The Yeast in Dough story.

How much dough do you imagine this was? Think bigger.

Matthew 13.33 • Luke 13.20-21

Jesus gave this parable right after the Mustard Seed story in both Matthew and Luke. It’s hardly a long story.

Matthew 13.33 KWL
Jesus told them another parable: “Heaven’s kingdom is like yeast.
A woman who had it, mixed it into three tubs of dough [80 pounds] 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 three tubs of dough [80 pounds] till it leavened it all.”

But it greatly resembles the Mustard Seed story. That’s about how God’s kingdom is like a tiny seed which became an impossibly giant tree. In this story, the kingdom’s like yeast which a woman mixed into an impossibly large amount of dough. Three tubs’ worth.

I used our word tub to translate Matthew and Luke’s word sáta, because your typical bible translates it with the generic word “measures,” and who knows how big a measure is? The NASB went with “pecks,” which is a little more accurate, but still an archaic term of measurement.

All right: Sáta is Greek for seá (NIV “seah”), which is a third of an efá (KJV “ephah”). No, that doesn’t clear things up any, but this will: A seá holds about 12 liters. And since westerners tend to measure dough by weight, this means about 12 kilos or 26 pounds. The woman in this story is mixing three seás: About 36 kilos or 80 pounds. The NIV estimates 60 pounds, Mt 13.33 NIV but that’s based on the weight of flour, not dough. Dough’s heavier.

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 seá’s worth of dough into it; might be pushing it. Yet Jesus described a woman mixing three. Back in his day, that’d obviously be 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 woman be mixing 80 pounds of dough? The way they made bread in the middle east, that’d make maybe 250 loaves. 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, yeast will work its way into every last milliliter of that dough.

And again, the 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 “yeast” is a codeword for evil. Because whenever other authors and speakers in the New Testament refer to yeast, they’re talking about it negatively. Even Jesus does it.

Matthew 16.5-12 KWL
5 When the students went across the lake, they forgot to bring bread.
6 Jesus told them, “Watch and pay attention to what comes of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ yeast.”
7 The students discussed this among themselves, saying, “It’s because we didn’t bring bread.”
8 Knowing this, Jesus said, “What are you discussing among yourselves, little-faiths?
—that you don’t have bread? 9 Don’t you understand yet?
Don’t you remember the five loaves for 5,000, and how many baskets you collected?
10 Nor the seven loaves for 3,000, and how many bushel-baskets you collected?
11 How do you not understand I’m not telling you about bread?
Pay attention to what comes of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ yeast!”
12 Then they put it together: He didn’t tell them to pay attention to what comes of bread yeast,
but what comes of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ teaching.

The assumption is there’s something sorta wrong with yeast. Exacerbated by the fact the LORD banned yeast for Passover. Ex 12.15, 12.18-20, 13.3 Now, God’s reason for banning yeast was because at the first Passover there wasn’t time to put yeast in the dough; 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 entirely get it out of their houses. Ex 13.7

Well, you know how humans think. Banned must therefore mean bad.

So there was a bit of a cultural stigma against yeast. True, when people talked about yeast, they were usually talking against yeast. And when Paul and Sosthenes discussed yeast in 1 Corinthians, they too gave it a negative connotation.

1 Corinthians 5.6-8 KWL
6 Your emphasis isn’t good. Don’t you know a little yeast leavens the whole ball of dough?
7 Clean out the old yeast!—so you can be a new ball of dough, like the matzo you are.
For our Passover lamb was sacrificed—i.e. Christ— 8 so we can celebrate the feast,
not with old yeast, nor with evil and wicked yeast, but with the matzo of sincerity and truth.

Obviously the apostles used it as a metaphor for 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. They compare this parable to that of the Wheat and Weeds, 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 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 unclean.

Y’know honey is also forbidden in ritual sacrifice. Lv 2.11 Does this mean honey is always a bad thing? When the LORD described Canaan as a “land of milk and honey,” Ex 3.8 was this his subtle suggestion that there’d be good and bad in this land he was giving his people? ’Cause God deliberately gives bad things to his children? No. Mt 7.11 And yet I’ve heard a few preachers actually attempt to make the case for this warped interpretation.

As usual, we need to interpret Jesus’s parables as stand-alone stories, where the elements can be metaphors for whatever Jesus needs ’em to be, and aren’t fixed specific codes.

Yeast has the property of spreading everywhere. When we’re talking Pharisee and Sadducee teaching, with their tendency to look for loopholes or embrace their doubts, that’s not good. When we’re talking Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom—which does just the opposite!—it’s very good.

Still, 80 pounds of dough.

Y’know, there was a specific woman who baked with three seás of dough. That’d be Sarah.

Genesis 18.1-8 KWL
1 The LORD appeared to Abraham at the Mamré oak.
Abraham sat at the tentflap, as the day was hot,
2 lifted his eyes, and saw: Look, three men standing over him.
Abraham saw. He ran from the tentflap to meet them. He bowed to the ground.
3 Abraham said, “Please, my master, if I find grace in your eye, please don’t pass by your slave.
4 Please take a little water. Wash your feet. Lean under the tree.
5 I’ll bring a piece of bread and sustain your heart.
Pass by afterward, because you came upon your slave.”
The men said, “Then do as you said.”
6 Abraham rushed into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Hurry!
Three tubs of the best dough! [80 pounds] Knead it! Make a loaf!”
7 Abraham ran to the cattle and took a tender, good calf.
He gave it to the boy, who hurried to prepare it.
8 Abraham took cottage cheese, milk, and the calf he’d prepared, and gave it to them.
He stood by them under the tree. They ate.

Now you notice Abraham gave the men the stuff he prepared; we don’t know about Sarah and that 80-pound blob of dough. Certainly it’d take a while to bake; certainly the men couldn’t possibly have eaten all that bread and a calf. Me, I imagine Sarah wondering about that ridiculously large loaf she was expected to bake, and what that crazy husband of hers was up to now. It did eventually sink in that one of these guys was the LORD, Ge 18.11-15 but maybe not at first.

So when Jesus made a reference to a woman mixing yeast into three tubs 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 bread in a hurry, which meant either the yeast was pre-mixed and ready for baking, or it was another instance where the haste meant they’d only eat matzo.

In any event Jesus was going with grand, hyperbolic sizes because he was 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.

That, or they figured a “measure” was way smaller than it turns out. Like I said, who knows how big a measure is?