He spoke another parable to them, “The kingdom of the heavens is like leaven, which having taken, a woman concealed (ἐνέκρυψεν) into three measures of wheat-flour until which time the whole thing was leavened”. (Matthew 13:33 DLNT)
Thayer's states the meaning of ἐνέκρυψεν is to conceal in something. The only NT uses (Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:21) contextually suggest mingling [G1470-ἐγκρύπτω]. Yet the extra-Biblical citations and use in the LXX do not reflect mingling or mixing. Therefore that the woman concealed the leaven in the flour is consistent with how the word is used outside the parable.
A parable is generally understood as a narrative using examples that are agreeable to the laws and usages of human life. [G3850-παραβολή] The challenge with this parable is Jesus appears to use the elements in ways that conflict with normal use. In addition to concealing the leaven, there is what it is placed in, meal or flour (not dough), and how it affects all despite having no liquid. In other words, taken literally the parable describes something that normally doesn't happen: yeast placed in flour does not normally permeate the entire substance or cause it to rise. This is obscured in some translations which have the "dough" "rise." However, as the Disciples Literal New Testament shows, none of those elements are present. In fact it is the ambiguous "whole" which becomes leavened.
Many commentators (Ellicott, MacLaren, Benson, Henry, Barnes, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, Matthew Poole, Gill) see this parable as an illustration of the growth of the Church. Ellicott states:
The parable sets forth the working of the Church of Christ on the world, but not in the same way as that of the Mustard Seed. There the growth was outward, measured by the extension of the Church, dependent on its missionary efforts. Here the working is from within. 1
Following that line Ellicott notes that while leaven normally is symbolic of sin, here it is being used to describe the impact the Church may bring:
...can permeate the manners, feelings, and opinions of non-Christian societies until they become blessings and not curses to mankind. In the new feelings, gradually diffused, of Christendom as to slavery, prostitution, gladiatorial games—in the new reverence for childhood and womanhood, for poverty and sickness—we may trace the working of the leaven. 1
He also notes that the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurred on the Day of Pentecost, a time when leavened bread is offered.
The significance of the three measures of meal is seen as symbolic although commentators offer differing possibilities of the exact nature of the symbolism: 1
- All people Jewish, Greek, and Barbarian (Ellicott and Jamieson-Fausset-Brown)
- Greek, Jewish, and Samaritan (Meyer)
- Body (or heart), spirit, and soul (Ellicott, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, and Meyer)
- Noah’s three sons (Ellicott and Jamieson-Fausset-Brown)
- The elect of God in the three known parts of the world (Gill)
While there is no agreement, the accepted sense is that the specific number, three, is purposeful to in some way symbolize an entire group. This is consistent with the ending where “the whole” (ὅλος) becomes leavened.
The Christian perspective on the collection of parables in Matthew 13 is to see them solely as positive: since heaven is good a parable about heaven should be descriptive of that good. However, both the parable of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven use negative imagery (birds and leaven) and describe a distorted and, in the case of the Mustard Seed, grotesque picture. Since there was/will be war in heaven (Revelation 12:7) it is possible these parables might be descriptive of how the kingdom of heaven was temporarily distorted. Also, in each case the kingdom is described as οὐρανῶν which as the DLNT shows is the plural heavens, not the singular heaven:
For truly, I say to you, until heaven (οὐρανὸς) and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:18 ESV)
As Jesus differentiates between the singular heaven and plural heavens, our understanding of the parables of the kingdom of the heavens should be open to and consistent with this use.
Since the word ἐνέκρυψεν is used only in this parable (Matthew and Luke), another option is to consider the meaning from the OT which is how the original audience would relate to the story. If ἐνέκρυψεν means to conceal in something, then what it is concealed in is equally significant.
Two commentaries (Bengel’s Gnomem and the Cambridge Bible) make note of the amount of flour in the parable and see a connection to Sarah (which would parallel the role of the woman in the parable). The Cambridge Bible notes the connection with Genesis 18:6:
[three measures] Literally, three seahs. In Genesis 18:6, Abraham bids Sarah “make ready three ‘seahs’ of fine meal, knead it and make cakes upon the hearth.” 1
And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” (Genesis 18:6 ESV)
Though flour and the amount are correct, nothing is hidden and there is no mention of leaven which if present does not permeate, it is mixed quickly by Sarah. 2 Other aspects of the Genesis event which follow the parable are the number of visitors, three, whose purpose is to execute judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah just as bringing judgment is part of the kingdom parables (Tares and the Net).
Another OT connection is from ἐνέκρυψεν in the LXX translation of Hosea where the meaning is to conceal and the use is in agreement with understanding leaven as sin:
συστροφὴν ἀδικίας Εφραιμ ἐγκεκρυμμένη ἡ ἁμαρτία αὐτοῦ (LXX)
The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is hid (צְפוּנָ֖ה). (Hosea 13:12 KJV)
Ephraim’s guilt is bound up, his sin is stored away [for future retribution] (Hosea 13:12 JPS)
As the JPS shows, צְפוּנָ֖ה means stored up, or concealed in something for future use. Within the context of Hosea where Israel is described as married to God (2:4), the role of the woman in the parable is also present. The number three plays a part in the message through the references to Judah and the duplicative description of Northern Kingdom as both Israel and Ephraim (ie 5:3).
One other possible OT reference is the citation of Psalm 78 which immediately follows the parable:
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:34-35 ESV)
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings (חִ֝יד֗וֹת) from of old (Psalm 78:2 ESV)
I open with a simile my mouth, I bring forth hidden things of old (YLT)
חִ֝יד֗וֹת means dark, perplexing, difficult, or riddle [H2420-חִידָה] So the parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven would be those perplexing, difficult, dark teachings about the kingdom of the heavens.
Psalm 78 recounts (reinterprets?) the history of Israel. It begins by noting Jacob and Israel before recording an enigmatic statement about Ephraim:
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children (5 ESV)
The Ephraimites, armed with the bow, turned back on the day of battle. They did not keep God's covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them. (9-11 ESV)
In this case the OT use of “parable” begins with two three-fold references: Jacob, Israel, and Ephraim and testimony, law, and covenant. The parable repeatedly references the sin of the people and ends with another three-fold reference which could include a reference to heaven:
He rejected the tent of Joseph; he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim, but he chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loves. He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever. (67-69 ESV)
It ends with a final three-fold statement of David, Jacob, and Israel:
He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance. (70-71 ESV)
Since the OT has three distinct connections to the parable, the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah, Hosea's prophesy, and Psalm 78. interpreting the parable using the OT is reasonable and likely how it would be taken by original audience.
Based on the silence of the NT to elucidate the meaning of the parable further, the OT is the logical place from which to draw the meaning of the leaven being hid.
There are three distinct connections each of which includes the sense of sin or iniquity and judgment. Therefore leaven should be taken as it normally is in Scripture: it means sin or iniquity. The woman is symbolic of Israel and the three measures symbolize various divisions or descriptions in the history of Israel. The message of the parable (as with the overall sense of Matthew 13) is one of judgment.
In my opinion the significance of "hid" is that it relates to Satan and those responsible for leading Israel into worshiping false gods. That is, Satan's sin was hidden or concealed throughout the history of Israel. While the nation has gone after false gods, Satan's role has been concealed.
1. [Commentaries on Matthew 13:33]
2. The parable does not necessarily exclude the leaven being mixed. If Sarah's bread included leaven, Abraham's instruction to act quickly means the whole would be affected by mixing not by leavening nor would it have time to rise.