Traffic on the highway ground to a halt—in both directions. As we sat there, the clock marching steadily on, we had a growing sense I wouldn’t make it in time for the flight. Anxiety set in as we waited for the long line of cars to begin moving. We were ready and eager to go, fearful I’d be left behind when the flight lifted off.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread looks back and remembers this kind of anxiety, readiness, and waiting for an imminent journey—Israel’s flight from slavery under Pharaoh into the worship and service of the Lord.
Contours of the Feast
Instructions for the feast are found in Leviticus 23:6–8, Numbers 28:16–25, and Deuteronomy 16:1–8. In these texts, we learn Israel was commanded to celebrate Passover at twilight on the evening of the 14th day of the first month of the year. This was immediately followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which would run for an additional seven days. On the first and last days of the feast, no ordinary work was to be done. Each day, food offerings would be presented to the Lord. During the entire period, no leavened bread was to be eaten. In fact, no leaven was to be among the people for the duration of the feast (Ex. 12:15, 19).
The Feast of Unleavened Bread looks back and remembers anxiety, readiness, and waiting for an imminent journey.
Both leavened and unleavened bread were common in the ancient Near East. Unleavened bread might be made hastily when serving a meal to an unexpected guest (Gen. 19:3; 1 Sam. 28:24). Leavened bread was made by taking a bit of old fermented dough and working it into new dough. The old yeast would cause the new dough to ferment and rise. The common use of unleavened dough when speed was required connects to the rationale for the feast, which is made explicit in Exodus 12:17; 13:3, 8–10 and Deuteronomy 16:3. The feast was to be a memorial of the Hebrews’ hasty departure, their waiting for and reception of salvation from Egyptian slavery after the final plague.
Primary Meaning of the Feast
In Exodus 12 when the Lord lays out the Passover sacrifice that Israel will offer that night and annually to commemorate their salvation, he tells them they’ll eat the Passover meal with their belts fastened, their sandals on, and their staffs in hand. It’s to be eaten in haste (v. 11). After the deaths of the firstborn sons of Egypt, the people of Israel would be expelled from the land and wouldn’t be able to wait for leavened bread to rise (v. 39). They’d come to call the quickly prepared unleavened bread of the feast “bread of affliction” (Deut. 16:3).
The setting and instructions of the feast help us understand its primary meaning for the Israelites. First and foremost, with its link to Passover and the departure from Egypt, unleavened bread reminded the Israelites of the immediacy of their salvation. To participate in God’s plan to transform them from Pharaoh’s slaves to his own people and nation, the Hebrews were required to launch out that very night, unprepared and totally dependent on God for the journey ahead. Waiting anxiously for the final plague to be over and for their promised protection to be realized, they ate the Passover and then carried out their unleavened dough on their backs (Ex. 12:34).
The annual requirement that no one appears empty handed at the feast (Ex. 23:15) highlighted the Lord’s provision in the journey and later in the promised land. The wilderness journey itself was a time of testing, of total dependence on the Lord for daily food and water (Ex. 16–17). Even with God’s gracious provision, one of the Israelites’ constant grumblings was for the food they left behind in Egypt (e.g., Num. 11:5). The feast’s commemoration of the Lord’s blessing was a needed reminder for a people prone to grumble. Taking them back each year to the start of their journey reminded the people of their salvation from slavery and of God’s miraculous provisions since.
Fulfillment and Application
Leaven, at its root, is a morally neutral symbol. Though most Old Testament sacrifices were accompanied by unleavened bread, leavened bread did accompany some offerings (Lev. 7:13; 23:17); it didn’t symbolize sin in the sacrificial system. The symbolism is similar in the New Testament. Though the metaphorical use of leaven is often negative, symbolizing the spread of sin (e.g., Matt. 16:6; 1 Cor. 5:6–8), Jesus also used it positively, likening the spread of the kingdom of heaven to leaven (Matt. 13:33). For these reasons, we shouldn’t understand the Feast of Unleavened Bread as related to the metaphorical use of leaven to describe the spread of sin.
The feast’s commemoration of the Lord’s blessing was a needed reminder for a people prone to grumble.
Instead, the right context for understanding the ongoing significance and fulfillment of the Feast of Unleavened Bread is the Passover. The two were not and cannot be separated. Christ is our Passover. His sacrifice secured our salvation and provided the deliverance pictured in Exodus. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was a memorial to that event. It reminded Israel they had to flee slavery that very night. They couldn’t wait for their bread to rise. To depart on their journey, they had to willingly leave unprepared and dependent on God.
For us, the context is flipped. We’ve received salvation, but we eagerly await its consummation. So we’re called to wait vigilantly. Rather than knowing we’ll leave tonight, we must be found ready for Christ to return at an unknown hour (Matt. 25:1–13). Nothing must occupy our attention in a way that leaves us unready to depart when he returns and we’re called home to stand before him (Luke 21:34–36).
We must strain for the return of the King with the same effort the Israelites did that night, bread dough strapped to their backs, shoes on, and staffs in hand. Like the ready Israelites, we must refuse to let anything keep us from being ready for Christ’s sure return.
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