelites, but it is clear that they also pictured things and events that were to come. Because of that prophetic symbolism, those days and the rituals that were connected to them, are an interesting object of study.
The Days of Unleavened Bread began with the Passover. Exodus 12:13 shows the origin of the word “Passover”. At that time, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. The Lord had through Moses and Aaron told the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, to let the Israelites leave that land, but the Pharaoh did not allow them to do that. Because of this, the Lord sent several plagues on the Egyptians. The last of them was that their first-born children died. The Israelites were spared from that plague. The Lord had told them to make a special sacrifice of lambs, and put lamb blood on the outer frame of the doors of their houses. We read:
Exodus 12:3 Tell all the congregation of Israel, ‘In the tenth day of this month they each must take a lamb for themselves according to the house of their fathers–a lamb for a house. […] 6 And you must care for it until the fourteenth day of the same month, and then all the congregation of the assembly will kill them between the evenings. 7 Then they will take some of the blood and put it on the two side posts and on the lintel of the houses in which they will eat it. 8 And they will eat the meat the same night; they will eat it roasted with fire, with unleavened cakes, and with bitter herbs. […] 13 The blood will be a sign for you on your houses where you are: when I see the blood I will pass over you, and the plague will not be on you for destruction when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day will become a memorial for you, and you will celebrate it as a festival to the LORD–you will celebrate the feast perpetually as a lasting ordinance. (NET, highlighting added)
This happened at night, “the Passover night”. The Israelites’ houses were passed over, but among the Egyptians “there was not a house where there was not one dead”, Exodus 12:30. That plague made the Pharaoh change his mind (Exodus 12:29–32). Then, the Egyptians rushed the Israelites out of Egypt. When they left that land, they took with them bread-doughs which had not fermented yet.
Exodus 12:33 And the Egyptians were urging on the people, in order to send them out of the land quickly, for they were saying, “We are all dead people!” […] 39 And they baked cakes of unleavened bread with the dough they had brought from Egypt, for it was not leavened—because they were thrust out of Egypt and were not able to delay, they could not prepare food for themselves either. (NET)
Thence, “the days of unleavened bread”. (“Leaven” = ferment, sourdough. “Unleavened bread” = bread that is baked without sourdough, without ferment or other raising agent.)
(A note: As we all know, the lamb sacrifice which those people made, was a symbol and shadow of Jesus and the Sacrifice which he then made. The article nca040.htm has some notes on this.)
The below-quoted passages record the reason why the ancient Israelites were told to keep the Days of Unleavened Bread, as an annual observance.
Exodus 12:15 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 shall be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. 17 You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. 18 In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. 19 For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. 20 You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread. (NRSV, highlighting added)
Exodus 13:7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. 8 You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 9 It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the Lord may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year. (NRSV, highlighting added)
So, later the Israelites kept the Passover with the Days of Unleavened Bread as a memorial of what the Lord had done – in reminiscence of the event when he freed them from slavery in Egypt.
The Exodus, when the Lord freed the Israelites from slavery and took them out of Egypt, began in the period which later came to be celebrated as the Days of Unleavened Bread. But, it was not merely a matter of leaving Egypt. The Lord was giving them a land of their own. He was taking them to the Promised Land. Later, the event when the Israelites crossed over the river Jordan and finally entered that land, took place in a Days of Unleavened Bread period. (This was forty years after the Exodus.)
More: It was in the Days of Unleavened Bread season that Jesus the True Passover and Lamb of God gave his life in place of others, making it possible for humans to be freed from the power of Satan the accuser.
When Jesus in that way, in that season, gave his life in place of others, there happened something with a deep symbolism – the separating curtain (“veil”) in the temple in Jerusalem was torn in two:
Matthew 27:50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. (NRSV)
That – Jesus’ Sacrifice when he gave his life in place of others – is what the lamb sacrifice in the very first Days of Unleavened Bread season (in Egypt) had pointed to. But, what was this with the curtain that was torn in two, verse 51? That refers to the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies with the Mercy Seat, from the rest of the temple. In the Old Covenant’s ritual, only the high priest was allowed to enter behind that curtain, into the Holy of Holies.
When that separating curtain was torn in two, that symbolised a change. Through his Sacrifice, Jesus opened a way for humans, to the place which the earthly sanctuary’s inner part, the Holy of Holies, had pictured and been a type of. That is, a way to the dwelling of God in Heaven. The apostle Paul wrote about that matter, to some Jewish saints. Among other things, he wrote to them this:
Hebrews 6:19 We have this hope—like a sure and firm anchor of the soul—that enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain. 20 Jesus has entered there on our behalf as a forerunner […] (HCSB)
The apostle used symbolic language. He was talking about God’s dwelling in Heaven. And, he noted that (the resurrected) Jesus had entered there as a “forerunner”. The disciples were to follow him there.
In that context, let us keep in mind that in the very first Days of Unleavened Bread season, when the ancient Israelites left Egypt, it was not merely a matter of being freed from the power of the Pharaoh and leaving Egypt. Again, there was a goal: The Lord was taking them to the Promised Land. And then: The earthly Promised Land served as a symbol of a better land in Heaven, the one which is mentioned for instance in this passage:
Hebrews 11:16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (NRSV)
(The articles nba040.htm and nxa100.htm take a closer look at what the Scriptures say about Heaven.)
The ancient Israelites left Egypt in the very first “Days of Unleavened Bread” season, in the spring. After this followed a sojourn in the Arabian desert. After that sojourn, they entered the Promised Land, by crossing the river Jordan. Chapter 5 in the book of Joshua shows that even this happened in a Days of Unleavened Bread season.
At that time, the Israelites encircled the stronghold Jericho for seven days, see Joshua 6:3–20. On the seventh day, they encircled it seven times, with priests sounding their trumpets. At the end of the seventh round, the walls of Jericho fell. (It appears that this happened at the “last trump”, see Joshua 6:5 with its context. Some might see a symbolism in that.) – The taking of Jericho made the way to the Promised Land open for the Israelites, so that they could begin to settle there.
To a degree, the Old Covenant’s spring and autumn high days had interwoven and overlapping symbolism and pointed to the same things and events. And so, that spring-time event (by Jericho) which took place in the Days of Unleavened Bread season, was later commemorated in the temple ritual during the Feast of Booths in the autumn. In that ceremony, people encircled the altar on seven consecutive days. On the last of those seven days, the altar was encircled seven times, and there was special rejoicing and celebration. This was obviously in reminiscence of the taking of Jericho and the entry into the Promised Land. Also:
During the seven days of the Feast of Booths, the Israelites lived in ritual booths, tents, huts. This served as a reminder of how their ancestors had after the Exodus lived in tents and booths in the Arabian desert, before they entered the Promised Land. – At the end of the seventh and last day of that feast, the ceremonial booths were removed. Clearly, those things symbolised the end to the ancient Israelites’ desert sojourn and their entry into the Promised Land, in the days of Joshua. And again, that desert sojourn came to its end in a Days of Unleavened Bread season in the spring.
When the people of Israel had entered the Promised Land, they were to present each year in the Days of Unleavened Bread season a special sacrifice which was prepared of the first grain harvest of the year. (This was regarding winter-barley which was sown in the autumn and reaped in the spring.)
Literally, that sacrifice was connected to the first-fruits of a grain harvest. But, it is quite obvious that that ceremony had a prophetic message which pointed to Jesus as the “first-fruit” in God’s “harvest work” here on Earth. (Jesus was the Son of God but also a human, and he was the first human who was raised from the dead to everlasting life and was taken to Heaven.)
Here is a record of an instruction regarding that first-fruits sacrifice, and regarding a count to a similar sacrifice seven weeks later:
Leviticus 23:10 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye shall have come into the land which I give unto you, and reap the harvest thereof: then shall ye bring an omer full of the first of your harvest unto the priest; 11 And he shall wave the omer before the Lord, that it may be favorably received for you; on the morrow after the holy day shall the priest wave it. […] 15 And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the holy day, from the day that ye bring the omer of the wave-offering, that it be seven complete weeks: 16 Even unto the morrow after the seventh week shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall then offer a new meat-offering unto the Lord. 17 Out of your own habitations shall ye bring two wave-loaves of two tenth parts; of fine flour shall they be; leavened shall they be baked; they are the first-fruits unto the Lord. (LSR)
A note: The omer wave sacrifice of verses 10, 11, 12 and 15 was not a “sheaf” as some bible-translators have made it seem. (The omer was a volume measure; see Exodus 16:16, 18, 22, 32, 33 and 36.) – Details, regarding that sacrifice:
Old Jewish writings say that that after sunset at the close of the first holy day [a] during the Days of Unleavened Bread, the priests went in a solemn procession out to the fields and ceremonially cut (reaped) an on beforehand marked patch of barley. That barley was then taken to the temple area, where it during the night was prepared for the sacrifice. The grain was parched and ground and sifted into fine flour which was then spiced, and that some of that flour was taken into the temple and waved (lifted) towards the sky, as a special “first-fruits wave offer”. That sacrifice was presented during the morning sacrifice (around 09:00 in our reckoning). [a]
a For the details on when and in what manner the barley for that wave-sacrifice was reaped and prepared, and how and when the sacrifice of barley flour was then presented in the sanctuary, see the articles nxa020.htm and nxa081.htm. See even the appendixes in those articles.
For some reason, some have thought that “leaven symbolises sin”, and perhaps even that when the Israelites left Egypt, they “left their sins behind”. (This has to do with the in Exodus 12:33–34 described event when the Israelites were rushed out of Egypt and took along bread-doughs which had not fermented yet.)
Did the Israelites leave behind their sins and their sinful nature? No, of course not. They were still sinners. Consider even this: The Days of Unleavened Bread served as a reminder of what the Lord had done for those ancient Israelites, and not of what they themselves had done. (See Exodus 12:17 and 13:8 which were quoted earlier in this article.) What the Lord had done, was that he freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and led them towards the Promised Land.
The Scriptures do not equate leaven with “sin”. In the Bible, leaven is used as a symbol of both good and bad things. For instance Matthew 13:33 mentions “leaven” of a positive kind.
Matthew 13:33 Another simile spake he to them: ‘The reign of the heavens is like to leaven, which a woman having taken, hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.’ (YLT, highlighting added)
(Luke 13:20–21 is a parallel passage.)
Here, leaven does not refer to anything bad or negative. As you can see, Jesus used leaven as a symbol for the spreading of God’s just and benevolent Reign. Thus, it would be wrong to say that leaven is a “symbol of sin”.
Regarding the sourdough or leaven of Mark 8:15 and Matthew 16:6, see the article noa120.htm. It has also some notes on Luke 12:1 where some bible-translators have made it seem that leaven was a symbol for “hypocrisy”. Regarding the “leaven” of 1 Corinthians 5:6 and 8 – that passage and matter is discussed in the articles naa100.htm and nxa090.htm.
The article nxa090.htm contains a detailed study on that subject. The article naa040.htm studies the matter of “worship”.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
The New Covenant’s bread and wine, versus the Old Covenant’s Passover. → nca040.htm
What does the Bible say about Heaven? Were the saints to go there? What about others? What does it look like, in Heaven? → nba040.htm
Hebrews 4:9, the sabbatismos or rest which the saints were to enter – a clarification of its actual nature. → nxa100.htm
The Old Covenant’s high day Pentecost and its symbolism, and some New Covenant parallels. → nxa020.htm
How the ancient Israelites reckoned the dates for their annual high days. → nxa081.htm
What does the Bible say about the Pharisees? → noa120.htm
What the Bible says about marking, avoiding and excommunication. → naa100.htm
Should the Old Covenant’s Sabbaths, the annual ones and the weekly one, be kept today? → nxa090.htm
Worshipping God. What does the Bible say about worship, in connection with the New Covenant? → naa040.htm
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