When the Day of Pentecost had come
“The voice went out and was divided into seven voices and from seven voices into seventy tongues, so that all the nations will hear. And every nation heard the voice in its own tongue and was amazed.” Sounds familiar doesn’t it? And yet, it is not a beginning of the second chapter of the book of Acts – it is a quotation from a Jewish Midrash. I think this quotation makes it clear that the events of the first two chapters of the book of Acts must be seen against the background of this Festival – Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. We need to remember these words as we enter Acts 2 and read its first verses:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
Not many Christians are aware of it, but in Jewish tradition, by the first century, Shavuot came to be understood as commemorating the giving of the Torah to Moses. You may ask why, since Scripture doesn’t explicitly say that. Here is the explanation: In Exodus 19:1 we read that the Israelites came to the foot of Mount Sinai “in the third month”; the third month after the Exodus is Sivan; since this was also the month of Shavuot, the rabbis deduced that God gave the Torah on Shavuot. Thus, Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah – and gradually, in Jewish tradition, it became the Festival of the Giving of the Torah.
Now we can see the beautiful and profound parallels between God giving His Word and giving His Spirit. There is little doubt that Luke consciously builds these parallels and describes the events of Acts 2 in terms of “a second Sinai”: as His Word was given on Shavuot, His Spirit is also given on Shavuot. The “noise like a violent storm” in Acts 2 echoes the thundering from Exodus 20:18, and the fire of Acts parallels the fire of Exodus. In yet another Midrash, Shmot Rabba, we find a commentary on Exodus 20 very similar to the one we quoted at the beginning of this article: “One voice was split into seven and they were divided into seventy languages.” It’s very important to remember that in Rabbinic thought, seventy is the traditional number of the Gentile nations and the traditional number of the languages of mankind. Therefore, in Rabbinic thought, this open Heaven of Shavuot is perceived as reaching the nations! And since this most important and profound event in Jewish history—the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai—happened on Shavuot, it was certainly no coincidence that Heaven was opened and the Spirit came down upon the disciples on that same day. Luke consciously describes the events of Acts 2 in terms of a “second Sinai” – and it is certainly his intention for his readers to see it like this!
Men of Judaea and Men of Israel
5 And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”
Luke’s list of nationalities has been discussed a lot; many students of the Bible have wondered about the apparent lack of structure and uniformity demonstrated by these verses. However, we can say that this list reminds us of the “table of nations” tradition of Genesis 10. Like Genesis 10, it refers to the main groups surrounding the land of Israel, with Jerusalem lying at the center: the sons of Shem to the east; the sons of Ham to the south and the sons of Japheth to the north and west.
Peter and the Apostles certainly knew that the diaspora Jews were present in large numbers there. Therefore, Peter addresses the people around him in two different ways. He says, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem”. It is interesting, however, that later on in his speech he says, “Men of Israel”! Some scholars see this designation as bearing witness to the fact that first-century Jews still thought of Israel as consisting of the tribes. As you would know, the twelve tribes of Israel originated from the twelve sons of Jacob, and are very important in the Tanach (Old Testament). Some people mistakenly think that the tribes of Israel no longer serve any purpose in the New Testament, but Luke’s writings make clear that this is not the case: in the beginning of the Luke’s Gospel, announcing Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ miraculous birth, Gabriel says, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.” This Annunciation actually connects Jesus with twelve tribes: In Hebrew Scriptures, the expression “the house of Jacob” always refers to the Jewish tribes – the descendants of Jacob/Israel. In the same way, Peter addressing his audience as “Israel” might also refer to the Jewish tribes – the descendants of Jacob/Israel. This seems very likely, especially if we recall that in the previous chapter, “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples” and suggested they choose another Apostle in place of Judas, thus ensuring that the number of apostles was twelve, exactly like the number of the tribes of Israel.
Day of Revelation
So, by now we know that the Torah was given by God to the Jewish people on Shavuot (or that the widely accepted Jewish tradition says so). Thus, each Festival in the Jewish calendar is associated with a major historical event and a major religious theme. “Pesach, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, has creation as its theme, the creation of the Jewish people; the theme of Shavuot is revelation; and the theme of Succot, associated with the forty years of wandering culminated by entering the Promised Land, is redemption.” These three major themes – creation, revelation and redemption – are very important and appear in different aspects of Jewish life, but they are most evident in the three Biblical Festivals.
If the theme of Shavuot is Revelation, it would mean that some hidden things were revealed on that day. So, when “Peter (stood) up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem,” we know that he was about to reveal something that was not known to his audience before. Therefore, he opens his speech with the words, “let this be known to you”. Next time, we are going to understand what exactly Peter revealed on that glorious Shavuot—Pentecost Day in Jerusalem.
 Hillary Le Cornu, Joseph Shulam, The Jewish Roots of Acts, Netivyah Bible Instructions Ministry, 2003, p. 60
 Acts 2:1-3
 Exodus Rabbah, 28:6
 Lk.1:32,33 [emphasis added]
 David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1995 – p.219
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