SHOWBREAD. When speaking of the showbread Scripture employs four distinct descriptive designations: (1) לֶ֥חֶם פָּנִ֖ים, Exod 25:30; (2) אַזְכָּרָ֔ה, Lev 24:5-7; (3) לֶ֥חֶם הַתָּמִ֖יד, Num 4:7; (4) מַעֲרֶ֨כֶת תָּמִ֤יד, 2 Chron 2:4. The first speaks of “bread of face” or “presence bread”; a parallel has been seen in the Assyrian akal panu. The second refers to “bread as a memorial”; the third, to “continual bread.” The fourth designates “bread of arrangement.” The number of names for the showbread indicates the importance of this provision in the Tabernacle. Just as the lampstand was important for the oil that was lit on it and the altar of incense was significant for the incense burned on it, so the third article of furniture in the holy place, the table of showbread, had meaning for Israel for the bread that was placed on it.

The “cakes” of showbread (חַלֹּ֑ות) were literally, according to some, “pierced cakes,” because they were pierced or perforated, prob. to permit quick and thorough baking. There is no indication that a cloth or covering was placed on the loaves. The dishes connected with the table of showbread may have been used to hold the showbread; the spoons were employed in placing the frankincense on the bread; the bowls served for the wine of the drink offering. The saucers for the frankincense would permit a pleasant fragrance to permeate the holy place during the week. What remained in them was burned on the bronze altar every Sabbath (Lev 24:7-9) along with what was not eaten of the stale loaves. The twelve loaves represented national unity (cf. 1 Kings 18:31, 32; Ezek 37:16-22).

When the Tabernacle was moved in the wilderness journeys, the table of showbread was carried with the dishes, spoons, bowls, and cups which were connected with its use (Num 4:7). Pure frankincense was put on the table, prob. in golden cups on the bread (Josephus, above).

H. F. Beck (IDB, I, 464), in speaking of similar practices among neighboring peoples, points to the component parts of a Babylonian sacrifice of which one was the placing of unleavened loaves before the deity in multiples of twelve. External similarities cannot becloud the vast differences. For one thing, the bread in Israel was never technically a sacrifice. Furthermore, the bread symbolized in simple fashion the fact that God was the source in Israel’s strength and nourishment. The showbread is said to have reminded the people of God’s supply of daily need for bread and their continued dependence on God’s provision for spiritual as well as physical needs. (Cf. the discourse in John 6, esp. vv. 51-53.) Even later rabbinical authorities who added many minute details as to the number, size, position, and covering frankincense of the loaves, could not obscure the original intention and thrust of the injunctions regarding the showbread.

Similar sacred loaves are represented on Egyp. monuments, but care must be taken not to assume identity in content or purpose. See also Tabernacle.


J. Strong, The Tabernacle of Israel in the Desert (1952), 41-43; W. C. Allen, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (ICC, 3rd ed., 1957), 126, 127; D. W. Gooding, The Account of the Tabernacle (1959); A. H. Hillyard, The Tabernacle in the Wilderness (1965).

See also

  • [[Shewbread

  • Tabernacle