What Is Shavuot?
What is Shavuot? Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks or, in more contemporary Christian terms, Pentecost. While “Pentecost” might make you think of speaking in tongues and prophecy, let’s learn about the origin of this beautiful holiday, it’s importance role in the Bible, and how it’s traditionally observed in the Jewish community.
Before we begin, I’ll recommend one of my favorite tactics for understanding things in the Bible: the Rule of First Mention. It’s pretty self-explanatory – basically, you look for the first time a word, phrase, or concept (like a holiday) is mentioned in the Bible. Blue-Letter Bible (BLB) is an invaluable tool for this exercise; that link will take you to the BLB search I created for “Feast of Weeks.”
Shavuot is first mentioned 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 was originally a celebration of the first harvest of the year, the wheat harvest. On that day, the people thanked God for the harvest and expressed their trust that he would provide a later harvest, as well.
Of course, Exodus 34:22 doesn’t stand alone. It’s surrounded by the rest of Exodus, so understanding the context of what’s happening in the larger story can be crucial to understanding these particular verses.
You may be 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 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 goes onto a mountain to receive a new covenant between God and the people of Israel. And, if you’ve been counting the days since Israel left Egypt, it’s been about 7 weeks. Which is about 49 days or 7 times 7 days.
So, Shavuot is quite literally the “Feast of Weeks.” What happened on the very first Shavuot? God gave the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) through Moshe. On Shavuot, a new covenant between God and Israel was established at Mt. Sinai.
Is Shavuot In The New Testament?
I’m going to answer this question in a way you might not expect. We’re going to look at some major themes of what happened at Sinai in Exodus and figure out where those same themes show up in the New Testament.
As the story of Israel at Sinai begins in Exodus 19, we see some strong imagery of fierce weather and a shofar (sometimes referred to as a trumpet) sounding (19:16).
After God delivers the Ten Commandments to Israel from Sinai, the people of Israel are terrified because lightning and fire are coming from the mountain; they plead 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)
Afterwards, Moshe goes up to Sinai for 40 – yes, 40 – days (24:18). Keep this number in mind because we’re soon going to read a story that ties all these different elements 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 of Israel, Aharon (Aaron) (28:1). Of course, Aharon doesn’t know he’s being appointed as the first high priest and he’s busy tending to the people at the base of the mountain. If you’re familiar with this story, you know what happens next: Aharon and most of Israel are creating a golden calf to worship. When God sees this, He calls Israel stiff-necked [or hard-hearted] (32:9). When God tells Moshe what is happening, Moshe pleads with God not to destroy Israel 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 didn’t participate in the idol worship and revelry (32:26). Our very last theme is that, at the end of this day, 3000 people were killed because of their unfaithfulness to God and His covenant. For some, that’s a hard lesson to swallow, but we can see a deeper story being told, one mirrored in the New Testament.
So, let’s take a look at our list of themes at Sinai:
Fierce weather, roar of shofar (19:16)
Mountain on fire, Israel asks for Moshe to speak instead of 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)
It took me a long time to notice all of these overlapping themes, so you should congratulate yourself if you already see where this is going. Now, I encourage you to open your Bible and read Acts 1 and 2 (or click this button to read it).
Did you notice some similar themes? These are the ones I noticed overlapping 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 could not listen to the voice of God on this fiery mountain in Sinai, they’re now given tongues of fire and speak in the languages of everyone else present in Jerusalem. Some mock what God is doing by calling them drunk, but after Peter speaks scriptures to them, the hard hearts (like those at Sinai) are stung and the stiff-necks are loosened! The 3000 are redeemed!
Isn’t that incredible! All of a sudden we realize the very first Shavuot and this later Shavuot right after Jesus’ death and resurrection are intimately tied together. This is all really neat and fascinating, but what does it mean and how does it affect our lives?
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 God is doing with people. Not one person, but whole groups of people.
It’s a day of redemption through faithful covenant with God. It’s 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, the life that resurrects from the dead. The life that redeems.
Shavuot is a day of communities hearing God’s words and hanging on every one. It’s the Word of God that redeems us.
This leads us perfectly into understanding how Shavuot is traditionally observed.
How Is Shavuot Observed?
Traditionally Shavuot is celebrated by joining with a group and staying up all night reading scripture, searching for gems, asking questions, and standing in awe of the beautiful Torah God gave Israel on this day so many years ago.
You begin the night with a meal and plenty of caffeine. Groups may to create an agenda to 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 and then off to sleep! Unless you’d rather push through, of course: Shavuot lasts 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.
You can learn more about how Shavuot is traditionally observed here.
Shavuot is meant to be a night full of the power of Sinai; for Christians it’s 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).