Fire on the Mountain

The ancient Jewish sages considered the biblical festival of Shavu’ot—also known as Pentecost—to be the anniversary of the day God spoke the Law at Mount Sinai.[1]

“Three times a year you shall celebrate,” the Bible says (Exodus 23:14-17). For as long as the Temple stood in Jerusalem, all the men of Israel were commanded to make pilgrimage there and worship God on the festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavu’ot (Weeks) and Sukkot (Tabernacles):

Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose:[2] at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. (Deuteronomy 16:16)

This explains why there were so many Jews from all over the world in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts chapter 2. They had come to celebrate the festival of Shavu’ot.

Shavu’ot, a harvest festival, was celebrated with the first fruits of the wheat harvest, brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and baked into two loaves of leavened bread. In addition to the wheat, the pilgrims celebrating Shavu’ot brought the first fruits of all their crops and offered them before the altar. [3] They converged on Jerusalem from all nations, carrying baskets of their produce. Those who lived near Jerusalem brought fresh figs and grapes; those from a distance brought dried figs and raisins instead. A sacrificial ox with its horns bedecked with gold and its head crowned with olive leaves led the procession to the Temple. Walking in front of the ox, a flute player played the melodies of the psalms while the pilgrims sang along.[4]

We can imagine the disciples and followers of Yeshua joining in the midst of this procession as they wound their way through Jerusalem’s streets. The Shavu’ot festival already carried extra significance for these believers, because it was fifty days after Messiah had resurrected. He was the first fruits of the Resurrection,[5] and they were the first fruits of his ministry.

Jewish tradition hails the Festival of Weeks as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Surely, the disciples and most of the first-century Jerusalem Jews would have known the traditional Jewish folklore of this mo’ed. They themselves would also have believed it to be the anniversary of God stepping down from the heavens and onto the top of Sinai (Exodus 19-20). On that day there was wind; there was lighting; there was thunder; there was smoke; and there was fire. The voice of God was audibly heard by the entire nation when he spoke the Ten Commandments. According to the rabbis, this event took place exactly fifty days after the day of the exodus from Egypt. Historically, it was the original Shavu’ot.

Thunder and Lightning

The English translation concludes the Ten Commandments story, “And all the people saw the thunder and lightning” (Exodus 20:18). But the original Hebrew of Exodus 20:18 says something quite different. In the Hebrew, the verse literally reads, “And all the people saw the voices and the torches.” Most translations smooth out the Hebrew by translating the word “voices” as “thunder,” which agrees with the context of the thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai. But the Hebrew really says, “They saw the voices and the torches.” What does it mean, “…the people saw voices”? How does one see a sound? How does one see a voice? What are the torches and from where did they come?

In Deuteronomy, Moses retells the story of hearing God’s voice at Sinai. In ten different passages, he reminds Israel that they heard God’s voice speak to them “from out of the fire.” Repeatedly he says, “You all heard the voice speaking from out of the fire.”

One ancient Jewish legend explains that as God’s voice spoke, it split into a multitude of sparks going forth. [6] His voice came to them as fire. Therefore, the torches of Exodus 20:18 are explained as the fiery words of God that came to each person individually. Consider the following passage about God’s fiery voice from an ancient Jewish legend:

On the occasion of [the giving of ] the Torah, the [children of Israel] not only heard the Lord’s voice, but actually saw the sound waves as they emerged from the Lord’s mouth. They visualized them as a fiery substance. Each commandment that left the Lord’s mouth traveled around the entire camp and then came back to every Jew individually. [7]

Careful Bible students will remember that Mount Sinai was not the first time God used heavenly torches of fire in making a covenant. When Abraham made a covenant with the LORD, God appeared to him as fiery torch (Genesis 15:17).

Another intriguing piece of Jewish interpretive folklore explains that Israel not only saw the voice of God, they also heard it in every language. According to that explanation, the Bible says, “All the people saw the voices…” because God’s voice spoke in many different voices [languages] at Mount Sinai.[8] It is believed that as God spoke from Mount Sinai, his voice spoke simultaneously in all the languages of the world.

The Wedding

For thousands of years the Jewish people have been celebrating the biblical festival of Shavu’ot as the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. The remembrance of the Mount Sinai event is treated like the wedding anniversary between God and Israel. On Pentecost in the Synagogue today, a wedding contract between God and Israel is read. The actual Torah scroll is dressed in white like a bride’s gown. The whole congregation recites the Ten Commandments together. The story of Exodus 19 and 20 is read aloud to the congregation. Pentecost is celebrated as a wedding anniversary for God and his bride— the anniversary of the fire on the mountain when God’s voice spoke in all languages of the world and was visible as torches of fire that came to “every Jew individually.”

The Spirit of the Law

In Acts chapter 2, Peter and the other disciples were gathered to celebrate Shavu’ot. The Holy Spirit fell upon them in the form of flames of fire, and these torches of fire came to rest on each individual disciple. To the average Jew familiar with Jewish tradition, the miracle would clearly point to the legend of God’s fiery voice at Mount Sinai! In addition, after receiving this fiery Spirit, the disciples found themselves proclaiming the gospel in every language. (In Hebrew, the same word is used for “tongues” and for “languages.”) The miracle of speaking in all languages is another definite allusion to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Whether or not one can prove Sinai’s legendary seventy languages or the fiery words as actually happening is not important. It is important, however, to remember that Peter and the disciples and followers of Yeshua were all very aware of the Shavu’ot legends. They would have known the story of the giving of the Torah. They would have known the story of the words of fire resting on each individual. They would have known the story of God’s voice speaking to all mankind in every language. Therefore, the miracles, signs and wonders that came upon them in Acts chapter 2 carried deep significance. The tongues of fire and the speaking in every tongue were both direct allusions to the Mount Sinai wedding experience and the receiving of the Torah.

Shavu’ot draws a line of connection between Exodus 19 and Acts chapter 2. The festival superimposes the giving of the Spirit in Jerusalem over the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The two events are forever inseparably linked. This link creates a profound theological implication for believers.

Ezekiel the prophet foresaw this when God declared through him:

I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:27)

Jeremiah the prophet foresaw this when God declared through him:

Behold, I will make a New Covenant…I will put My Torah within them and on their heart I will write it, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)

Thus, the Spirit of God within us and the Torah of God must agree. Both are from the same, unchanging God. The Holy Spirit was given to us in order to place the Torah within our hearts. He is at work within us, transforming us into a bride worthy of her betrothed. As our hearts ache for righteousness and yearn after the commandments of God, we can be confident that his Spirit is at work within us.

  1. Also known as the Feast of the Harvest or the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost comes 50 days (seven weeks) after the Sabbath of Pesach. See Leviticus 23:15-16.
  2. God later identifies the Temple in Jerusalem as “the place He will choose” in 2 Chronicles 7:12.
  3. Deuteronomy 26:1-11
  4. m.Bikkurim 3:1-8
  5. 1 Corinthians 15:20
  6. b.Shabbat 88b
  7. Weissman, Moshe. The Midrash Says, Shemos, Bnai Yaakov Publications. (1995) p. 182 citing Midrash Chazit.
  8. Eg. Shemot Rabbah 5:9. For further study, read Grafted In, (First Fruits of Zion, 2009).

Source: First Fruits of Zion