Hiding leaven in buckets of flour (Matthew 13:33)

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Here’s a fun reading of Jesus’ parable about someone trying to hide their leaven in three bucket-sized flour containers.

Apparently, the kingdom of heaven is like leaven a woman took and hid in three buckets of flour — until the whole lot fermented! (Matthew 13:33) What’s that about?

Jesus believed the kingdom of God was rising. You can try to punch it down, but once the leaven is in the dough it only rises more. Jesus expected God’s reign to permeate everything, the whole lot.

The parable’s core meaning is clear, but the details are puzzling:

  • Leaven was almost always a symbol for the kind of rot that permeates society. Everyone knew they must rid their homes of leaven for Passover week every year.
  • The quantity of flour is crazy for a household. A saton was around 13 litres, and she used three of them. That’s well over 20 kilograms of flour! Good luck with kneading that.
  • Why are we told she hid the leaven in the flour? The verb is egkryptō, a strengthened form of kryptō (|| Luke 13:21). It really does mean to hide: it’s where we get the words cryptic and cryptology.

Most readers assume the woman was trying to make bread. It’s a reasonable assumption, though not stated. All we’re told is that she took her leaven, and hid it in three big containers of flour. Why else would she do that, if not for making bread?

Here’s an alternative take of the story. I’m probably wrong, since this is not how the parable is usually understood, but it doesn’t change the kingdom application. It does explain the cryptic details by listening to the story in its cultural setting, and assuming Jesus taught with a sense of humour.

Why hidden?

Why hide the leaven in the flour? Commentators don’t agree:

“Hid” is not the natural verb here, and must be designed to emphasize the secret, inconspicuous way the kingdom of heaven begins to take effect.
— R. T. France, Matthew, Tyndale NT Commentary (IVP, 1985), 231.

The verb “hid” implies nothing special. It is used probably because the leaven, when kneaded into the dough, is hidden from view. Even though it is out of sight, it is very much at work.
— Craig A. Evans, Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew–Luke, (David C Cook, 2003), 274.

But hiding the kingdom message is not accidental. It’s what the parables are doing: hiding the truth in cryptic stories about the rise of the kingdom. That’s the point Matthew is making:

Matthew 13:33-35 (my translation, compare NIV)
33 Another parable he told them, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three buckets of flour — until the whole lot fermented!”
34 Jesus told the crowds everything in parables; he told them nothing except through parables, 35 so the word spoken through the prophet could be fulfilled, “I will open my mouth in parables. I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

The quotation from Psalm 78:2 explains why Jesus was “hiding” the truth in parables. From the foundation, the world has been God’s kingdom. That truth has been obscured, suppressed by powers that claim control, ruling even over God’s people.

Psalm 78 belongs in the heart of the Psalms. The first two books (Psalms 1–72) celebrated God’s reign through David and his sons. Book 3 introduces the demise of the Davidic kingship, culminating with the tragic lament at the end of Psalm 89. The final two books declare that God still reigns even when we do not experience it on earth, and hope for the restoration of God’s reign.

In Psalm 78, Asaph teaches the people to utter hidden things, things from of old — things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us (Psalm 78:2-3). His parable is the story of Israel as the people of the heavenly sovereign (78:4-7). They lost the northern kingdom because of persistent unfaithfulness (78:8-67), yet still hope for a son of David to restore what God promised (78:68-72).

That’s the point. Divine kingship was hidden — not lost — when other nations ruled God’s people. One day it would be revealed again. Jesus believed that day had come with his arrival: the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17). The unrecognized king was already among them.

He wasn’t claiming power; he was planting the seeds that would rise as the kingdom. The mustard seed would rise to fill the garden and morph into a great tree providing shelter for the creatures of the earth (13:32).

He was hiding the leaven in the flour. No one would suspect it, but it would permeate the whole thing. They would see the kingdom of God rise.

Why so much flour?

The three buckets of flour had not come from a supermarket. They saved it at harvest time. Then this woman had spent hours, probably days, grinding it by hand and carefully storing it in the three containers they had for holding the ground meal.

The story is not about a recipe for today’s dinner. We’re talking about her entire stock of flour for the weeks and months ahead.

But that doesn’t make sense. Why on earth would she hide the leaven in her three storage containers full of flour?

A witty wisdom story?

We may think of Bible study as serious business, but maybe Jesus wanted us to laugh at ourselves too. Maybe this story is something like an urban myth. The issue is that humour doesn’t translate well across cultures.

Imagine you were regularly accosted by a Pharisee trying to remove a speck from you eye, while you could see a plank hanging out of his. Would you be rolling on the ground laughing when Jesus raised this word picture in the Sermon on the Mount?

The question is: Why on earth would someone in Jesus’ world try to hide their leaven?

Well, every year they all had to get rid of their leaven for Passover. Then they somehow needed to acquire more after Passover week was over. I’m not sure how: from gentiles perhaps? Or maybe there was a black market among tax collectors and others who would sell their own people for a profit?

The actual Passover regulations read like this:

  • For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses (Ex 12:19 || Dt 16:4).
  • Nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast be seen anywhere within your borders (Ex 13:7).

Would it be too devious to ask how a legalist might try to avoid having to pay a premium when everyone had to buy leaven again after Passover, while still making sure that none could be found in her house or seen by anyone who cared to look?

Where could she hide it? In the flour containers! No one would look there. But her plan comes unstuck when the flour starts rising — all on its own! The leaven has its effect on the flour, and she is powerless to stop it.

Did you know that even today there is a practice of hiding the leaven at Passover? The Rabbis recommend the wife hides ten small packs of leaven, to ensure her husband makes a thorough and fruitful search of the house to remove all the leaven. It’s a great tradition that honours the spirit of the Law.

But hiding the leaven in the flour so it will be there later? You’ve got to be joking! Her ruse will be discovered, and she’ll get the shame she deserves.

If that’s right, there’s an ironic justice embedded in the story, a kind of “Be-sure-your-sins-will-find-you-out” feeling that is totally congruent with how the culture thought and spoke about leaven. If we appreciated how they thought, we’d find this story hilariously satisfying.

So what’s the point?

While our defences are down — laughing at the woman who hid the leaven in her flour — there’s a final twist to the story.

The following verses make it clear that Jesus’ parables are achieving the same result as this woman’s leaven. He was hiding the kingdom in plain sight — placing it into the people who do not understand the kingdom plans.

He’s doing this precisely because they don’t get it yet (13:13). But they will. They’re getting it in the same way the flour containers were getting the leaven. The result is inevitable. The whole thing will come to life, just as surely as leaven works its way through the flour: it ferments the lot (ἕως οὗ ἐζυμώθη ὅλον).

The Pharisees may judge Jesus’ teaching to be a leaven-like rot, and the feeling was mutual (Matthew 16:6-12). But however they viewed it, they could not stop the efficacy of Jesus’ teaching.

The whole lot wasn’t going to rot under Jesus’ leadership. He was restoring divine kingship to the earth, revealing the heavenly reign that has been hidden since the creation of the world (13:35). At his touch, an unclean leper becomes clean (Matthew 8:2-3). Under his leadership, a fermented world becomes sweet. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor (Matthew 11:5).

The parables have their effect. The son of David rises to shepherd them with integrity of heart and skilful hands (Psalm 78:72).

What others are saying

Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, WBC (Dallas: Word Inc, 1993), 389:

What he portrays, rather, is the dynamic power of leaven whereby a small amount, which is imperceptible (note the verb ἐνέκρυψεν, “hid”) when first mixed in a lump of dough, has an eventual, inevitable, and astonishing effect upon the whole. In this sense, the parable is parallel to the immediately preceding parable of the mustard seed. Both speak of that which appears initially to be insignificant and of no consequence but which in time produces an astonishing and dramatic effect.

John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 553:

In Matthew the point may only be that the introduction of the small amount of leaven made no visible difference to the mass of dough (analogous to the smallness of the mustard seed). Apparently insignificant since its presence in the dough is invisible, it nonetheless has totally transformed the dough in a manner that will gradually become evident.

Barclay Moon Newman and Philip C. Stine, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1992), 426–427:

Three measures (TEV “a bushel”) represents an enormous amount of flour, amounting to approximately 39.4 liters or 50 pounds. It is estimated that the bread baked from this amount of dough would be sufficient for more than one hundred persons.

George Wesley Buchanan, The Gospel of Matthew, Mellen Biblical Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 2:608–609:

When leavened bread is desired, there is no need to hide the leaven that is used. It can just be added since there is no secrecy involved, but Jesus was using code language to talk about something that was secret. At the time he was speaking, the Kingdom of Heaven was in hiding. The Romans did not know it existed. This was an underground movement that was quietly, infectiously, working its way through the land. With the rapidity of leaven in a loaf, this undercover movement would take control of the whole situation, and soon everyone would find out what had been happening. This parable is consistent with the parable of seed growing secretly or the mustard seed that grew up and became a tree. At the right time, the grain would be ready for harvest and the leavened loaf would be ready for the oven. These were different metaphors for the same event. It meant that the Kingdom of Heaven was about to come into existence in the land of Palestine.

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