Bread was the essential food of the ancient Israelites. Indeed, the very word "bread" could be used generically for any kind of food. Meat was eaten by peasants only at festival occasions, and other foods supplemented bread. As the mainstay of life, bread came to be a primary metaphor for life and sustenance.
Bread in the Bible functions as a social bond. The giving of bread to another is a major element of hospitality and serves as a sign of respect and concern ( Gen 14:18 ; 18:6 ; 19:3 ; Deut 23:4 ; Ruth 2:14 ; 1 Sam 25:18 ; 28:24 ; 2 Sam 16:1-2 ). Conversely, to take someone's bread and then turn against that person is to commit a heinous offense of ingratitude and betrayal, as in the case of Judas Iscariot ( Psalm 41:9 ; John 13:18-30 ).
The ritual and theological texts of the Bible often refer to bread. It played a role in the consecration of the Aaronic priests ( Exod 29:2-3 ). Bread was also used as part of an offering of thanksgiving to God ( Lev 7:12-13 ). Of particular importance in Israel's worship is unleavened bread. In the first Passover, the eating of unleavened bread typified the haste of Israel's departure from Egypt ( Exod 12:8-11 ), although there are already indications that leaven is associated with the pervasive influence of evil ( Exod 12:14-20 ). So important was this concept that a special festival of unleavened bread was instituted ( Lev 23:6 ).
The association of leaven with evil underlines the fact that bread or leaven can represent temptation, false teaching, or materialism. Human life is not sustained by bread alone (physical provision), but requires the spiritual provision of the Word of God ( Deut 8:3 ; Job 23:12 ). This concept enabled Jesus to reject the temptations of Satan ( Matt 4:3-4 ; Luke 4:3-4 ), and also underlies the practice of fasting, that is, refraining from eating bread during periods of intense focus on an encounter with God ( Exod 34:28 ; Deut 9:9 ; 2 Sam 3:35 ). In Matthew 16:5-12, leaven represents the doctrine of the Sadducees and Pharisees.
More positively, bread frequently stands for God's provision for his people. The practice of setting the bread of the Presence before God expresses this concept. Every Sabbath the priests put twelve loaves of bread on the table of the bread of the Presence in the temple ( Exod 25:23-30 ; 35:13 ; 39:36 ; Lev 24:5-9 ). In contrast to the religious ideas of the surrounding nations, the Bible does not imply that the bread was meant as food for God ( Psalm 50:12-15 ). Instead, the bread was placed before Yahweh as a token of gratitude for his provision for his people. For Jesus, David's eating of the bread of the Presence suggests that human need can at times overrule ritual prohibition ( 1 Sam 21:4-6 ; Mark 2:26 ).
The manna in the wilderness is the quintessential example of bread as a provision of God. The Israelites were to gather just enough for each day and not hoard, since they needed to learn to depend on God for each day's supply ( Exod 16:4-5 ). Similarly, the Christian prays for "daily" bread ( Matt 6:11 ). Such provision spares one from the dangers of both poverty and wealth ( Prov 30:8 ). Jesus teaches that God feeds his people as a father does his children ( Matt 7:9 ), and dramatically illustrates this truth in the miraculous feeding of the crowds ( Matt 14:15-21 ; 15:32-38 ). The disciples were thus not to be concerned about where they would obtain bread when they went out to serve God ( Luke 9:3 ; cf. Psalm 37:25 ). At the same time, the Christian is not to rely on the charity of the church for bread but earn it ( 2 Th 3:12 ). The failure of the bread supply is a mark of judgment ( Lev 26:26 ; Lam 1:11 ; 2:12 ; 4:4 ; 5:6 ; Amos 4:6 ).
The New Testament uses bread as a rich theological metaphor. As God supplies bread, so he will also supply righteousness to his people ( 2 Cor 9:10 ). Above all, Jesus himself is the bread of life; he is the sustenance from God that gives eternal life ( John 6:25-59 ). Christians thus partake of Christ's body in the bread of the Lord's Supper. In this, they remember his sacrificial death and celebrate the eternal life he supplies ( Matt 26:26-29 ). After the resurrection, Jesus' eating of bread with the disciples was a token of his victory over death ( Luke 24:30 Luke 24:35 ; John 21:13 ), and Christians after that met on the first of the week for the breaking of bread ( Acts 20:7 ).
Duane A. Garrett
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Bread, Bread of Presence'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".