On the second night of Passover, Jewish people begin the counting of the omer, which means sheaf.” In Temple times the first sheaf of the barley harvest was offered on the 16th of Nisan. Then began the counting of 50 days as the Israelites waited to see whether God would bless their wheat harvest. Shovuos (Pentecost) on the 50th day commemorates the offering of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest in gratitude for God’s provision of the land and its fruits.
It is easy to see why in Temple times Shovuos was one of the three great pilgrim festivals.1 Unfortunately, when the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were dispersed, this holiday based on offerings and harvest would have become meaningless to those who were no longer farmers and had no Temple sacrifice. In order to find relevance for the holiday, the rabbis calculated that this date, the sixth of Sivan, was not only the day of the wheat harvest; it was also the day when the children of Israel stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Shovuos then became known as Z’man Matan Torahtenu—the Season of the Giving of our Torah.2
Based on the description in Exodus 20, Judaism teaches that the whole community of Israel entered into the experience as the Ten Commandments were given. Later they pleaded with Moses that he might be their intermediary because they feared the awesome presence of God. Moses explained that thereafter a prophet would bring God’s word to Israel, but they were never to forget their experience at Horeb. They were to communicate it to each succeeding generation.
The events at Sinai on that particular sixth of Sivan marked the beginning of the Jewish nation, whereby they became related to God through the Torah (Law). One of the rabbis who taught me in college made much of that fact, i.e. that Judaism, in contrast to many other religions, bases its origins on a revelation that was given to the entire community, not just to an individual. Indeed, we must not minimize the importance of an event which Scripture itself commands must be taught specifically to each generation.
God intended that the experience of standing at Mount Sinai on that “first Shovuos” would instill in his people a permanent sense of reverence. Yet such was not the case. We read that shortly after the giving of the Law, the golden calf apostasy occurred while Moses ascended the mountain to receive the written tablets. There is a universal lesson here: no experience with God, if it is only in the past, can help us in our battle against sin. More specifically, this incident indicates that the external covenant of commandments, though effectually revealed to the minds of the Israelites, was unable to change their hearts. For this reason, when God promised a new covenant to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah, he foretold some differences:
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah, Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in that day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, which, my covenant, they broke… But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel… I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer. 31:31-33).
For the inception of that new covenant, we look to another Shovuos (Pentecost) and the disciples of another Prophet—one like Moses, of whom Moses prophesied—who is the Mediator of that better covenant.
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven like a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting… And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:1, 2 and 4).
That day at Pentecost almost 2000 years ago signalled a new relationship between God and his new people based on the covenant God had promised Israel through Jeremiah. And ever since that day, all who commit their lives to Jesus are sealed by the Holy Spirit. Like Israel at Sinai, we who trust in Jesus come to know God personally and experientially. Unlike Israel at Sinai, however, we believers receive an inner circumcision, an experience that cannot be eradicated. By God’s grace, we will not repeat the golden calf tragedy—not because we are any better than the ancient Israelites, but because under the new covenant, our knowledge of God and his work in our hearts is ongoing and continual, never just a past experience.
Moreover, Pentecost teaches us that these blessings are not only for the Jewish people. The rabbis taught that the Torah was given in the wilderness rather than in the land of Israel so that the other nations might not say, “it does not belong to us.” To reinforce this thought, at Shovuos Jewish people read the book of Ruth, a proselyte to the Hebrew faith, to say that the Torah is for all people. Even so, we who have found forgiveness and new life in the Messiah of Israel proclaim the availability of this blessing to all humanity.
As the harvest is a universal celebration, not just a Jewish one, Pentecost also has a universal dimension. The offering that is peculiar to Pentecost is the waving of two leavened loaves of bread before the Lord. Normally leaven was not to be present in the offerings. Some have suggested that those two loaves at Pentecost represented humanity rather than sinless perfection, thus depicting the Jewish and Gentile constituency of the church.
Although today Gentiles predominate in the body of believers, essentially they still do what Ruth the Moabitess did. As those outside of physical Israel, they are free to enter into the blessings of the new covenant, just as Ruth was free to enter into the blessings of the Torah. While the character of the new covenant is still Jewish, the difference is that the Gentiles need not become proselytes or place themselves under the Law in order to have a relationship with the God of Israel.
In effect, the supervision and internal direction of the Holy Spirit replaces the writing on the tablets of stone. God’s law becomes engraved on the hearts of all believers, making them “kosher,” an accepted part of God’s people. While the Gentile believers are not of the people who stood at Horeb to receive the Law, they are nevertheless part of the people who celebrated Shovuos in the upper room and received the Holy Spirit. That Spirit not only restrains us from sin, but constrains us to serve God. He retrains us with the knowledge of the Lord, propels us to tell others and causes us to rejoice in the harvest of souls that he, God, is gathering to himself.
- Leviticus 23
- Shabbat 86-88