Thoughts on the Parable of Leaven

Here is some theological exegesis I am thinking through, resulting from a subconscious insight. Lately I have been reading some books concerning the Jewish roots of Christianity, and other material on the role of (biblical) Israel in Christian theology, and these ideas have been pervading my thoughts, directing what I look for in how I see things: reading theology, writing, and—apparently—other subconscious activities, such as watching my wife bake zucchini bread. I was watching her, and as yeast got mentioned in our conversation, it dawned upon me: the parable of the leaven in the synoptic Gospels has something to say about Israel within it.

Another parable he spoke to them: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it was all leavened.’ (Matt. 13:33)

It seemed me that the meal (or flour) could signify Israel waiting for leaven. The defining moment in Israel’s history (her “historical creation”) was the Exodus, in which the slaves left Egypt eating un-leavened bread. They lived a history which, ultimately, left them still living as those without the time and “political” space to depart from a way of life in which bread is no longer eaten in a hurry, with walking stick in hand and cloak over shoulders. It would seem, on this interpretation, that Israel is bread waiting for leaven; Israel was characterized by a certain incompleteness, which took the form of longing for their true Davidic king, the Messiah. To continue this reading of the parable, Jesus is the Messiah, being the leaven to be worked through the meal until it is leavened.

But then upon considering that leaven is older dough, which has had time to grow certain bacteria and to therefore activate the new dough, it seems that Israel is the leaven (or older dough). On this reading, Israel could be seen as the necessary “ingredient” to bring fermentation to Gentiles, who are currently being invited into the covenant. If one interprets this parable in conjunction with the previous parable about the mustard seed (it appears after this parable in Matthew and Luke), then the humble beginnings of Israel coming to fruition in her promised king (a common reading of the parable of the mustard seed) could play nicely into a parable in which Israel is the leaven being placed into the meal (the world), working all of the way through it. I am unsure which direction to go with this parable, but I think either way draws attention to possibilities of time, and how time might relate Israel to her awaited king (assuming the kingdom and kingship of God is what has been promised to Israel—something I am trying to keep in mind), or Israel to the nations.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Parable of Leaven

  1. Good, but the latter part ought to come first. Israel had always been, in her own eschatology, the part that sanctifies the whole. The messianic deliverer — who is always God actualizing the possibilities in this dry yeast — becomes for Paul the salvation of God going out into the world, from Israel. The spreading of God’s glory and sanctification and righteousness from its faithful but hidden implanting in the world, out to its ends.

    And so Israel has long been bread waiting for God’s leavening, not celebrating in the absence of the bridegroom. And yet she has also always been leaven itself, from the moment God chose Abraham, whether active and producing or dessicated and dormant. And we are the fruit of that God-given activity, that gaseous, spiritual productivity caused by the presence of God’s messianic redemption. We are also-Israel, the world leavened by God’s action and become spiritual (gassy, leavened) bread, and not merely ingredients waiting to be baked.

  2. Matt:

    Thanks for the comment. I hope I did not propose either direction in a way in which Israel did not come first, in your sense. Jesus the Jew being the leaven as a representative of Israel and her king (YHWH) bringing the leavening is one reading, and Israel herself in relation to the Gentiles being the leavening–these are the two options, and Israel comes first in each reading.

  3. Oh, I don’t mean to accuse you of that — you’ve got both, and they’re good. My question is more about the implicit Christology, and where it goes.

    We do say, with Mathew, that Jesus is the fulfillment — but at least partly for the history of failed claimants to the title of messiah. And we do see a Zion-centered longing for a very particularly Davidic kingly messiah, a recapitulation of the Maccabean revolt centered on the restoration of Jerusalem and autonomy.

    But if Israel is waiting for that, Jesus isn’t the fulfillment — he’s something else. Which is why I leaned so heavily on placing God in that messianic position, rather than defining a role based on the messianic expectation and pointing to Jesus. I lean toward the way you phrased your assumption: “the kingdom and kingship of God is what has been promised to Israel.” And we find that expectation from the Deuteronomic history, too, ever since the moment when Israel decided they wanted a human king. Jesus doesn’t step into the role — he leaves the throne empty.

  4. Matt:

    Thanks again for the dialogue. I follow where you are going with this, with approval, but would go even further: I am not so sure of saying he left the throne empty; I lean towards a view in which Jesus is in fact portrayed as king (I can trace this out easier in John’s Gospel, in which he is anointed with hyssop–which was used to anoint kings–after a long dialogue with Pilate [John 19] in which it becomes clear that he is a king), but rather redefines what that kingship looks like. I think that is the Christological direction we are pointed by the Gospels, and of course this makes the Gospels peculiar documents for all of their other qualities of being Jewish. They revised their expectations of the arrival of their king, since he appeared to be a deviation from some certain expectations. And this, of course, brings us to the problem of supersessionism, and how to avoid it, if Jesus as the Messiah redefines the role of Messiah. (And another topic for another post, one I have not yet thought out thoroughly, is that I don’t want the eschatological aspect of NT Christology to portray a Messiah who comes back a second time in a way that meets the expectations of a Messiah in a Maccabean mold).

  5. A good push. It is easier to follow in John, though perhaps that’s to say it is actually there in John. I’m inclined in Matthew to leave Jesus pointing to the righteous rule of God, and therefore disclaiming the throne because its occupant is the one in the heavens.

    As to supersessionism, it gets easier to escape if we connect Jesus to the history of God’s redemption and salvation of Israel. If we realize that the return of the Golah was also a unique event and redefined the nature of Judean community. There are always two leanings: one toward greater openness of community, and one toward more restrictive self-defining piety. Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah, for example. Or Mark and Matthew. The nature of community is always contested and redefined in the wake of God’s new actions. But a related escape is to realize that nobody got out of the first century unscathed. Both two-canon Christianity and two-canon Judaism are messianic in new ways shaped by the years from 70-140, and all the time after, out to the failure of Julian. Both are wrapped tightly around the promises of God’s redemption.

  6. In the Vacation Bible School curriculum used at my church this past Summer–Abingdon’s The Shake it Up Cafe–the storyteller bit, which is what I did, implied the connection, perhaps in a gentle but supercessionist way, that the Christ-event is rooted in the Festival of Unleavened Bread/Festival of Booths/Festival of Weeks. The final night of the VBS culminates in recalling these stories in the Eucharist narrative.

  7. Matt:

    You could be right about Matthew…I don’t know it nearly as well as John, to be honest, and I need to be honest about what is an is not in a text. I would argue that it is pretty indisputable that in John the cross is the kingly throne for Jesus.


    Yeah, I think the connection between the Last Supper and the Feast of Weeks is fairly common to highlight, right? (As a side note, yeast is often used as a metaphor for bad things in the NT, but I don’t think that is at all the case in what we are discussing here).

  8. As a late addition to the discussion:

    Ignatius in his epistle to the Magnesians resorts to the language of yeast with two referents: an old/bad yeast (not specified but in a larger discussion of Christians’ necessary distinction from Judaism) and a new yeast explicitly identified as Jesus Christ. (Ignatius to the Magnesians 10:2).

    I bring this not because I think Ignatius should dictate interpretation of the parable (obviously), but because I find it fairly compelling in the way it addresses the two interpretive paths Thomas outlines in his post.

    For Ignatius, Israel was originally the leaven for the Gentile world but it became “stale and sour” (“stale” sharing the same root as “ancient” in reference to the antiquated practice of Judaism’s sabbath vis a vis Christianity’s Lord’s day in 9:1). But, Christ then becomes a real agent of transformation on account of Judaism’s “failure” to act as such. Interestingly, this preserves the traditional reading of the leaven as Christ and the idea of the older dough (Israel) being the usual source of leaven. Perhaps it suggests an ironic undercurrent in the parable?

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