Bread (Bread of the presence)

Bread was the ordinary symbol of life, and the hallowed bread signified a superior life because it was ever in the presence of Yahweh.....

Bread was the ordinary symbol of life, and the hallowed bread signified a superior life because it was ever in the presence of Yahweh and destined for those specially consecrated to His service.

Heb. "bread of the faces", i.e. "bread of the presence (of Yahweh)" (Exodus 35:13; 39:35, etc.), also called "holy bread" (1 Samuel 21:6), "bread of piles" (1 Chronicles 9:32; 23:29), "continual bread" (Numbers 4:7), or simply "bread" (Hebrew Version, Exodus 11:23). In the Greek text we have various renderings, the most frequent being 'artoi tes protheseos, "loaves of the setting forth" (Exodus 35:13; 39:35, etc.) which the Latin Vulgate also adopts in its uniform translation panes propositionis, whence the English expression "loaves of proposition", as found in the Douay and Reims versions (Exodus 35:13, etc.; Matthew 12:4; Mark 2:26; Luke 6:4). The Protestant versions have "shewbread" (cf. Schaubrot of German versions), with the marginal "presence-bread".

In the account of David's flight from Saul, as found in 1 Samuel 21:6, we are told that David went to Nobe, to the high priest Achimelech, whom he asked for a few loaves of bread for himself and for his companions. Having been assured that the men were legally clean, the high priest gave them "hallowed bread: for there was no bread there, but only the loaves of proposition, which had been taken away from the face of the Lord, that hot loaves might be set up". The loaves of bread spoken of here formed the most important sacrificial offering prescribed by the Mosaic Law. They were prepared from the finest flour, passed through seven sieves, two-tenths of an ephod (about four-fifths of a peck) in each, and without leaven (Leviticus 24:5; Josephus, "Antiq.", III, 6:6; 10:7).

According to Jewish tradition they were prepared in a special room by the priests who were appointed every week. In 1 Chronicles 9:32, we read that some of the sons of Caath (Kohathites) were in charge of preparing and baking the loaves. The Bible gives us no data as to the form or shape of the individual loaves, but, according to the Mishna (Men., xi, 4; Yad, Tamid, v.9), they were ten fingers in length, five in breadth, and with rims or upturned edges of seven fingers in length. Twelve of these loaves were arranged in two piles, of six loaves each, and while still hot placed on the "table of proposition" (Numbers 4:7) or "most clean table" (Leviticus 24:6) made of settim-wood and overlaid with gold. The dimensions of the table were two cubits (three feet) long, one cubit broad and one and a half cubit high (Exodus 25:23. Cf. 1Kings 7:48; 1Chronicles 28:16; 2Chronicles 4:19; 13:11).

The table with the loaves of bread was then placed in the tabernacle or temple before the Ark of the Covenant, there to remain "always" in the presence of the Lord (Exodus 25:30; Numbers 4:7). According to the Talmud, the loaves were not allowed to touch one another, and, to prevent contact, hollow golden tubes, twenty-eight in number, were placed between them, which thus permitted the air to circulate freely between the loaves. Together with the loaves of proposition, between the two piles or, according to others, above them, were two vessels of gold filled with frankincense and, according to the Septuagint, salt also (Leviticus 24:7; Siphra, 263, 1). The twelve loaves were to be renewed every Sabbath; fresh, hot loaves taking the place of the stale loaves, which belonged "to Aaron and his sons, that they may eat them in the holy place" (Leviticus 24:8,9. Cf. 1Chronicles 23:29; Matthew 12:4, etc.).

According to the Talmud four priests removed the old loaves together with the incense every Sabbath, and four other priests brought in fresh loaves with new incense. The old loaves were divided among the incoming and outgoing priests, and were to be consumed by them within the sacred precincts of the sanctuary. The old incense was burnt. The expense of preparing the loaves was borne by the temple treasury (1 Chronicles 9:26 and 32). Symbolically, the twelve loaves represented the higher life of the twelve tribes of Israel. Bread was the ordinary symbol of life, and the hallowed bread signified a superior life because it was ever in the presence of Yahweh and destined for those specially consecrated to His service. The incense was a symbol of the praise due to Yahweh.

The old Hebrew name bethlehem, meaning "house of bread", has survived till the present day. Bethlehem is situated on two hills and is 2361 feet above the level of the sea. The western hill is the Bethlehem of Scripture; whilst on the eastern elevation is situated the Basilica of the Nativity erected over the grotto. We may imagine, then, that the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, there being "no room for them in the inn", left the town and came to the cave or stable on the eastern hill which served as a place of refuge for shepherds and their flocks against the inclemency of the weather. We are not concerned here with the controversies both as regards the historicity of St. Luke's narrative of the birth of Christ and as regards the actual site of the Grotto of the Nativity. Suffice it to say that there appears to be no sufficient reason for abandoning the very ancient and unbroken tradition which attests the authenticity of the place of the crib now venerated.

From the earliest times, moreover, ecclesiastical writers bear witness to this tradition. Thus St. Justin says that "Having failed to find any lodging in the town, Joseph sought shelter in a neighbouring cavern of Bethlehem" (Dialogue with Trypho 70). About half a century later, Origen writes: "If any one desires to satisfy himself without appealing either to the prophecy of Micheas, or to the history of the Christ as written by his disciples, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, let him know that, in accordance with the Gospel narrative, at Bethlehem is shown the grotto where he first saw the light" (Against Celsus I.51).

The miracles performed by our Lord Jesus Christ are indeed divine works, and incite the human mind to rise to the apprehension of God from the things that are seen. It was a great miracle that was wrought, dearly beloved, for five thousand men to be filled with five loaves and two fishes, and the remnants of the fragments to fill twelve baskets. A great miracle: but we shall not wonder much at what was done, if we give heed to Him That did it. He multiplied the five loaves in the hands of them that broke them, who multiplies the seeds that grow in the earth, so as that a few grains are sown, and whole barns are filled. But, because he does this every year, no one marvels. Not the inconsiderableness of what is done, but its constancy takes away admiration of it. But when the Lord did these things, He spoke to them that had understanding, not by words only, but even by the miracles themselves.


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