The Old Testament Background of Pentecost
by Susan Pigott
As Christians, we might assume that Pentecost is an entirely Christian feast since we celebrate it as the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. In actuality, Pentecost has its origins in the Hebrew Bible, and it was celebrated by the Israelites for centuries prior to the events in Acts 2.
The Feast of Shavuot (Weeks) in the Hebrew Bible
Shavuot (=Weeks) is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals in Israel. During Pesach (=Passover), Shavuot, and Sukkot (=Tabernacles) people were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate (Exod. 34:23; Deut.16:16). Each of the three festivals is agricultural in origin. Pesach (Passover) celebrated the barley harvest, Shavuot (Weeks) the wheat harvest, and Sukkot (Tabernacles) the fruit and oil harvest. All three festivals also commemorated great events in Israel’s history. Pesach (Passover) commemorated God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery during the Exodus. Shavuot (Weeks) commemorated the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai (although this connection is a post-biblical idea). And Sukkot (Tabernacles) commemorated the wilderness wanderings.
Shavuot got its name from when it was celebrated. Beginning with Passover, seven weeks were counted (a total of forty-nine days), and on the fiftieth day after Passover Shavuot began. The feast was a celebration of the first fruits of the grain harvest. Observance included offering two loaves of leavened bread and several animal sacrifices. It was a day of complete rest and a holy convocation (Exod. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:15-21; Num. 28:26-31; Deut. 16:9-12, 16).
The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and Zephaniah’s Vision (Zeph. 3:9-10)
The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the stranger accounts in the Hebrew Bible. It begins by saying that the entire world spoke one language. The people gathered on the plains of Shinar (Babylon) and decided to build a city and a tower that would reach the heavens. They did this for three reasons: 1) they wanted to make a name for themselves; 2) they wanted to avoid being scattered over the face of the earth; and 3) they thought that if they reached the heavens, they could pass through the gate of God (bab=gate ‘el=God) and become immortal. God thwarted them by confusing (balal) the people’s language so they could no longer understand one another. Thus, the story explains the origins of the world’s different languages and why people were spread out geographically.
In Zephaniah 3:9-10, however, the prophet describes a day when what happened at Babel would be reversed. In a beautiful poetic vision, the prophet says that all the nations will gather in Jerusalem, and everyone will speak the same language:
“At that time I will change the speech of the peoples
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call on the name of the LORD
and serve him with one accord.
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
my suppliants, my scattered ones,
shall bring my offering.”
Shavuot in the New Testament
Zephaniah’s vision is fulfilled in Acts 2. Notice the details. It was the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost means “fifty days” in Greek) (2:1). The disciples were in Jerusalem (1:12), and Jews “from every nation under heaven” were living in Jerusalem (2:5). When the Holy Spirit came upon them (represented by the tongues of fire), the disciples began speaking in all the different languages represented (2:2-4, 6, 8, 11). This is not the same as “speaking in tongues” (glossolalia) discussed later in the New Testament. Here, the disciples preached the Gospel in languages the gathered people could understand, a complete reversal of the Tower of Babel. In addition, Luke states that 3,000 people believed that day (2:41). As mentioned earlier, Shavuot was a first fruits festival, and Pentecost is the first harvest of souls by the Church.*
As Eastertide comes to an end and the day of Pentecost arrives, let us celebrate not only the coming of the Holy Spirit but also a season of fruitfulness, unity, and offering ourselves to God.
*Keep in mind that Shavuot and Pentecost are now celebrated on different days. The Jewish people celebrate Shavuot fifty days after Passover, but Christians celebrate Pentecost fifty days after Easter (Passover and Easter do not always coincide).