Does Leaven, according to Scripture, represent sin? The answer is yes and no. More definitively, the appropriate Scripturally-based answer for the use of leaven as a metaphor is yes, often, but sometimes no. The metaphor of leaven must be qualified as to source and age, as there are Scriptural references both to leaven as sinful and as welcome to believers.

Metaphorically, leaven in the context of Scripture represents the multiplication through propagation of something such as a spoken word that spreads through a crowd from mouth to mouth. The bread in Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes was itself a metaphor for the spread of His Word; in that event, the metaphorical leaven was the hand-to-hand distribution of the bread as well as the mouth-to-mouth distribution of His Word. (Refer to Part Five of Family of God, Appendix 2 of Marching to a Worthy Drummer, or Chapter Eighteen of the novel Cathy for details of Jesus’ feeding process.)

Jesus’ comments to His disciples in Mark 8:13-21 regarding the feeding of the multitudes includes mention of leaven, illustrating the importance of the qualifier He used with respect to that word:

“And [Jesus] left them and, entering into the boat again, departed to the other side. Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, neither had they in the boat with them more than one loaf. And he charged them, saying, Take heed. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have no bread. And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? Perceive ye not yet, nor understand? Have ye your heart yet hardened? Having eyes, see ye not? And having ears, hear ye not? And do ye not remember? When I broke the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?”

Jesus had just fed the multitudes. In doing so, He metaphorically demonstrated the leaven-like multiplication of His Word along with the physical multiplication of bread. The leaven in that sense was of God, and so was anything but evil. In talking with His disciples, His also used the word “leaven” in a negative sense, connoting evil. But in doing so, He specifically qualified that word with “of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod”. Like old leaven, the teachings of the Pharisees and of Herod were contaminated versions of the Word of God.

In Leviticus 23:6 is found another indication of bad leaven:

“And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord: seven days ye must eat unleavened bread.”

Indeed, Jewish tradition called for a thorough housecleaning prior to this feast, where every nook and cranny would be swept clean of all traces of the old leaven. But throughout the year before this event the leaven in the house had aged and probably was contaminated with many airborne substances.

This tradition probably contributed much to the notion that a lack of leaven represented purity. Many Christian “authorities” are prone to proclaiming that leaven across the board is symbolic of sin. They go too far, overgeneralizing a frequent but not exclusive representation, neglecting for example the very important passage in Leviticus 23:15-17:

“And ye shall count unto you from the next day after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete: even unto the next day after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days and ye shall offer a new meal offering unto the Lord.

“Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth parts; they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven; they are the first fruits unto the Lord.”

This is the feast of Pentecost, which looked forward to the filling of the new Church with the indwelling Holy Spirit fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. The account of this blessed event is given in Acts 2:1-8:

“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly here came a sound from heaven like a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because every man heard them speak in his own languate. And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?”

It is possible that here the leaven represents the propagation of the Gospel through Spirit-filled Christians, a context in which leaven is far removed from sin.


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