The Yeast in Dough Story.

Matthew 13.33, Luke 13.20-21.

Jesus gave this short one-liner parable right after his Mustard Seed Story in both Matthew and Luke. It’s quick.

Matthew 13.33 KWL
Jesus told them another parable: “Heaven’s kingdom is like yeast.
A woman who had it, mixed it into 43 liters of dough till it leavened it all.”
Luke 13.20-21 KWL
20 Jesus said again, “What’s God’s kingdom like? 21 It’s like yeast.
A woman who had it, mixed it into 43 liters of dough till it leavened it all.”

It follows the Mustard Seed Story because it’s presenting a similar idea about the growth and spread of God’s kingdom. The kingdom’s like a tiny seed which grows into a vast tree. Or like yeast which a woman mixes into an industrial-sized amount of dough.

The original text of both gospels has σάτα τρία/sáta tría, “three sátons.” No, not Satan; sáton. It’s Greek for the Hebrew unit of measurement סְאָה/çeá (NIV “seah”) which is a third of an אֵיפָה/eyfá (KJV “ephah”). No, that doesn’t clear things up any. Sorry.

Medieval rabbis believed measurements in the bible were based on the בֵּיצָה/beychá, “egg.” Six beychím made a לֹג/log, (pronounced loʊg, not like a block of wood). Four logím, or 24 eggs, made a קַב/qav (KJV “cab”). Six qavím, or 144 eggs, made a çeá. Three çeaím, or 432 eggs, made an eyfá… and I could go on, but your eyes would glaze over even more than they already have.

Whose eggs? Ah, that’s a whole other debate the rabbis had. Not that it mattered; some of them insisted eggs were smaller today than they were in bible times. But if we’re using chicken or duck eggs as a rough estimate, we get about 14⅓ liters per seah. Jesus said three of ’em, so that’s 43 liters.

Westerners tend to measure dough by weight, and figuring 1.18 pounds per liter, you’re talking roughly 50 pounds of dough. Which is what the translators of the CSB calculated; the translators of the NIV figured 60 pounds.

But most translators skipped the math and followed the KJV’s cop-out of translating sáta as “measures.” What’s a measure? You don’t know. Most people presume it’s the volume of a measuring cup; a quart, maybe. Three quarts. Three loaves of bread. Which is not what Jesus was thinking. Think much bigger.

KJV “…three measures of meal…”
CEB “…three batches of flour…”
ESV, ISV, NET, NLT, NRSV “…three measures of flour…”
GNT “…a bushel of flour…”
GNV “…three pecks of flour…”
ICB “…a big bowl of flour…”
NASB “…three sata of flour…”
NCV “…a large tub of flour…”
NLV “…three pails of flour…”
VOICE “…a huge quantity of flour…”

I used to work in a kitchen which had an industrial-size mixer for when we’d make lots of baked goods. I think we could fit a çeá’s worth of dough into it; might be pushing it. Yet Jesus described a woman mixing three of these volumes. Back in his day, it’d obviously be done by hand. Maybe with a really large spoon. Whenever I’ve had to mix a barrel’s worth of stuff by hand, I used an oar. It’s not light work.

This kinda begs the question: Why would this hypothetical woman be mixing 50 pounds of dough? The way they made bread in the ancient middle east, that’d make maybe 250 flatbreads. Enough for 100 people.

But like I said, these two parables are about impossibly large amounts. And Jesus is right about how yeast works: Given enough time, even a very small amount of yeast will work its way into every last milliliter of that dough. His kingdom’s like that. Little bit of gospel spreads everywhere.

“But yeast is evil.”

Of course, this interpretation has frequently been flipped 180 degrees by Christians who insist Jesus’s metaphors are a codebook, and to crack the code all we need do is connect the dots.

And whenever other authors and speakers talk about yeast in the bible, a lot of times they say it’s gotta go. Like in Exodus, when the Hebrews are instructed to get rid of their yeast for Passover, because the LORD banned it. Ex 12.15, 12.18-20, 13.3 The assumption is there’s something sorta wrong with yeast. Yeast is bad.

Then there’s when Jesus warned his students about the Pharisees and Sadducees’ yeast. By which he meant hypocrisy, but for a few minutes there they took him literally.

Matthew 16.5-12 ESV
5 The disciples reached the other shore, and they had forgotten to take bread. 6 Then Jesus told them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
7 They were discussing among themselves, “We didn’t bring any bread.”
8 Aware of this, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves that you do not have bread? 9 Don’t you understand yet? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand and how many baskets you collected? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand and how many large baskets you collected? 11 Why is it you don’t understand that when I told you, ‘Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,’ it wasn’t about bread?” 12 Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the leaven in bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Put two and two together… and you’ll still come out with the wrong answer, because “yeast” is not a secret code for evil.

Why’d the LORD ban yeast for Passover? Because at the very first Passover, eaten at the very same time the angel was passing over the Hebrews to smite the Egyptians, there wasn’t time to put yeast in the dough. They were dressed to move, and they were leaving in a hurry. And to discourage the Hebrews from slipping a little yeast into their Passover bread—’cause let’s face it; yeast is delicious—the LORD told ’em to get it entirely out of their houses. Ex 13.7 Future celebrations repeated this practice to better remember the first Passover, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with yeast.

But you know how humans think. Banned must therefore mean bad. So even among the ancient Israelis there was a bit of cultural stigma against yeast. When people talked about yeast, they usually gave it a negative connotation. Even the apostles did it.

1 Corinthians 5.6-8 ESV
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The old leaven (i.e. yeast; baking powder is a recent invention) represented the Corinthians’ old, sinful lifestyle. For the new Christian lifestyle, there’s matzo, flatbread without yeast, which admittedly doesn’t taste as good, but it’s what you eat for Passover, and Jesus is our Passover lamb.

Anyway, you can see what happens when you take this metaphor, play connect-the-dots, and presume every instance of yeast is meant to have a negative attachment to it. Instead of comparing this parable to the Mustard Seed Story, they go with the Wheat and Weeds Story, Mt 13.24-30 and claim the yeast is like the weeds, which infest the world till the End. Although how you’re ever gonna fully extract yeast from bread dough, I’ve no idea.

Look, Jesus is the LORD. Jn 1.1 Yep, the same LORD who created heavens, earth… and yeast. Jn 1.3 The same LORD who gave Moses the commands, who forbade yeast in Passover, and also forbade it in ritual sacrifices. Lv 2.11 But outside those two areas, he didn’t tell the Hebrews to stop making their daily bread with it. Never forbade it. Never condemned it as ritually unclean.

You might not realize honey is also forbidden in ritual sacrifice. Lv 2.11 Does this mean honey is therefore evil, same as yeast?

But honey doesn’t have any ancient stigma, and no such stigma wormed its way into the bible. On the contrary, the LORD described Canaan to the Hebrews as a “land of milk and honey.” Ex 3.8 We regularly, and correctly, presume this describes the promised land as a good place. We don’t assume, “Oh, honey’s ritually unclean, so when God talks about a land of milk and honey, it’s his subtle suggestion there’s both good and bad in the land he gave his people.” Nor should we. Jesus made it clear God doesn’t give bad things to his children. Mt 7.11 And yet I’ve heard a few misbegotten preachers actually attempt to make the case for this warped interpretation.

As usual, we need to interpret Jesus’s parables as stories which stand apart from one another. They’re all about God’s kingdom, yet the elements in one story do not necessarily interpret the elements in another story. They’re metaphors for whatever Jesus needs ’em to be. They’re not fixed codes.

Yeast has the property of spreading everywhere. When we’re talking what Pharisees and Sadducees taught—namely what they taught in common, which had far more to do with politics than religion—it’s not good. It’s a leaven we have far too much of in our own culture. When we’re talking about Jesus’s kingdom, it does just the opposite of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ ideas. It’s very good.

Still, 50 pounds of dough.

Y’know, there was a specific woman in the scriptures who baked with three çeaím of dough. That’d be Sarah bat Terah.

Genesis 18.1-8 ESV
1 And the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs [50 pounds] of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7 And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Now y’notice Abraham gave the men the stuff he prepared; we don’t know about Sarah and that 50-pound blob of dough she was gonna make “cakes” from. No, not “cakes” like we imagine cakes; the ESV was reusing the KJV’s word, and it meant flatbread.
Bread hanging (and baking) on the inside of a tannúr. Biblical Archaeology Society
Sarah and her slaves would take a fistful of dough, slap it to the wall of the תַּנּוּר/tannúr, the clay oven they used for baking, and make flatbread. A lot of flatbread.

Way more flatbread than three men, even heavenly men, could consume—plus a calf! So it’s reasonable to assume Abraham didn’t mean for just the men to eat this food. He figured he and his people were gonna feast with them. And why not? The LORD had come to visit his people! Even though the LORD hadn’t yet spelled out his whole kingdom idea just yet… the kingdom had arrived!

Me, I imagine Sarah was wondering about the ridiculously large order of bread she was suddenly expected to bake, and what her crazy husband was up to now. It did eventually sink in that one of these guys was the LORD, Ge 18.11-15 but not at first.

So when Jesus made a reference to a woman mixing yeast into 50 pounds of dough, did he have Sarah in mind? Maybe. Did his students recognize the reference? Maybe. Is there anything relevant to this connection? Maybe… but maybe not. Abraham wanted her to make all this bread in a hurry, which means the yeast was either pre-mixed and ready for baking, or it was another instance where haste meant they could only eat matzo.

In any event Jesus was going with grand, hyperbolic sizes because he’s talking about the grandness of God’s kingdom. It certainly made his parables memorable. Less so for us, ’cause we’re less familiar with the cultural context. John Wesley densely commented the three measures of flour “was the quantity which they usually baked at once.” Notes at Mt 13.33 No they didn’t. It’s the maximum quantity one could’ve baked at once, but there’s no historical evidence for the idea this was typical. Wesley, or his historical source, was spitballing… or figured a “measure” was way smaller than it turns out. Like I said, who knows how big a measure is?