Shavuot: Seeing Voices & Fires


In Jewish tradition, the beginnings and the endings of themes, subject matters, narratives and events in the Bible occur often in the same fashion. No more is this true than the narrative surrounding Pentecost.

Beginning in Genesis 11 we encounter the rebellion against God to construct a tower as high as they could, possibly to avoid the next flood as a consequence of their action of rebellion. God intervenes with the creation of multiple languages and one nation becomes many nations spread over the Earth. Here the connotation of multiple languages is a negative.

Pentecost, called Shavuot; the Feast of Weeks in Hebrew, first appears in Exodus and Leviticus as an agrarian holiday occurring 50 days following Passover. Shavuot is the season of the grain harvest, specifically wheat, in the Land of Israel. Later however Shavuot took on a more theological meaning. Rabbis noted that it took 50 days from the exodus of Egypt at Passover to get to the mountain of Sinai. Passover was the season of redemption. Sinai was where God revealed Himself to Israel and delivered His Torah and the 10 Commandments. As a result, Shavuot became the festival of revelation and of the giving of the Law. It is an early biblical blueprint of redemption leading to revelation.

A close look at the Hebrew text of Exodus 20 raises some interesting questions. Most English translations of Exodus 20vs18 say that the people of Israel witnessed thunder and lighting as God gave His Torah, the 10 Commandments. However the Hebrew actually says that the people of Israel saw voices and fire (plural) and the sound of the shofar: ָ

וְכָל-הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת-הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת-הַלַּפִּידִם, וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר

Traditional Mt. Sinai
The Traditional Site for Mt. Sinai

This begs the question, how do you see voices? And why are the voices and fires in plural? Jewish commentators describe that when God spoke His commandments, fire the came out of His mouth. This was something you could see and explains why the text mentions seeing both voices and fires. King David writes in 2 Samuel 22vs9 that fire does indeed comes from the mouth of God. According to Jewish tradition when God spoke at Mt Sinai fire came forth as the voice of God, and split into 70 separate fires each with a distinct voice. Why 70 fires and voices? Where does that number come from? Because in Genesis 10 it lists the world as comprising of 70 nations. There was one voice or fire for each nation of the world. This gave rise to the tradition that the whole world heard God speak at Mt. Sinai, and for Israel it was something they could see.

The idea of fires and multiple has since become intrinsically linked in Jewish tradition. Especially when connected to the actions of God and to the feast of Shavuot. Why is it important for Jewish commentators to note that all the world heard God at Mt Sinai? Because in the Book of Psalms, the prayers of the Jewish people, we see that salvation is always universal. See Psalm 11: Praise the Lord all you Gentiles! God loves the whole world that He created and His blessing is for everyone. Through Abraham all nations will be blessed!

On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, we find the disciples together in Jerusalem, most likely in the Temple area. Many commentaries will say they are in the Upper Room, however the Greek simply says the House. In Hebrew the term, the House, would imply the Temple, known as the House of God. Acts 2vs5 says that there were Jews staying in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven. The text deliberately mentions this fact once again stressing the representation of the whole world at Shavuot. A wind is described to have filled the Temple and tongues of fire visibly appear on the disciples, who then speak in multiple languages to all who are there. Here the connection between Exodus 20 and the given of the Torah to the world, with the Pentecost in Acts 2 and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the world, can be clearly seen! Both occur 50 days after Passover, both contain fire and multiple languages, and the whole world is present. If that wasn’t enough to make the connection; at Mt Sinai 3000 people are killed due to the sin of the Golden Calf. In Acts 2 following the tongues of fire it records 3000 people as being baptized and joining the Jesus movement that day.


According to Jewish tradition, King David was born and died on the Feast of Shavuot/Pentecost. We also see Peter during his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2vs14-39 connect the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah to King David’s death, burial and hope for life after death. Peter also links Joel 2 and the prophecy that the Spirit of God will be poured out on all flesh.

Beginnings and ends occur in the same fashion. The rebellion of the world at Babel resulted in multiple languages, creation of nations and dispersion over the earth. How does God unfold His redemptive plan? By using and redeeming the very nature of multiple languages, connected to the whole world being present and affected! Now linked to the Spirit of God. What started with negative connotations in Genesis ends with positive blessings in Acts.

The Epistle, 1 Corinthians 12, notes that one of the fruits of the Spirit is the gift of tongues and languages. In the Gospel of John 14vs15 we note that the Spirit is linked with Obedience. Loving God, following the commandments of Jesus will result in the Helper, the gift of the Holy Spirit who will remain with us forever. And that is good news.

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