What Is Shavuot?
What is Shavuot? Shavuot might be more commonly known as the Feast of Weeks. Or in more contemporary Christian terms, Pentecost. But before images of speaking in tongues and prophecy start popping into your brain, let’s learn about the origin of this beautiful holiday, it’s importance and role in the Bible, and how it is traditionally observed in the Jewish community.
Let’s start with one of my favorite tactics to understand something in the Bible, the Rule of First Mention. It’s pretty self-explanatory, basically you look for the first time a word, phrase, or in this case, a holiday is mentioned in the Bible. One of my favorite tools for this exercise is Blue-Letter Bible (BLB). If you click that link it will take you to the BLB search I made for “Feast of Weeks”. Feel free to follow along and go deeper than we can go in this blog post.
So, what is Shavuot? We’re first told about it in Exodus 34:22.
“For six days you are to serve, But on the seventh day, you are to cease, at plowing, at grain-cutting, you are to cease. The Pilgrimage-Festival of Weeks [Shavuot] you are to make for yourselves, of the first-fruits of the wheat cutting.”
Shavuot (or the Feast of Weeks) was originally a holiday celebrating the first harvest of the year, the wheat harvest. It was first celebrated by thanking God for the first harvest of the season and trusting God in the later harvest.
Of course, Exodus 34:22 doesn’t stand alone. It’s surrounded by the rest of Exodus 34 and Exodus 34 borders Exodus 33 and 35, so understanding the rest of what’s happening in this story can be crucial to understanding these particular verses.
You’re probably wondering if there’s anything significant happening in this often overlooked section of Exodus. In fact, there is. This is when Moshe (Moses) receives the Ten Words (Ten Commandments). Exodus 34 begins,
“Then God said to Moshe: Carve yourself two tablets of stone like the first-ones, and I will write on the tablets, which you smashed.”
That’s what’s happening here, Moshe is going onto a mountain to receive a new covenant between God and the people of Isra’el. And, if you’ve been counting the days since Isra’el left Egypt, it’s been about seven weeks. Which means it’s been about 49 days or seven times seven days.
So, what is Shavuot? It’s quite literally the Feast of Weeks. What happened on the very first Shavuot? God gave the Torah through Moshe. God established a new covenant between God and Isra’el on Shavuot in Sinai.
Is Shavuot In The New Testament?
I want to answer this question in a way you might not be used to. We’re going to look at some major themes of what happened at Sinai in Exodus and then figure out what that reminds us of in the New Testament.
Let’s lay out some themes:
As the story of Isra’el at Sinai begins in Exodus 19 we first see some strong imagery of fierce weather and a shofar (sometimes referred to as a trumpet) sounding (19:16).
Next after God delivers the 10 Words to Isra’el from Sinai while the mountain has lightning and fire, Isra’el is terrified and pleads with Moshe saying, “‘You [Moshe], speak with us; and we will listen. But don’t let God speak with us, or we will die.”’ (19:16)
After this, Moshe goes up to Sinai for 40… yes, 40 days (24:18). The theme of 40 of course can be found all over the place, but we need to keep this number in mind for a story that ties all of these themes together. In this same verse, Moshe also goes into a cloud on Sinai (24:18).
After all of this, we see our first official priest from Isra’el, Aharon (Aaron) (28:1). Of course, Aharon doesn’t know that he is being appointed as the very first high priest of Isra’el and he is busy tending to the people down at the base of the mountain. If you’re familiar with this story, you know what he is doing with them at the base of Sinai. Aharon and most of Isra’el are creating a golden calf to worship. When God sees this, God calls Isra’el stiff-necked [or hard-hearted] (32:9). When God tells Moshe what is happening, Moshe pleads with God not to destroy Isra’el and Moshe goes down from Sinai (32:15).
Finally, two more themes emerge in this story. First, we learn that some of the Israeli tribes (11 to be precise) created the golden calf, but the tribe of Levi remained faithful to God and did not participate in the idol worship and revelry (32:26). Now, our very last theme is that at the end of this day, 3000 people were killed because of their betrayal to this new covenant that God created with Isra’el. I know, that’s hard to swallow, but when we understand that there’s a story that mirrors the themes in the Sinai saga, we see a deeper story.
But first, let’s take a look at our final list of themes at Sinai:
Fierce weather, roar of shofar (19:16)
Mountain on fire, Isra’el asks for Moshe to speak, not God. (20:19)
God with Moshe for 40 days (24:18)
Moshe goes into a cloud (24:18)
Aharon appointed as priest (28:1)
God’s people are stiff-necked [hard-hearted] (32:9)
Moshe comes down Sinai (32:15)
Some tribes create an idol, Levi remains faithful (32:26)
3000 Slain (32:28)
If you already know what story I’m going to match the Sinai story with, you should pat yourself on the back because it took me a long time to notice all of these overlapping themes. Now, I encourage you to open your Bible to the Book of Acts (or click this button to read it). Now, go read Acts 1 and 2.
Did you notice some similar themes? These are the ones that I noticed overlap with our Sinai story (comment below if you found other overlapping themes).
I want to give special attention to that last similarity. In the Sinai story, 3000 were slain, but in Acts 3000 were redeemed. What an incredible story of God’s redemption. Even though God’s people before could not listen to the voice of God on this fiery mountain in Sinai, they’re now given tongues of fire and speak in everyone’s own language. Some mock what God is doing by calling them drunk, but after Kefa (Peter) speaks scriptures to them, the hard hearts of Sinai are stung, the stiff-necks are loosened! The 3000 are redeemed!
Isn’t that incredible! All of a sudden we realize that the very first Shavuot and this Shavuot right after Jesus’ death and resurrection are intimately tied together. So all of this is really neat and fascinating, but what does it actually mean and how does it affect our lives?
What is Shavuot? How Does Shavuot Transform Us?
How does Shavuot transform us? Let’s start by recognizing the importance of that last word, “us”. That’s where the transformative meaning of Shavuot begins. Both the story at Sinai and the story in Acts center around something new that God is doing with people. Not one person, but multiple people. It is a day of redemption through faithful covenant with God. It is a day of softening hard hearts, speaking scripture, and redeeming even those who were unfaithful. Even those who mock what God does. Yes, Shavuot is a day that reminds us that God does not leave the unfaithful their mockery, but even they are redeemed.
We cannot live this way as individuals. We need each other. We need our brothers and sisters to stand faithfully with God, speak scripture, and allow God’s tongues of fire to speak life into others. Yes, the life that resurrects from the dead. Yes, the life that redeems.
Shavuot is a day of communities hearing God’s words and hanging on every word that comes from the mouth of God. It is afterall the Word of God that redeems us.
This leads us perfectly into understanding how Shavuot is traditionally observed.
How Is Shavuot Observed?
So how is Shavuot celebrated today? Traditionally Shavuot is celebrated by joining with a group and staying up all night long searching for gems, asking questions, and standing in awe of this beautiful Torah that God gave Isra’el on this day so many years ago.
You begin the night with a meal and plenty of caffeine. If you’re in a smaller group, you may want to create an agenda that will help balance Bible study, worship, discussion, and even Bible games to keep the energy up especially in the late hours of the night.
After the sun rises, it’s time for a big celebratory breakfast meal and then off to sleep! Unless you’d rather push through further of course. Shavuot lasts for two days. On the Hebrew calendar the day begins at dusk, so in 2021 Shavuot begins at sunset on May 16 until nightfall on May 18.
More on how specifically Shavuot is traditionally observed here.
Shavuot is meant to be a night full of the power of Sinai and for Christians, full of the power of Sinai and Acts. The night is full of the power and redemption that comes with being a people dedicated and devoted to living off of every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Bible versions used are Everett Fox’s Translation of Torah and the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB).