A Feast for Endings and Beginnings
This post is the final installment in my series on the feasts of Israel. It explains a feast associated with both endings and beginnings. This feast goes by different names and is rich in significance for both Old and Testament believers.
GRATITUDE FOR MATERIAL BLESSING
Exodus 23:16 lists “the Feast of Harvest” as one of three feasts for which Israel’s males were to journey to the nation’s central sanctuary to worship Yahweh (the other two being Passover and Booths). Earlier in the year, the Offering of the Firstfruits connected with Passover involved the ceremonial waving of a portion of the barley harvest to celebrate the beginning of the spring harvest season (Lev 23:9-14). The Feast of Harvest, however, concerned wheat and occurred at the end of the spring harvest season.
Though various offerings were made, the Feast of Harvest featured the waving of two loaves of bread baked from wheat—the only Old Testament offering that included leaven (Lev 23:15-20; Num 28:26-31; Deut 16:9-10). With this in mind, Numbers 28:26 calls the feast “the day of the firstfruits.” It acknowledged and thanked God as the source of all material blessing specifically by presenting to him a product made from a crop he had kindly provided.
The Feast of Harvest included a humanitarian emphasis as well. All classes of people, including servants and sojourners, were to enjoy the festivities (Deut 16:11). Furthermore, appended to the legislation on the Feast of Harvest is this regulation (Lev 23:22):
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.
So gratitude to God involves more than thanking him symbolically or verbally. It entails imitating his generous character by making concrete provision for the needy in the covenant community. Without this, praise starts to sound hollow. The New Testament concurs; see James 2:14-17.
COUNTING DOWN THE WEEKS
More common names for the Feast of Harvest relate to its timing. Several passages refer to it as the Feast of Shavu‘ot, Weeks (Exod 34:22; Num 28:17; Deut 16:10, 16; 2 Chron 8:13). This became the standard Jewish designation for the feast. It’s explained in Leviticus 23:15-16:
You shall count seven full weeks [shabbathoth, Sabbaths] from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the LORD.
Interpreters have long debated exactly which Sabbath triggers the seven-week countdown in verse 15 (see Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of Leviticus,422). Whatever the case, the corresponding fifty-day period in verse 16 yields the name typically used by Christians for the Feast of Harvest/Weeks: Pentecost, reflecting the Greek word for “fiftieth.” So although they sound quite different, Shavu‘ot and Pentecost point to the same time frame and refer to the same feast.
CELEBRATING THE LAW
The destruction of the temple in A. D. 70 brought dramatic changes to Jewish life and worship. Without a temple, sacrifices could not be offered, so the three pilgrimage feasts could not be celebrated as originally stipulated. What would this mean for Shavu‘ot?
The feast took place in the third month of Israel’s religious calendar (Sivan), and it was during this same month that the Israelites arrived at Sinai after the exodus (Exod 19:1). Consequently, Jewish people began to make a connection between Shavu‘ot and the giving of the Law at Sinai, the formal establishment of Israel as a nation through the Mosaic Covenant. In fact, some rabbis argued that God issued the Ten Commandments on Shavu‘ot itself. This close link with the Law cannot be proven from the Scriptures, but it is at least consistent with one statement in the texts concerning Shavu‘ot: “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes” (Deut 16:12).
Over time the Jews developed various Shavu‘ot traditions to celebrate the privilege of receiving Yahweh’s Law. For instance, they eat tasty dairy products to underscore the idea that the Law, parallel to the land, satisfies God’s people like milk and honey. The Jews also read the book of Ruth publicly on Shavu‘ot. This is not only because of Ruth’s harvest theme but also because Ruth joined herself to God’s people and committed herself to the Law. In addition, King David, Ruth’s descendant, allegedly was born and died on Shavu‘ot feast days.
Regardless of its historical validity, the Jewish approach to Shavu‘ot illustrates a vital truth: to the one redeemed by grace, God’s laws bring delight. “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps 19:10). “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119:97).
THE SPIRIT OF PENTECOST
But Shavu‘ot leads us to an even greater point. It was on Shavu‘ot/Pentecost that the ascended Christ sent his Spirit to found the New Testament Church (Acts 2). Some see this as a kind of fulfillment of Shavu‘ot, especially since the beginning of Acts 2:1 can be translated, “And when the day of Pentecost was fulfilled [sumplēroō].” In this regard, the original firstfruits concept of Shavu‘ot possibly pointed forward to the Spirit’s Pentecost work of saving a multitude of people as a first installment of many more conversions to follow throughout the Church Age.
Such typological connections seem a stretch to me. In particular, as dispensationalist Charles Feinberg has written, “It cannot be too strongly stressed that Pentecost in Acts 2has nothing to do with the tradition concerning Sinai, although some have labored to prove it” (“Pentecost,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 4:694).
Nevertheless, in God’s providence there is a rich and sad irony here. The Jews would eventually use Shavu‘ot to celebrate the giving of the Old Covenant. But on one of those very feast days, the Holy Spirit had already inaugurated the New Covenant! He drew people from all over the world to faith in Israel’s Messiah. He empowered them to go out and preach this Messiah internationally. He formed them into one Body despite their ethnic differences. He symbolized these miraculous works through the gift of tongues. And his work continues unabated two millennia later!
The same Spirit will one day move mightily on the mass of Jews and bring the nation into the full experience of the New Covenant.
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. . . . On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. (Zech 12:10; 13:1)
The 2018 observance of Shavu‘ot will happen this coming Sunday, May 20. That will be just about a week after the United States finally opened its embassy in Jerusalem. Once again, Israel and her friends have reveled while Israel’s enemies have raged. Once again, the world’s eyes have turned to the tiny plot of land that Yahweh promised as a permanent possession to Abraham and his descendants. Once again, it has become evident that there is something unique about the people of Israel.
And once again, without descending into eschatological speculation, I have been challenged to pray:
Even so, come, Lord Jesus! Reveal yourself to your ancient people. Pour out your Spirit on them like you did in Acts 2. Fulfill all your ancient covenant promises. And through Abraham’s descendants bless all the families of the earth!
Photo credit: IrinaUzv, pixabay.com