Nowadays, almost everyone uses Google Maps for navigation, but around twenty years ago, when the first GPS, or navigation devices appeared, when an object was located on it, a flashing red dot appeared on the screen and there were different options to zoom in or zoom out. Usually, you would be interested in the “street view” but you could also zoom out from the street view to the city view, to the state view, to the national view, and finally, to the Earth view. Then you would still see the same red dot, but it would be situated on a map of a city, of a country, or on the map of the whole world.
We will do something similar today – zooming out and seeing an event we all think we “know”, but on a different map, seeing it in a different view. And the event, of course, is the Pentecost of Acts 2. We all know this story – but do we really know it?
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them
First of all, we need to remember the Jewish background of this event – the Biblical Feast Shavuot. What is Shavuot? The word Shavuot means “weeks” and the festival of Shavuot marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot. The Torah doesn’t provide a specific date for this festival, linking its date directly to that of Passover and prescribing the seven-week counting from the Passover. The Bible also says: “count fifty days”, which is why, in the New Testament, the name for the holiday is usually translated as “Pentecost”. You probably do know that Shavuot and Pentecost are two different names for the same Festival.
Today, it is widely accepted that the Torah was given by God to the Jewish people on Shavuot. Why? In Exodus 19:1, we read that the Israelites came to the foot of Mount Sinai “in the third month”. The third month is Sivan; and since this was also the month of Shavuot, the rabbis deduced that God gave the Torah on Shavuot. Thus, in Jewish tradition, Shavuot came to be understood as commemorating the giving of the Torah to Moses—Chag Matan Torah — חג מתן תורה. And it is against this background – the national view – that the events of the first two chapters of the book of Acts must be seen.
For instance, in Acts 1:4, when Jesus commanded his disciples not to “depart from Jerusalem”, we would better understand this command if we remember that Shavuot is one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals, when all pious Jews were supposed to be in Jerusalem. As we read Acts 2, we see these beautiful and profound parallels between God giving His Word and giving His Spirit. On both occasions, Shavuot becomes the day when Heaven is opened and God Himself claims His people. The “noise like a violent storm” in Acts 2 certainly echoes the thundering from Exodus 20:18, and the fire of Acts parallels the fire of Exodus. In Midrash Shemot Rabba, we have this commentary on Exodus 20: “One voice was split into seven and they were divided into seventy languages.” Hillary Le Cornu and Joseph Shulam quote an even more amazing midrashic sentence: “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.” There is little doubt that Luke consciously builds these parallels and describes the events of Acts 2 in terms of a “second Sinai”. Thus, we have to be able to see the Pentecost on the map of 1st century Eretz Yisrael.
And now, let us zoom out yet again and see the Pentecost in the Earth view – and let us try to understand the cosmic, global significance of this event. Before proceeding any further however, I would like to mention, and also recommend to my readers, the books and The Naked Bible podcast of the brilliant scholar of a blessed memory, Dr. Michael Heiser. This particular part of the article draws heavily on his research.
According to Dr. Heiser, in Genesis 11 – the story of the Tower of Babel – when the Lord confused the language and scattered the nations, different gods, elim, were allotted to different nations and territories. Israel did not exist at that point – as we all know, it was only starting from Genesis 12 that the Lord began to build the nation for Himself, the nation that was chosen to be His portion and His territory. What happened at Pentecost was a divine and cosmic event—the beginning of the reversal of Genesis 11: The Lord, God of Israel, begins to reclaim and take back all the nations through Messiah. Therefore, we find some amazing links and hints in Luke’s text.
In Acts 2:5 we read:
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.
The Greek word for “confused” here is the same as in Genesis 11, in the story of the Tower of Babel: “Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth”. The languages and the nations were “confused” then, and this was when, according to Dr. Heiser, different gods, elim, were assigned to different nations. Most scholars agree that the Greek of Luke is the best in the New Testament, and that Luke undoubtedly knew the Hebrew Scriptures in Greek – the Septuagint. His choice of words in Greek leaves no doubt that he is intentionally sending his readers back to Genesis 11.
Another link that we find here concerns the famous “divided” tongues. The same Greek word that Luke uses for “divided”, occurs in Deuteronomy 32:8: When the Most High divided their inheritance to the nations… According to Dr. Heiser, this verse refers to the same event: “the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth,” and different spiritual beings, or deities, were allotted to different territories. Now, in Acts, Luke purposely inserts these links, into his text because he wants his readers to mentally go back to Genesis 11 and Deuteronomy 32: he wants us to understand that those passages form the backdrop to what is happening in his story.
Thus, Acts 2 should be seen as a reversal of Genesis 11. We read that “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven”. It’s important for us to understand, by the way, that the Jewish Diaspora, the dispersion of the Jews, didn’t start after the destruction of the Second Temple, as many Christians believe. A Jewish diaspora existed for several centuries before the fall of the Temple, and in the middle of the first century CE, a very large percentage of Jews already lived outside of Eretz Yisrael. Large Jewish communities existed almost everywhere. God providentially put the Jews in the lands He wanted to reclaim, and for Shavuot, for this Biblical Pilgrimage Festival, many of them came to Jerusalem as representatives of these lands. The scene we witness in Jerusalem is a reversal of the scene in Babel—there, the nations were confused and could no longer understand the language; now, these nations are confused again, because all of a sudden, they do understand the language. The reversal had begun: the God of Israel began to reclaim the lands and the nations that He scattered in Genesis 11.
 Acts 2:1-3
 Exodus Rabbah, 28:6
 Hillary Le Cornu, Joseph Shulam, The Jewish Roots of Acts, Netivyah Bible Instructions Ministry, 2003, p. 60
 Gen. 11:8
If this article whets your appetite for learning more about the Jewish background of Jesus’ teaching, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding our amazing course, Jewish Background of the New Testament (email@example.com).