Watch Out for the Leaven Riseth!
What comes next in this gospel is a revolutionary statement from Yeshua. Like the conclusion of a dilemma which began back at the time when the disciples scolded Jesus for having spoken rashly to the Pharisees. Do you remember that? In Mark 15:12, they question Yeshua, Do You know that the Pharisees were offended?
The disciples were still enamored by all that appeared so holy. Then He brought them to experience the true meaning of faith and love by reaching out to the Canaanite woman. Now He is about to make a powerful statement about the religious leaders, a timely declaration for today because so many people are still enamored by outward tradition coupled with apparent holiness.
It happened right after Yeshua left the Pharisees and entered the boat with His disciples. That’s where they were. After the feeding of the 4,000, the disciples forgot to bring the leftover bread along and so they were discussing amongst themselves what they would eat.
That is quite an ironic concern after the two miracle feedings but then again, because so many things were happening, perhaps they just forgot to bring the bread. It is here when Yeshua came out with this powerful statement.
“Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Mark 8:15
It seems so unrelated to their discussion but here He was teaching them to look and think beyond. First, what did they understand about leaven at that time? In rabbinical writings, leaven was considered a sign of corruption. The Mishnah associated the absence of leaven with redemption as seen in the history of the Passover (m. Pesaḥ. 10:5). They called the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, as the leaven in the lump (Ber. 17a)
So Paul says: Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Messiah our Passover also has been sacrificed. 1 Corinthians 5:7
Right before the deliverance from Egypt, which symbolizes the believer’s salvation, the Israelites were told to make sure that there was no trace of leaven in their home. Just a small amount of leaven would corrupt the whole batch.
During Yeshua’s time on earth in the first century, leaven was apparently rare. So they would keep just a small amount of dough from the previous week to leaven the bread for the following week. It was a constant reminder of the great impact it could have.
But now, what was so wide-reaching about this statement? We know from the Targum of Esther, which is the Aramaic translation done before the time of Yeshua, that they were aware of the leaven of Herod, or of the leaven of wicked oppression. This is what the second Targum of Esther, Targum Sheini, says: Just as the leaven is removed in favor of the unleavened bread, so may the evil king. Targum 2 to Esth 3:8. The foolish king, according to the translator was the then King Herod; here Jesus compares the king to the leaven.
But see that now Yeshua brought this evil rule from Herod pointing right down to the religious leaders, the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the Sadducees (Mark and Matthew), who were responsible for the spiritual downfall of the nation, leading to judgment and the eventual destruction of the Second Temple. This is what is so revolutionary. In this statement, Yeshua uncovered the mask of the man-made religion.
Who they themselves thought were the guardians and defenders of the people turned out to be the foxes in the chicken coop. How could the religious leaders be leaven when they were the ones to warn and protect the people from leaven? That is the irony of history; not only Jewish history, but it seems even much of Christian church history.
As for the history of the Bible, was this not the prophets’ of God constant battle against the false form of religion created by corrupt priests of the time? Things have not changed even until today. And at this time, and in many ways, Herod stood for all other invaders and oppressors of Israel. He is from Edom and Edom is the name given to all enemies of Israel, including the Romans. Leaven then, describes all evil kingdoms of all ages.
Furthermore, some have understood through the chronology of the Book of Mark, that in 8:11 when the Pharisees asked for a sign, it was at the time of Purim. If Yeshua spent the winter up north, and did not travel south because of the difficulties of travel during the rainy season, He may very well have spent Purim in the Galilee just before travelling to Jerusalem. He would have then been at Jerusalem for the Passover, for the Triumphant Entry in Mark 11.
And it was during Purim that the Book of Esther was read in the synagogue (Lange, Comm. Of the Holy Scriptures p.64). This makes Yeshua’s statement of the Leaven of the Pharisees even more powerful, for the association between leaven and a wicked government was fresh in their minds. And notice the double warning in the words of Yeshua: “Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Vs.15
This dual cautions says; look/ inside out. The first word watch out, has the basic meaning to see, to study the forms, while the second word beware calls us to evaluate and go deeper. In the N.T. this word is used for bringing the individual to search for the theological meaning, to assess the revelations if they are from God or from man.
Both words encourage us to look at the outside of the lives and history of these people and also to assess their beliefs to see if it is according to the revealed Word of God and to see if there is leaven hidden somewhere.