Pentecost - first fruits of the harvest
Have you ever been reading a book and found the drama so exciting that you have been tempted to sneak a look at the final page before you get to it? Sometimes books keep us in so much suspense that the temptation to read ahead is almost irresistible. Most Christians, if asked about the origins of Pentecost in the Bible, would direct the enquirer to Acts 2 for the description of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus. In this tremendous story we have not the origins of Pentecost but its final climax in the Bible. When we skip to the last page of a book, we get the answers but do not always understand them because we have missed the build up of the plot. In a similar way, when we start at Acts 2, we find the results of Pentecost but miss much of the meaning in the events. What is the background to the feast of Pentecost in the Hebrew Bible?
The origins of Pentecost
To discover the origins of this festival we need to turn to the time when God's people, the Israelites, were in the desert at Mount Sinai (Exodus chapters 19-34). Here the Shekinah or Glory of the Lord descended in fire on the mountain. Moses went up to meet with the Lord and God confirmed his covenant with his Israelite people. Moses recorded God's teaching, the Torah, for his people. The rabbis believe that the whole of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was given to Moses at this time. In the account in Exodus we find a selection of the teaching recorded which includes the Ten Commandments and various social laws. In Exodus 23:14-19, the three annual festivals were established: The Feast of Unleavened Bread (see Chapter 2), the Feast of First Fruits, and the Feast of Ingathering (see Chapter 6). The second of these, First Fruits, is the festival that we know today as the feast of Pentecost.
Giving the first fruits
In Leviticus 23:9-21, two first fruits festivals are explained. The first was for barley offered at Passover. This barley sheaf was called the `omer' and began a period of counting for 50 days during which time the barley crop was harvested. This period was known as `counting the omer' and by the fiftieth day the wheat was ripe. The very first to ripen was harvested, baked into two loaves and offered to the Lord as a wave offering. This is the second first fruits festival mentioned in Leviticus 23 (verses 15-21) and is the feast of Pentecost.
Names for the festival
Pentecost is the Greek name and relates to the 50 days from Passover. Shavuot is the Hebrew name and this literally means `sevens' or `weeks' and refers to the seven weeks counted after Passover. In biblical times it was also known as Yom ha Bikkurim, meaning `Day of the First Fruits' (Numbers 28:6), Hag ha Kazir, meaning `The Harvest Feast' (Exodus 23:16), and Atzaret, meaning `The Closing'. This last title refers to its role as the end of the Passover feast.
Pentecost in Temple Times
Pentecost was the second of the three pilgrimage festivals and it was especially important for farmers to come up to Jerusalem and offer the first fruits of the wheat harvest, baked into two loaves. Between Pentecost and Tabernacles, the first fruits of other crops were brought up.
There were many rules governing these first fruits. Some rabbis considered that all crops should be brought, others considered that only the seven species in Deuteronomy 8:8 should qualify. These were barley, wheat, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. They could only be brought by legitimate owners of land in Israel. They had to be carried personally and given to the priests by the owner. It was said that the king himself had to carry his offering on his own shoulder. The first fruits or Bikkurim could be brought in at any time between Pentecost and Tabernacles. After Tabernacles they could still be brought but the declaration could not be said. Those who lived close to the Temple brought fresh fruit, and those who lived far away brought dried fruit.
Pentecost in Later Judaism
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, it was no longer possible to bring in the first fruits of the wheat harvest to the Temple and a new meaning had to be given to this festival if it was not to fade away. Already there had been a search for this among the urban populations of the Diaspora who had no first fruits to bring. Groups, such as the Essenes were also looking for less agricultural meanings. They found it in terms of the renewal of God's covenant with Noah and God's promise to all humanity.
The Giving of the Law
The Pharisees also linked Pentecost to God's covenant but they turned to Mount Sinai. They calculated that, since Moses met with God and received the Torah fifty days after Passover, this would have been on Shavuot. Thus Shavuot in post-Temple Judaism became a celebration of God giving of the Law at Mount Sinai.
In modern Reform Judaism, Shavuot was chosen as the day to have confirmation services for boys and girls, replacing the traditional Bar Mitzvah, which occurred on the first Sabbath after a boy's thirteenth birthday. Bar Mitzvah means `Son of the Commandment' and is the time when a young person takes on the responsibility for keeping the Law or Torah.
In Israel today the first fruits aspect of Shavuot has been revived. Children wearing hair bands of flowers, and carrying baskets of fruit and flowers, make a procession to the synagogue. There is much singing and dancing, and tambourines, recorders and other instruments may be played in the procession. Homes and synagogues are decked with greenery and flowers as a reminder of spring. There is a legend that Mount Sinai itself was green and covered with flowers, even roses, when God gave the Law to Moses.
It is traditional to eat dairy foods on Shavuot. There are a number of legends concerning this. The Torah is compared to milk, because it contains everything needed for nourishment, just as milk is a complete food for a baby. Milk is the food of the spring, after the young animals have been born. A more exotic legend is the thought that the Israelites had been fasting while Moses met with God. After Moses came down the mountain with the Law, the Israelites were so hungry that they could not wait to kill and prepare meat, so instead made a meal of dairy food. Whatever the reason, dairy foods such as cheese blintzes and cheese cake are strongly associated with this festival.
Pentecost in the New Testament
The Gospels record that Jesus went up to Jerusalem for Passover and Tabernacles but there is no mention of Jesus worshipping at the Temple during Pentecost. This does not necessarily mean that he never visited the city at this time, but it does reflect the lesser significance of this festival compared to the other two pilgrim festivals. It mainly had significance for those who had crops with first fruits to bring in and had less meaning for town inhabitants. During Jesus' three years of ministry, he spent this season in the Galilee region. It was after the rains but before the really hot weather and hence an ideal time for itinerant teaching.
Although the festival of Pentecost was left out of the Gospel accounts, this is amply made up for in the book of Acts. After the resurrection of Jesus, he appeared to his disciples for 40 days. This was during the counting of the omer. Before ascending into heaven he left specific instructions that his followers were not to leave Jerusalem until they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1-5). In his Gospel account, Luke records that they stayed continually at the Temple, praising God (Luke 24:53).
Where were the new believers baptized?
The logistics of the baptism of 3,000 new believers described in Acts 2:41, puzzled practically minded scholars until the Southern wall of the Temple Mount started to be excavated in the 1970's. Archaeologists discovered large numbers of mikvot (ritual immersion pools) before the steps leading up to the Temple. It is clear that Jewish pilgrims would have immersed themselves on the way up to the Temple, so that they would have been ceremonially clean for worship.
Before this discovery, scholars had hypothesized that the new believers had water poured on them or even that they made the strenuous 15 mile hike to the River Jordan! The mikvot give a straight forward solution, as there were ample facilities to baptize several thousand believers in one day. One can only guess as to the impact this would have made on the other pilgrims entering the Temple.2
Making the link
We can now draw together the threads of Old Testament and Jewish Shavuot and apply them to New Testament Pentecost. We can see several themes emerge.
First fruits and harvest. In the minds of the disciples this festival would, first and foremost, be about first fruits. How appropriate that, on the very day that the first fruits of Israel's grain crop were being brought into the Temple in the form of freshly baked loaves, the first fruits of God's spiritual harvest were offering their lives to him through repentance and baptism.
Shekinah and covenant. The covenant with Moses was made at Pentecost and the Torah traditionally given to Israel at this time. God came in fire on Mount Sinai at Pentecost to seal his covenant with his people Israel. At New Testament Pentecost he came in fire again, this time to indwell his people. A renewed covenant was sealed with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the law written on the hearts of all believers.
Waiting The counting of the omer was traditionally a time of waiting. The first disciples of Jesus prayed and waited from his resurrection and ascension until the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. This day marked the end of waiting and the time for celebration!
1. A version of this was first published as: Hodson, M. R., Pentecost Beginnings, a resource pack for churches and groups (Olive Press: St Albans, 1998), and this contains further ideas for a church Pentecost celebration.
2. Notley, S., `Discovering the Jerusalem of Jesus', Bible Times. Vol. 1, No. 1: (1988).
This page contains edited extracts from the Pentecost chapter of A Feast of Seasons. The full chapter give the complete development of Pentecost, including a discussion of the date, the symbolism of the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the link to Ruth and King David and an in-depth analysis of may have happened on Pentecost morning in Acts 2. The second part of the chapter gives ideas for celebration including a recipes for a Pentecost, Sunday school ideas for children and a plan for an all night youth prayer event!