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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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
----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.
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.
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.
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.)
Book Plunge: Evidence Considered Chapter 12
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