Paul Hames looks at the symmetry of Shavuot and Pentecost
We live in a world of the instant: internet banking, microwave dinners, and instant messaging; and many of us expect God to be part of that “instant response” world. As Christians we need to step back and recognise that the God we worship is actually a God of process. Creation took time to accomplish and continues to take time; salvation is about being saved in the past, being saved today, and being saved in the future. God orders the world in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years. Throughout the Bible, the God who is outside of time steps into time to deal directly with mankind. The Bible is filled with examples of the timeless, formless Spirit of God entering the physical human world to bring His order to our chaos. The pinnacle of those acts of entering time is the incarnation - the ultimate physical manifestation of God as man in Jesus the Messiah. When God enters our world he uses raw materials that already there to achieve his objectives; He created man from the dust of the earth, he chose a representative people -the Jews, from an existing collection of related tribes; He established a system of worship of Himself based on objects and principles that were already known the people. When Jesus healed people it was with local water from a healing pool at Siloam, with local mud and His own spit; when he taught the crowds he used familiar local people like fishermen and shepherds and scenes of wheat fields, flat roofed houses and the nearby desert to illustrate his stories.
Let us look at the process that helps us to understand one of the most amazing events in the Bible; the Day of Pentecost. Without understanding the process we cannot begin to understand what the Day of Pentecost was all about. As Christians we think of Pentecost as the day of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and praise God for the gifts He brings us and the fruits he cultivates in us. That is not wrong. We might think of it as the birthday of the Church. That is not wrong either; but neither present the full picture. Pentecost didn’t just happen on a random day. It fulfilled the requirements of an ancient Biblical Jewish festival - Shavuot.
In the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy we find Gods command to celebrate Shavuot. The name comes from the Hebrew number Sheva; seven. The plural becomes shavuot - sevens which in turn becomes the Hebrew word for weeks. The Israelites were told by God to count seven sevens of days or seven weeks from the Festival of Firstfruits (the barley harvest festival that occurs at Passover) and then to celebrate the wheat harvest with special grain offerings. The festival was to be known as Shavuot - weeks. By the time of Jesus, contemporary writings like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Jubilees show that the Rabbis had included in the harvest celebration the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Although the exact day of the giving of the Law is not specified in the Bible it is clear from Exodus 19 that it occurred in the third month so the Jewish sages brought the wheat harvest and the Law giving together at Shavuot.
Because the Law (God’s word) is considered to be milk and honey to God’s people - Song of Songs 4:11, it became a tradition to eat dairy products, cheesecake being a favourite, but also kreplach a kind of cheese filled ravioli. The triangular shape is an important memory aid. Kreplach reminds people of an ancient blessing thanking God for giving the Bible (Torah the Prophets and the Writings) to a people of three classes (Priests Levites and Israelites) through a third born child (Moses born after Miriam and Aaron) in the third month. You can probably see that there is another deeper implication for the number three in the Festival, but more of that later.
The regular Bible reading cycle used in the synagogue today was established before the time of Jesus, so as the instructions for celebrating Shavuot were read from the Torah, accompanying portions from Ezekiel (1:1-28 and 3:12) and Habakkuk (2:20 - 3:19) were read. Both Prophets try to describe the indescribable presence of God. The whole book of Ruth is added because the story occurs at the time of the barley harvest. Ruth was a woman from Moab, a land east of the Jordan river whose people were excluded from “the assembly of the Lord until the tenth generation” on account of their ill treatment of the Israelites. (Deut 23:3) After marrying an Israelite man Ruth throws her life and her lot in with the Israelites, when she tells her mother in law Naomi that now “your people are my people and your God is my God”. (Ruth 1:16) So Ruth is a gentile woman who enters into a covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So all this background demonstrates God working through a process. Now back to Exodus 19. The Hebrew Bible and the English Standard Version has two mentions of campings in verse 3. The first mention of camping is in the plural and the second is in the singular. Is this significant, and if so why? There is an old and persistent rabbinic interpretation of the verse that says in the first camping the Israelites are acting as a group of individuals hence the plural form of the verb. Remember the Israelites are made up of around 800,000 people - families from 12 tribes, descended from 12 brothers of very different temperament. We can imagine the diversity of character amongst the Israelites. So the Israelites camped “disparately”. Moses goes up the mountain and meets with God who tells him how the Israelites met prepare themselves for what is about to happen. At the second camping, the verb is singular and the rabbi’s say that this must indicate that the people are now one. They have stopped squabbling amongst themselves. There is no more “what shall we eat?”, or “why can’t we have garlic and cucumber?” or “why have you pitched your tent so close to mine?” For the first time since they left Egypt there is a sense of oneness and unity. After his first communication with God on the mountain, Moses relays God’s commandments through the elders to the people, and they respond with “we will do everything the Lord has said”. At the time when the people are in unity then God appears on the mountain speaking personally with Moses in the midst of thunder lightning, thick clouds and a trumpet blast. Moses is the catalyst and the mediator between God and the people of Israel. As we’ve seen Ezekiel also talks about a stormy wind and fire flashing forth continually and heavenly voices. Habakkuk speaks of the glory of the presence of God in terms of bright lights and other physical phenomena. These events and the scriptures all point to something. They are preparing the Jewish people for something as yet, unknown. All the signs are there but how to interpret them?
Now let us fast forward to the festival of Shavuot just after Jesus’ death. Remember, Jesus has already been described by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God; a reference back to the Passover sacrifice that was made at the same time He was being crucified and also to Abraham’s prophecy of God as a lamb when he was called to sacrifice Isaac. He also described Himself as the bread of life. He became the first fruits of resurrection at the Festival of First Fruits. In Luke 24:49 the disciples are told to “Wait in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”. The interpretation of the signs is about to be given, the disciples counted the days! Finally God manifests His presence on His people once more.
Just as at Sinai, He appears with fire and wind and voices, this time with the greater Moses, Jesus, being the catalyst. What state were the disciples in? The text clearly and deliberately says they “were of one accord in one place”. Just as the Israelites were in unity at Sinai, so were the disciples in Jerusalem. In a glorious act of divine symmetry God the Father, sends the Holy Spirit to Jerusalem to reflect and compliment the giving of the law at Sinai. This time Jesus, that greater prophet promised by God in Deuteronomy 18, not Moses, is the mediator and the three cornered Kreplach/Trinity picture is completed. The triune God makes manifest His presence in a way that many of the people there that day would understand. He did nothing new; He used familiar people, places and images to achieve His objective. A short sermon, reminding the people about God’s salvation plan is preached by Peter and 3,000 people were saved and baptised. When the people were all in one place in unity God appeared!