Leavened and Unleavened Bread in Philo’s Special Laws I-II

I have been reading Philo’s Special Laws.  Philo was a first century C.E. Jewish exegete in Alexandria, Egypt.  He interpreted the Torah in light of Greek philosophy.  In Special Laws, he attempts to give a rationale for various laws in the Jewish Torah.

I have read Books 1-2 of Philo’s Special Laws.  Something that stood out to me there is Philo’s contradictory treatment of leavened and unleavened bread in the Torah.  One reason that this stood out to me is my own religious heritage.  I grew up in Armstrongism, which observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  We could not eat leavening for the seven days of that Feast, but instead we ate unleavened bread (i.e., matzos, Triscuits, Rye Crisp, Wheat Thins, for a while) during that time.  Pastors waxed eloquent about the alleged symbolism of leavened and unleavened bread.  Leavening represented such negative things as sin and pride, whereas unleavened bread represented humility, sincerity and truth, and Christ.

How is Philo contradictory in his discussions about leavened and unleavened bread?  In one place, he offers a symbolic interpretation of leavened bread that is negative.  In another place, his interpretation of leavened bread is positive.  That could be because the Torah itself is rather ambivalent about leavened bread.

Let’s start with the negative interpretation.  In Special Laws I.289-295, Philo is addressing Leviticus 2:11.  To quote Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint of that passage (since Philo used the Septuagint): “Ye shall not leaven any sacrifice which ye shall bring to the Lord; for as to any leaven, or any honey, ye shall not bring of it to offer a gift to the Lord.”

Philo speculates about why leaven and honey are not allowed to be sacrificed to God.  He proposes that honey is not allowed for sacrifice because bees are unclean and originate from “the putrefaction and corruption of dead oxen” (Yonge’s translation).  That sounds like one of those beliefs in abiogenesis that my high school biology textbook tried to refute, in looking back at the naive views of the old days!  Another possibility that Philo proposes is that honey is an example of “superfluous pleasure” (Yonge) that may taste good but that throws the body into turmoil down the road.  This interpretation accords with Philo’s asceticism.

On leavened bread, Philo states that it is prohibited for sacrifice because it represents pride, since leaven causes bread to rise.  When people approach God, they should do so with humility.  Philo then makes a beautiful qal va-chomer argument about how we should be humble in our approach to other people: If God, who is superior to us, condescends to show us mercy, how much more should we be humble in our stance towards people who are composed of the same material as us?  Philo, at least in this passage, promotes equality among people.  He does that a lot in Special Laws.  He does not always follow through on the ramifications of this: he still believes that slavery is necessary for society, and that women should be subordinate to men.  Still, he thinks that equality is a good principle, a truth that should be accepted and applied.

While Philo in Special Laws I.289-295 is negative about leaven, he is positive about it in Special Laws II.182-187.  There, Philo is interpreting Leviticus 23:17, which concerns the presentation of firstfruits to God.  To quote Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint for that passage: “Ye shall bring from your dwelling loaves, as a heave-offering, two loaves: they shall be of two tenth portions of fine flour, they shall be baked with leaven of the first-fruits to the Lord.”

Philo appears to make the enigmatic statement that “the bread is leavened because the law forbids any one to offer unleavened bread upon the altar” (Yonge).  Yonge in a note refers to Mangey, who says that parts of this passage are “corrupt and unintelligible” (Yonge’s words).  A problem Mangey had with the passage is that the Torah prohibits the offering of leavened bread, not unleavened bread, on the altar (Exodus 23:18).  The Torah says the opposite of that alleged statement by Philo.  Philo is aware of this, for Philo in Special Laws I.289-295 talks about God’s prohibition of offering leavened bread, as we saw.

Philo goes on, though, to explain why the Israelites are to present leavened bread.  It has to do with leaven being quality food.  Philo also associates leaven with joy, abundance, and thanksgiving that God has saved people from scarcity.  An unleavened cracker is not particularly satisfying, but one can get full off of leavened bread!  Moreover, leavening inflates, and we feel inflated when we are joyful.

Philo also talks about leavened and unleavened bread in Special Laws 2.156-161.  There, he is talking about the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and he speculates about why God forbids the Israelites to eat leavening on that day, while having them eat unleavened bread.  Philo lists a variety of reasons:

—-The Israelites took unleavened bread with them after leaving Egypt.  This accords with Exodus 12:34, 39, which affirms that the Israelites ate unleavened bread at the Exodus because there was not enough time for the dough to rise.

—-The Feast of Unleavened Bread occurs before the harvest.  The crops are not yet ripe and abundant.  Unleavened bread, similarly, is “imperfect or unripe” (Yonge).  In eating unleavened bread, the Israelites are hopefully anticipating the abundance that will come at the harvest.

—-Unleavened bread is closer to nature than leavened bread, which is prepared by human artifice.  For Philo, this is appropriate for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which he believes commemorates the creation of the world.  Philo believes that this Feast is promoting a simpler time, before people became enamored with pleasure.  He thinks that this Feast encourages a rigid, holy life.  Once more, Philo’s asceticism comes into play in his interpretation of the Torah.

Philo’s interpretation may strike people as rather arbitrary.  Something to consider, I think, is that Philo is trying to reconcile his asceticism with a Torah that often promotes abundance and enjoying physical blessings.  One can perhaps reconcile Philo’s contradictory tendencies by saying that there is a time to rejoice, and a time to weep (a la Ecclesiastes 3:4).  Modern critical scholars struggle with the significance of leavened and unleavened bread in the Torah.  Perhaps what one can get from Philo is that unleavened bread served to add solemnity to occasions, whereas leavened bread coincided with joy and celebration.  (Of course, Philo calls the Feast of Unleavened Bread a time of celebration, yet he thinks that the Unleavened Bread in that case encourages asceticism.)


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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