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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

THE CHRISTIAN CELEBRATION OF PENTECOST IS THE JEWISH FESTIVAL OF SHAVOUTH: Pentecost is more than the coming of the Holy Spirit




Introduction

According the Talmudic sages, the universe was created for the Torah (the five books of Moses) and Israel. Both are referred to in scripture as beginning or primary. The why of it comes from the concept that the Torah contains the primal forces of creation: The letters of the alefbeis or the alphabet. The Hebrew word for letter is ot, which means sign or wonder or miracle. God formed the universe by voicing each of the twenty-two letters aloud, breaking the silence or the nothingness until the universe sprang to life. This means that each of the letters represent the building blocks of creation, and each one holds a spiritual energy or force that hold the elements of the universe together. They are the cosmic glue that keeps the universe from flying apart into chaos.

“In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth—when the earth was astonishingly empty with darkness upon the surface of the deep, and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters—God said, “Let there be light.” (Gen 1: 1-3) This interpretation is a product of the Mesorah Heritage Foundation for Artscroll, and presents the first words of the Old Testament in an interesting and valuable light to help us understand the Jewish perspective of the creation story. You must realize that the Bible is not a history book, or a spiritual book, or even a religious book. It's the story of God's relationship with man and the charter of man's mission in the universe, as cited by Rav Yitzchak. The reason for the narrative of creation is to show the Israelites, the world, who God is, that He is Sovereign, that the universe belongs to Him. The name He uses for Himself in this passage is Elohim, which means justice, ruler, lawgiver, judge of the world.

It's very clear what God did and who He is, but when God gives the Law to the Hebrew nation in the Sinai desert, He doesn't say, “I am the creator of the universe.” No, in Exodus 20: 2 He says, “I am YHWH, your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” God could have easily reminded them that He is the Creator of the universe, that He is their Creator, but he doesn't. Instead, He makes it personal. He introduces a relationship to them that is unique. He becomes their deliverer from injustice, from death, a purely Messianic message. God has become YHWH again, the merciful One and only, the God who created Adam with His breath. This is the tie between Shavouth and Pentecost.

Purpose of Redemption

Within this context of a merciful God, YHWH, the God who delivered a people from bondage, the God who saved the Hebrew nation to give them the most precious gift of all gifts, the Law, the Torah, the Midrash says: The two monumental moments in history are creation and the giving of the Torah. But the latter is the greater. This concept astounds most people. It would be natural to conclude that creation would be the moment of all moments. However, the wisdom of man is foolish to God. He deems the giving of the Torah, the Law as the greatest of all gifts, the singularity. The Law is the light of the world, the covenant between God and His people, the defining of man's mission and his place in the world. The Torah was transubstantiated from the spiritual realm into the physical universe. We can hold within our hands the cosmic glue of the universe, the redemptive dynamite that can recreate a man, a nation, the world, the universe.

God wanted the Hebrew nation to be a, “Kingdom of ministers and a holy nation.” Ex 19: 6 God was to be their king, and they would be His priesthood to the world, carrying the light of the Law before them in order to transform all of creation. But even the Hebrews failed in that mission. They wanted a human king, their leaders turned to other gods, they disobeyed God's Law, they fought among themselves splitting the kingdom, etc. Redemption would transubstantiate one more time in order to save man from himself.

What is Shavouth?

No other feast or festival possesses as many names as the Festival of Shavouth. It is known as:
  • Festival of Weeks (Seven) Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16: 9
  • Festival of Sabbaths (Seven)
  • Days of Counting (Fifty days = 49 + 1)
  • Festival of the Harvest Exodus 23:16
  • Day of the First Fruits – The Sages added the word Atzeret (no menial labor), just as the other two pilgrim festivals, Passover and Sukkot, have atzeret added so all menial labor was to be ceased during the holiday. Because Passover is connected to matzot and Sukkot to booths, Shavouth had no physical manifestation, as to place or food connected to it, therefore, it became Atzeret exclusively. It is interesting to note that the Torah is viewed as spiritual and not physical.
  • Day of the Giving of the Torah (ma'amad har Sinai) Exodus 20

Shavouth in Hebrew means weeks or Sabbaths, hence the two names using those words. The tradition holds that fifty days are counted from the day of the exodus, or the final meal in haste, Passover. Fifty is also the number of Jubilee, the joy or release from work and the redemption from debts. You can easily see the pattern emerging for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and the third personage of the Holy Trinity. God knew that the Law needed to come to fruition, the ultimate transubstantiated union of spirit and flesh in the man Jesus, but the path needed to be paved for His coming, or the revelation of the Torah for the fullness of God's redemptive power to be seen.

The festival of Shavouth is intricately tied to the completion of the Festival of Passover. Passover represents the exodus of man from physical bondage, the redemptive act of the death of the lamb and his blood saving the lives of the Hebrew peoples, while Shavouth is the union of God and man in the ultimate marriage of spirit and flesh. The festival is also referred to as the wedding day between God and man. As God gave his gift of the Torah to man, so to does a father give his daughter as a bride to a groom.

Shavouth also has many interesting connections with the most important personalities in the Old Testament, and it's traditions are all steeped in mystery and allegorical significance.
  • Moses was rescued from the river by Pharaoh's daughter on Shavouth
  • David was born and died on Shavouth
  • Boaz was born on Shavouth
  • Shavouth is the only Jewish Festival that allows dairy. This is because the Torah is like mother's milk to the Jew. Milk and water are combined to show God's compassion. Milk is also the food of infants. On the day of the giving of the Torah, the Jewish nation was like an infant, still on the brink of learning what was required of them, just like children beginning school.
  • The men in a Jewish community spend the entire night of Shavouth occupying themselves with tikkun lel shavuot, which means the improvement, or restoration. The custom takes the form of intensive study of the Torah, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. As the day represents the wedding day between God and Israel, the study is offered up as a dowry, and what they learn as a trousseau of value rather than things.

The Book of Ruth, a part of the Megillah, or extra readings connected to the Torah, is read during the celebration of Shavouth. Ruth first came to Israel at the beginning of the barley harvest, (Ruth 1:22) which is Passover, and she married Boaz at the end of the barley and wheat harvests, which is Shavouth. The farmer is commanded in Lev 23:22 to leave the corners of his fields for the poor and the proselyte to harvest. Ruth was gathering in these corners, for she was both poor and a proselyte, when she met Boaz. The story is about self-sacrifice, humility, loyalty, dedication, and kindness.

Ruth was a Moabite princess and she gave all of it up for a life of poverty because of her conviction and willingness to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi, a Jewess. Ruth's name has the exact letters for the word turtledove. A turtledove was a sacrificial animal fit for the altar of God. Ruth is also a fit for inclusion into the assembly or family of God, primarily because she is considered a convert par excellence. The number of verses in the Book of Ruth is eighty-five, which is the numerical value of Boaz.

NOTE: I would love to discuss Lag Ba'Omer, the celebration between Passover and Shavouth, but I will discuss it in my next post as it would make this one longer than necessary. However, I will mention at this point that Lag Ba'Omer is known as the Hidden Torah and is shrouded in mystery.

Preparing the Way for the arrival of Pentecost

The preparation begins in earnest for the disciples. Christ has appeared after the crucifixion and resided with them for forty days (the number forty is significantly tied to the Jews wandering in the desert), but he must leave in order for the work to be completed. A Christian community had been created, just as the Hebrew nation was created and moved from Egypt in the mass exodus to the Sinai desert. They watch the ascension of Jesus into Heaven and He admonishes them to not stand around gaping, but to prepare, and watch for the Holy Spirit to come.

The preparation of appointing a successor to fill the shoes of Judas begins. The process is initiated in Acts 1:20 when Peter gives the historical references from Psalms 69:25 and 109: 8: 'May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it.' and, 'May another take his office (or place of leadership or bishopric.'” There are two orders of business to be taken care of in the meeting: First, dealing with the land purchase by Judas, who bought it with betrayal money, and second, filling the office he once held. Peter is doing something very exciting here. He is tying the scripture to the new tradition. Yes, this is an important piece of evidence providing proof of the act of apostolic succession. The word office or bishopric or place of leadership is used here, in Greek the word is episkope and that means an office of authority or an overseer.

Everyone is looking to Peter because Jesus had placed him in that office by renaming him, from Simon to Peter, oftentimes referred to as Simon Peter in the scriptures to avoid confusion. In Jewish tradition, when someone is renamed, like Abram becoming Abraham, or Jacob renamed Israel, it denotes an office is created specifically for the person. The act of Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved Him that he should feed His sheep, John 21:15-19, is a commandment, a defined role Peter must fulfill. The three pronouncements was generally accepted as making the change permanent, an act of mantling the person and changing their life by separating the person from the rest of the group. When Peter dies then another must be immediately elected to the office in order that the chair would never be empty.

Jesus had placed Peter into the role of shepherd, the man to stand in His place. It's interesting that Jesus did not do this to the disciple he loved, nor did he choose someone who was already a priest. Instead, he commanded Peter, the fisherman, to be the shepherd to the fledgling flock Jesus would leave behind after He ascended into heaven. This has always puzzled me until I understood that fecund moment when Jesus was teaching his disciples. Jesus asked them who people said he was, and who he was to them. In that moment of recognition, the Holy Spirit revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. Peter deserved the office more than the others. This is what Jesus was looking for, the one who would hear the Holy Spirit and speak the truth boldly. Peter's willingness to leap out of the fishing boat into the water to follow Jesus, and even his leaping into action in the Garden of Gethsemane, was the strength Jesus wanted in his leader. Peter possessed the, “We will do and we will hear,” character of the Hebrew nation. Doing right was in his DNA, even though it also came back to bite him when he denied Christ three times. He still possessed the heart of David, and Jesus saw this in him. Peter was not afraid to fail, and he was willing to repent quickly, to humble himself before God. Evil would not take root in him because the Holy Spirit had watered the ground of his character.

In Mark 16: 6 the angel in the tomb says, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter.” The angel named Peter because he was their leader, recognizing that Peter would lead the new community of Christians with the proclamation that Jesus is risen, he is the Messiah. In John 20: 2, Mary runs to Peter (named) and the other disciples. Again, another confirmation of Peter's leadership.

Pentecost Arrives with Wind and Fire

The business is over with the casting of lots and naming Matthias to fill the empty office. What follows in Acts 2: 1, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together.” This is in reference to the counting of days. The count is fulfilled. The Festival of Shavouth had come upon them. Here we have the day of the giving of the Torah, Shavouth, which is the very day that the Holy Spirit arrives. If you recall the thunder, the lightening, the smoke, and the roaring of the voice of God as relayed in Exodus 19:16-25, you can see the comparison to the arrival of the Holy Spirit in that upper room. The beautiful difference between the two events lay within the fact that the voice of God came out of the people, rather than the voice of God coming from above them. The Torah, the Word, the Christ, fulfilled his promise and sent the Holy Spirit to this fledgling community, creating a Church, built upon the foundation of the apostolic succession administered by the Holy Spirit. If it was not meant to be done in this way, then God would not have appointed apostles, but He did. And the chain has not been broken for two thousand years.

As you see, they were not in the upper room by accident, or by serendipity. They were there waiting for Shavouth, or in Greek, Pentecost, which means fifty. They had completed their business, completed the counting of the days, and it was day fifty. They were there to celebrate the giving of the Torah, which God embodied in the man Jesus, and they were prepared for what Jesus had promised; to send the Holy Spirit. (Luke 24, 49) Can you imagine how astounding the event must have been? People speaking in languages they didn't know, proclaiming Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. It must have been quite a sight, and bewildering to the crowd, all waiting to hear Peter speak. Some resorted to cynicism and believed the group to be drunk on a new wine. But, how delicious to be drunk on the Holy Spirit and in the presence of Peter, the leader of the community.

Peter begins to explain to the crowd what was happening by referencing Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:16-21. It is believed that this speech was for connecting the written and the oral Torah when he says in Acts 2:14, “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them, 'You who are Jews, indeed all of you staying in Jerusalem. Let this be known to you, and listen my words.'” Peter is speaking from a position of authority by standing and raising his voice to the crowd. He is teaching, offering an Oral Torah to the crowd, connecting events from the Old Testament to the New through an Oral tradition.

Summary

God is not the author of chaos. God is the author of order and peace. He created a Church knowing the Temple would be destroyed. He created something new and wonderful, fulfilling the Festivals and Feasts in Christ and the Church (except one, the Feast of the Trumpets). He placed the Holy Spirit within us to give us power to defeat evil in the world. Perhaps we should act like it, to step out and, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Let us not shrink from our duty to fulfill His final commandment.

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