Leviticus 24: 5-6, 8-9 You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD… Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due.
Baking God’s Bread
Bread is one of the most common foods around the world. Almost every culture has some form of it whether it’s tortillas in Mexico, naan in India, pita in Greece or any number of variations across cultures. So, it seems both unusual and obvious that this staple is a part of sacred rituals. The unleavened bread prepared in the Exodus for a hasty departure is enshrined in the rituals of Passover. Later Jesus takes this Passover bread along with wine, another ordinary staple of the time, and institutes a new ritual to remember his life and coming death. These ordinary things are consecrated and made holy in their rituals.
The passage under consideration from Leviticus 24 concerns how to prepare and arrange the consecrated bread “as a memorial portion as a food offering” and for the priests to eat. There is nothing very interesting about the passage that I can see, except that something so ordinary as bread is made into something holy. In my post What’s for Dinner? on Leviticus 11 and the dietary laws I considered the distinction drawn in that chapter between what is holy and what is common. In that post I asked, “So, what separates the holy from the common? What turns bread and wine from a simple meal into a holy ritual? How does this union of the holy and the common teach us to live?” Perhaps we can find some answers in an incident involving this holy bread.
One Order of Holy Bread… Comin’ Up!
In 1 Sam 21 David is fleeing the wrath of King Saul and comes to the priest Ahimelech in Nob. David lies to Ahimelech about being on a secret mission from the king and asks him for “five loaves of bread, or whatever is here” (1 Sam 21: 3). Ahimelech responds, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” (1 Sam 21:4) Notice the distinction of holy and common once again. David promises the men are pure enough to receive the holy bread. The bread is handed over without reservation. It doesn’t seem that David is crossing some sort of religious or ethical boundary by taking the bread, nor the priest by giving it. Perhaps the urgency of a secret mission under the authority of the king made it a situation in which this use of the bread was more acceptable. The text, however, does not indicate that there is any problem with the bread being used for such purposes. The text explains, “So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.” The rationale is simply that there was no other bread available.
This episode is picked up by Jesus when his disciples are rebuked by some Pharisees for plucking heads of grain and eating them on the Sabbath (the same day that the bread described in Levticus 24 and 1 Sam 21 was made). This incident occurs in all of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5) and has very little variation between the Gospels. The Pharisees ask, “why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mt 12:24) To which Jesus responds,
Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him? (Mt 12:25-26)
Leviticus does make it clear that the bread was “a perpetual due” (Lev 24:9) for the priests, but does not forbid its consumption by others in this passage. Certainly that tradition came from the ritual purpose of the bread and its intended consumption by the priests who depended on the sacrificial system for their food. Matthew’s Jesus responds by saying “something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Mt 12:6-7) This recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah concerning the emptiness of sacrifices in the presence of injustice (Isaiah 1:11-17). It raises the question concerning the purpose of sacrifices and things consecrated such as the bread.
I Am The Living Bread
Jesus calls into question the assumptions that had developed over the years in terms of his own mission and vocation. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28). The first part of this statement reorients the Sabbath tradition and practices around their intended purpose. It is not an arbitrary rule which people must follow in order to fulfill some religious law and achieve purity or holiness. No, the Sabbath is permeated by an acknowledgment of right relationships throughout creation. I have previously written about connecting the Sabbath day to the practices of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee as a nexus of practices that are interwoven and interrelated. I have also pointed out previously that the Sabbath is first a practice of remembering and retelling the creation story including and perhaps most importantly our place as human beings and creatures within that creation.
The statement that Jesus is “lord of the Sabbath” is the concluding statement in all of the Synoptic Gospels. In light of our broader understanding of the nature of Sabbath practices this statement is far more than an assertion of religious authority. It gather together the Sabbath practices and asserts that right-relatedness to God, other people and the earth finds its ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus. It is this principle of right-relatedness that governs religious practices such as the Sabbath. On the surface this conflict with the Pharisees and Jesus over his disciples’ breaking of Sabbath observance concerns primarily what is or is not allowed during the weekly observance of the Sabbath day. However, Jesus’ response to the confrontation clearly places it within a larger context and places himself at the center of mediating the right-relatedness at the heart of the Sabbath observance.
Returning then to our initial question concerning what makes something holy, we find that Jesus has, as usual, subverted our questions by shifting the focus. The point is not what is holy or common, clean or unclean. The proper perspective concerns our relationship to our fellow humans and our individual and collective relationship to the earth. The fact that sacred rituals make common elements and objects into holy things teaches us that they are not magic talismans. They remain ordinary staples that can be consumed in a moment of need. The Sabbath can be broken based on its own inherent principle of right-relatedness. This teaches us the principle that our relationships to our neighbor and the biosphere take priority over religious rituals, even when, and especially if, the rituals intended to serve that purpose fail to do so.