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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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SHEWBREAD . In one of the oldest historical documents preserved in the OT we find, in a passage telling of David’s flight from Saul, the first mention of an offering in the shape of ‘holy bread,’ which was presented to J″ [Note: Jahweh.] in the sanctuary at Nob ( 1 Samuel 21:1-6 ). Here this holy bread is also termed ‘ the bread of the presence ’ ( 1 Samuel 21:6 ), i.e. of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] , which appears in EV [Note: English Version.] as ‘shewbread’ a rendering due to Tindale, who adds the note, ‘shewbrede, because it was alway in the presence and sight of the Lorde’ (cf. 1 Samuel 21:6 , which ends literally thus: ‘the presence-bread, that was taken from the presence of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ’). ‘Presence-bread’ is also the name for this special offering generally used in the Priests’ Code but ‘continual bread’ in Numbers 4:7 , contracted from the fuller expression 2 Chronicles 2:4 . The Chronicler, however, prefers another designation, which may be rendered ‘pile-bread’ ( 1 Chronicles 9:32; 1 Chronicles 23:29 etc., EV [Note: English Version.] ‘shewbread’) and is to be explained by the arrangement of the loaves in two piles (see below and cf. Leviticus 24:8 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ).

After its first historical mention in connexion with the sanctuary of Nob, where it was periodically renewed at what intervals is not stated the presence-bread is next met with in the Temple of Solomon. Here was an ‘altar of cedar’ (1 Kings 6:20 ), which modern scholars regard as an altar for the presentation of the offering of the shewbread. It stood, according to the restored text, in front of the dÄ•bîr , or Most Holy Place, and it is to be identified with ‘the table whereupon the shewbread was,’ mentioned in 1 Kings 7:48 in a section of later date (see, for the composite text of these chapters, the authorities cited in art. Temple, and cf. ib . § 5). The same interchange of ‘altar’ and ‘table’ is found in Ezekiel 41:22; cf. Ezekiel 44:16 .

The table of shewbread to be provided for the Tabernacle of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] is discussed in the art. Tabernacle, § 6 ( a ) (cf. Temple, § 9 ). The preparation of the shewbread itself, which in the time of the Chronicler was the privilege of a division of the Levites ( 1 Chronicles 9:32 ), is prescribed in another section of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ( Leviticus 24:5-9 ). The offering consisted of twelve unleavened cakes of considerable size, since each cake contained a fifth of an ephah an ephah held more than a bushel of fine flour. The cakes or loaves were arranged on the table in two piles; on the top of each pile was placed an oblation of frankincense. The cakes were renewed ‘every Sabbath day’ ( Leviticus 24:8 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ); those removed were eaten by the priests alone within the sanctuary precincts, the shewbread being among ‘the most holy of the offerings of the Lord’ ( Leviticus 24:9 ).

As regards the original significance of the shewbread offering there can be no doubt. This antique form of oblation had its origin in pre-historic times in the naïve desire to propitiate the deity by providing him with a meal (See Sacrifice and Offering, § 16 ). This view is confirmed by the fact that it was accompanied, even in the later period, by a provision of wine, as is clear from the mention of ‘the flagons thereof, and the bowls thereof, to pour out withal’ ( Exodus 25:29 RV [Note: Revised Version.] , Numbers 4:7 ). The analogy of the classical lectisternia will at once suggest itself. Less familiar is the similar offering among the Babylonians, who laid cakes of ‘sweet,’ i.e. unleavened, bread on the altars of various deities (see Zimmern’s list in KAT [Note: Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament.] 3 600). The analogy between the Babylonian and Hebrew ritual is rendered still more striking by the identity of the name ‘bread of the presence’ ( loc. cit. ), and of the number of cakes offered twelve or a multiple of twelve. This number had probably an astrological origin, having reference originally to the twelve months of the year, or the twelve signs of the Zodiac. For the later Hebrews, at least, the twelve loaves of the presence-bread doubtless represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and were interpreted as a symbolical expression of the nation’s gratitude to God as the continual source of every material blessing.

A. R. S. Kennedy.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Shewbread'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​s/shewbread.html. 1909.
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