My Polish Jewish grandfather used to say, “A goat may have a beard, but that doesn’t make him a rabbi!” In the same way, some Jewish traditions may have beautiful beards, but that does not make every last one of these traditions biblical or authentic. Shavuot is a good illustration of this proverb. Let’s look at this together.
A harvest by any other name
The first biblical harvest of the New Year (Passover time, according to Exodus 12:1-2) is barley (see Exodus 9:31; Ruth 1:22). The Book of Ruth takes place closer to Passover time, during the barley harvest.
The next crop comes soon after, and it is wheat (Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:9-12). Shavuot celebrates the wheat harvest, as these above passages explain. Fifty days separate these two harvests.
This Festival of Shavuot is also called the Feast of the Reaping in Exodus 23:16, where it says to celebrate “the reaping of the first fruits of your labors which you have sown in the field” (also see Numbers 28:2).
Shavuot is an agricultural festival in the Bible. It could well be that the declaration of thanksgiving in Deuteronomy 16:1-11 was proclaimed by each and every Jewish farmer on Shavuot when he brought his first fruits offering to the House of YHVH in Jerusalem.
Three times a year all Jewish men needed to come up to Jerusalem and appear before YHVH’s presence with offerings (Exodus 23:14-17; 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16). It was one of the shalosh regalim (sholesh regolim in Yiddish), one of the three pilgrim feats.
- That is all that Moses said about Shavuot – no more and no less. Shavuot is not linked to any other Biblical occurrence or date in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Over one hundred years before the birth of Yeshua, Jewish scribes translated the Bible from Hebrew into Greek. Their translation, known as the Septuagint (meaning ‘the seventy’ scribes who traditionally did the work) uses the word Pentēkostē in Leviticus 25:10, referring to ‘the fiftieth’ – in this case the 50th year of Jubilee. In Yeshua’s day Hebrew-speaking Jews would call the Feast ‘Shavuot’ while Greek-speaking Jews would call the same Feast Pentēkostē (or Pentecost in modern English).
A Jewish get-together
When I studied Second Temple Jewish History at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, my professor Dr. Menahem Stern (the top world scholar of that discipline) pointed out how Acts 2:9-11 was an excellent description of the extent of the Jewish Diaspora in those days – the countries to which Israel had been exiled and still remained in Exile:
Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2:5-11)
Shavuot meant that Jews from all over the world were coming up to Jerusalem to honor YHVH’s commandment. Though a few proselytes (Gentile converts to Judaism) also came up, it was Jews from Arabia to Asia, from Egypt to Elam who all got together for a national Thanksgiving Day celebration in Jerusalem. This happened every year – a Jewish people celebrating a Jewish feast in a Jewish city.
- Again, nothing in Acts 2 points to anything other than a biblical and agricultural feast of thanksgiving – exactly as Moses wrote.
The message of Messianic Pentecost
Shimon (better known today as Simon Peter) is filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, as are his spiritual comrades. Tongues looking like flame were dancing on their heads, and they all began to speak in unlearned languages – the languages of the countries of their Exile (Acts 2:6-8). The good news of Messiah Yeshua and His resurrection were being proclaimed in the very heart of Jerusalem.
Peter said that these amazing manifestations were a reflection of Joel’s Last Days prophecies. Earthquakes, world-shaking signs and the outpouring of the Ruach Hakodesh would characterize these Days. In the same way, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 was a down payment, a promise that all these events will one day come to pass, and that all the Jewish people will be filled with the Spirit of YHVH.
Eight years later, the Good News of Messiah Yeshua was still only being preached to Jewish people. But three breakthrough events occurred in Acts 8-10: Philip was led by the Spirit to share the Message with an Ethiopian eunuch; Saul was miraculously brought into the Kingdom; and Peter was brought up to Caesarea to share his Jewish message with the family of the Roman centurion of the Italian Cohort. That whole Roman family repented, came into the kingdom, and spoke in tongues – but as Gentiles and not as converts to Judaism.
Rabbinic counter-response part one
This business of allowing Gentiles to have access to Jewish blessings and to have equal fellowship with the God of Israel alongside of Jews – this was shocking to the majority of Pharisees as well as to the other streams of Judaism. Most Jewish religious leaders feared that this new upstart Messianic movement, by allowing Gentiles in, would overwhelm rabbinic Judaism’s role as watchman on the Mosaic walls.
Whereas Messianic Jews such as Paul declared that Gentile followers of Yeshua could now be fellow heirs of the same Messianic body and fellow-citizens with the Jewish saints (Ephesian 2:19-3:6), the rabbis countered that the hero of Shavuot is actually a heroine. Ruth was now elevated as the poster child of Gentile conversion to rabbinic Judaism. Her Passover barley harvest story was morphed into a Shavuot wheat harvest narrative. Though the rabbis came on the scene over 1,000 years AFTER Ruth, they now tweaked the story of Ruth. Some even said that three rabbis actually were witnesses officiating at Ruth’s (fictional) conversion to rabbinic Judaism on the threshing floor.
- Just to re-emphasize this point, there is not historical or biblical evidence that the events of Ruth took place at Shavuot.
Rabbinic counter-response part two
The rabbis Paul used to fellowship with before his Damascus Road roller coaster experience had an even more serious objection to apostolic Messianic teaching. Though Paul did live a Mosaic life (see Acts 28:17) as did all Messianic Jews at that time (see Acts 2:20-25), Paul taught that one of the main purposes of the Mosaic covenant teachings (Torah in Hebrew means ‘teaching’) was to lead the Jewish people to Messiah Yeshua. Paul adds that when the Jewish people come to Messiah Yeshua they are no longer under the guardianship of the Mosaic covenant. Paul uses the Greek term paidagogos, which referred to a bodyguard who would take the child from his home through the raunchy Greek streets, protecting him and bringing him safely to the Greek school. Paul calls the Mosaic covenant a paidagogos (often translated ‘a tutor’):
Why the Torah then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the Seed would come to whom the promise had been made . . . But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the Torah, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore, the Torah has become our tutor to lead us to Messiah, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor (Galatians 3:19, 23-25).
The Rabbis understood that Paul was interpreting the Hebrew of Jeremiah 31:31-34 as meaning that the new covenant was “not like” the Mosaic covenant. Their counter-reaction was multifaceted. It involved closing down open discussion of Jeremiah 31, while insisting that Jeremiah must have only meant ‘a renewed covenant.’ But this rabbinic decision involved violating the clear meaning of Jeremiah 31:32, “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the Land of Egypt.” Jeremiah clearly prophesied that the New Covenant was a Jewish covenant and that it was not like the Mosaic covenant. That’s why Jeremiah called it a ‘New Covenant.’
So the rabbis, like Mary Poppins, reached into their magic carpet bag and drew out a new date on the Jewish calendar – they proclaimed that Shavuot actually occurred on the same day that the Mosaic Covenant was given. From now on, Shavuot would become a holiday celebrating Mosaic Torah. The Giving of the Law would be championed, and the New Covenant Messianic movement would be undercut.
- Without any scriptural warrant, authority or proof, the Rabbis tweaked the emphasis of Shavuot from thankful celebration of the wheat harvest to a Mosaic birthday party. It is as if they said, “Let’s make sure to leave out the New Covenant, leave out Messiah Yeshua, and let’s make sure that there are no Gentiles sneaking in the back door into a Jewish kingdom!”
Living in the Day of Small Things
The prophet warned his people not to despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4:10). In the Messianic movement in our day, we should also be aware that sometimes some of our theological formulations are more tentative and less accurate that we might think.
Most Messianic leaders and teachers have been taught by their leaders and teachers that the rabbinic perspectives on Shavuot and the rabbinic perspectives on the Mosaic covenant are kosher. I have dear Messianic friends and leaders who deny that the New Covenant is actually a New Covenant. Instead, they teach that it is simply a new and improved Mosaic Covenant.
I have dear Messianic friends who believe, as the rabbis teach, that Shavuot is when the Mosaic covenant was given and that Ruth is the poster child for friendly Gentiles, who should convert to rabbinic Judaism.
It is my conviction that these dear friends err (see Matthew 22:29) not knowing what the Scriptures say (or don’t say, in this case!). They are perhaps unaware of both Jewish and rabbinic history – and unaware of the early clashes between Messianic apostolic teaching and that of the rabbis on these points.
How should we then pray?
- Pray for an increased understanding to come to the Messianic Jewish movement about the authentic biblical meaning of Shavuot
- Pray for revelation to come to many hungry Jewish hearts about Messiah Yeshua and His New Covenantal gift of the Holy Spirit and salvation
- Pray for followers of Jesus worldwide to receive and embrace these biblical and foundational truths, and not to get hung up on some inaccurate rabbinic traditions
- Pray for the raising up of Ezekiel’s prophetic Jewish army throughout the earth
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,
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