Shavuot is a Feast that is de-emphasized in the traditional Jewish community (due to two thousand years of being forbidden to own farmland) and largely misunderstood in Christendom. Yet it is one of the three pilgrimage Feasts, in which all the men of Israel were commanded to present themselves before the Holy One (Exo. 23:14, 16). Part of this is because as a harvest Feast, Shavuot is a time when Israel was to recognize Hashem’s provision in bringing in the harvest. However, there is a much deeper meaning, one that is easy to apprehend as long as we look at it first through the lens of the Exodus from Egypt.
In the third month after Israel’s departure from Egypt, they arrived at Mt. Sinai (Exo. 19:1). Three days later (v. 11), God descended on the mountain in fire, with the sound of a shofar, or trumpet (vv. 16ff), and called Moses up the mountain to begin giving him the Torah. So if Israel departed on Nisan 14 (Passover), traveled 17 days in Nisan, 29 days in the month of Iyyar, and the first day of the month of Sivan to reach Mt. Sinai, they arrived on the 47th day since their release. The Holy One descended three days later, making his descent a total of 50 days since Israel’s release: the day of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks.
Like the Feast of Firstfruits for the barley harvest, Shavuot is a firstfruits festival for the wheat harvest. On Firstfruits (the day following the Sabbath after Passover), Yeshua the Messiah was raised as the Firstfruits of the dead (1Co. 15:20). On the first Shavuot, the firstfruits of the nation of Israel began receiving the Torah.
Voices and Torchlights
The significance of this event to the New Covenant is often missed because of a gloss (an attempt by the translator to make the translation “smooth”) in Exodus 20:18 that appears in nearly every version of the Bible. The verse reads, in the KJV, “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.” Other translations use similar wording. However, the usual Hebrew words for “thunderings” and “lightnings” are not used here. The more literal translation of the first half of the verse would be, “And all the people saw the voices (haqolim) and the torches (halippidim) . . .”
That’s an odd way to phrase it, and it naturally moved the rabbis to dig deeper. The rabbis asked themselves how one could see a voice, and why the passage spoke of voices in the plural. Well, we know from verse 19 that the voice of God was so powerful that the people felt that they would literally die if they were forced to continue hearing it in all of its glory. The rabbis visualized God’s voice striking the fiery mountain top like a hammer striking white-hot metal on an anvil, sending sparks flying with every syllable. In that way, they could literally see the voice of God as he spoke. These sparks were the “torchlights” that Exodus describes.
As for why the voice was spoken of in the plural, “wherefore R. Yochanan said that God’s voice, as it was uttered, split up into seventy voices, in seventy languages, so that all the nations should understand” (Exodus Midrash Rabbah 5:9). This only makes sense, since it was a mixed company that went up from Egypt (Exo. 12:38) and not everyone there would have understood the Holy One’s commands and covenant had it been spoken in Hebrew only.
Finally, the rabbis teach that as each individual Israelite accepted the terms of the covenant, one of those sparks flew down and rested above his or her head.
Fast-forward 1500 years: As related in Acts chapter 2, on the Shavuot after the death and resurrection of the Messiah Yeshua, the firstfruits of the Ekklesia began receiving the Torah written on their hearts by the giving of the Spirit of God in the form of fire and with a great sound. Then they went forth to announce the Good News of the New Covenant to the crowd (the Voices of God speaking all the languages of the world from within them), one comprised of Jews from all over the world–many of whom did not speak Hebrew (Jer. 31:33, Ezk. 36:26-27, Acts 2:3ff). Why did God this time speak through men instead of directly from heaven? In part, it was to demonstrate that what was formerly written on tablets of stone was now being written on hearts of flesh (Rom. 2:15), but more than that, because we had asked him to (Exo. 20:19)!
The Leavened Loaves
One of the commands we observe on Shavuot is presenting two leavened loaves (the Shtei Halechem) before the Holy One (Lev. 23:17). Under ordinary circumstances, leaven is symbolic of sin and is forbidden in the offering (2:11), yet on this occasion, it is commanded. The reason is that while Yeshua presented himself before our Father as a sinless offering, the Holy One’s people can make no such claim for themselves–nevertheless, the Merciful One receives us for his service as well.
The two loaves represent a division in the Body, but by being presented together we see that division healed. There have been many divisions in Israel’s history: The northern and southern kingdoms, the Messianic remnant from the majority who do not know Yeshua, Jew and Gentile, etc. In every case, the consistent theme of prophecy is the removal of jealousy and the reunion of brethren. This is why the prophecy of Jeremiah announcing a New or Renewed Covenant is given to both Judah and Israel (Jer. 31:31), even though the latter had been carried off by the Assyrians.
There is another aspect of Shavuot which is almost always overlooked: It has an intimate connection to the Yovel, or Jubilee year. Just as Shavuot is the 50th day after seven weeks of days, the Jubilee is the 50th year after seven weeks of years. In the Jubilee, all indentured servants are set free and all land is restored to its proper family. In Shavuot, we celebrate being set free from our slavery to sin and being restored to our proper inheritance, the Torah of liberty (Jas. 2:12), written on our hearts by the Spirit of the Holy One.
There is a question about what the Torah means when it tells us to begin the count of “seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering” (Lev. 23:15). The 15th of Nisan is always a Sabbath-rest day (vv. 6-7), so does the Torah mean to start the count on the 16th, or from the regular weekly Sabbath that follows the 15th? Even if we are to start the count from the Feast-Sabbath on the 15th of Nisan, what happens when that mid-Week Sabbath falls on a Friday, so that the weekly Sabbath starts immediately afterwards–as apparently happened in the case of Yeshua’s sacrificial Passover (Mat. 28:1 actually says that the women came to the tomb after the sabbaton, “sabbaths” in the plural)?
There are many Messianics and Hebrew Roots Christians who insist that we should count only the full weekly Sabbaths, in which case–just as in the mainline Church’s reckoning–Shavuot would always occur on a Sunday. However, the UMJC follows the reckoning of the mainline Jewish community, which always begins its count on the 16th of Nisan, regardless of what day of the week that happens on, so that Shavuot always occurs on the 5th of Sivan, no matter which day of the week the 5th lands on. We do this because (a) the rabbis have been keeping track of this for literally thousands of years, so we give them some credit for having studied the issue; and (b) because it is important to us to celebrate with the rest of our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Having said that, I can see the arguments on both sides and no more part company with those who believe that Shavuot always occurs on a Sunday than I part company with my Sunday-brethren. Speaking of which . . .
Shavuot and the Christian
Of course, when I speak on the subject of the Biblical Feastdays, I’m often questioned–or even challenged–on whether I think Christians of Gentile descent should keep the feasts. The interesting thing is, when it comes to Passover and Shavuot, most Christians already do. The names have been Hellenized (Pascha and Pentecost, respectively), and the Church has changed the dates to fit a Greco-Roman solar calendar (and also, unfortunately, to distance itself from the synagogue), but there’s never been a debate about celebrating the spring Feasts in at least some form.
Of course, there are levels of understanding to be found in Jewish symbolism and tradition, and I always enjoy sharing those pure golden nuggets with my brethren. However, it’s just that: Sharing a gift that someone before shared with me, passing on an insight without judgment. All too often, we Messianics can get a bit cocky about our “special” knowledge, and in the process push our brethren away, even block them from asking questions.
This is a wonderful time of year to re-ignite the fires of fellowship among all of Yeshua’s disciples, whether we call ourselves Messianics or Christians, remembering that even though all of us have been leavened by sin (cf. 1Co. 5:8), Hashem in his grace has accepted all of us before his altar and purified all of us in the blood of his Son.