Pentecost (Deuteronomy 16)

Pentecost, Greek for “fiftieth”, refers in the Old Testament to the Israelite Feast of Weeks – so called because it took place in the spring seven weeks, or 50 days (counting inclusively), after the beginning of the grain harvest (Leviticus 23:15, Deuteronomy 16:9-10). The Greek name appears also in the Apocryphal works of Tobit (2:1) and in 2 Maccabees (12:32), as well as in the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 3.10.6) and in the New Testament (Acts 2:1, 20:16, 1 Corinthians 16:8). The actual mention of 50 days comes from Leviticus 23:16.

Pentecost is one of the three major Israelite festivals at which all males were required to appear before the Lord at the central sanctuary to make an offering (Deuteronomy 16:16; the other two are the Feasts of Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles). The Feast of Weeks came at the close of the period of grain harvest, ending with the wheat harvest, which took place in the spring.

Although verse 12 enjoined the Israelites to reflect at the time of this feast upon their slavery in Egypt, there is no other connection made between the festival and any important events in Israel’s history, in contrast to Passover and Tabernacles. In all probability the Old Testament Pentecost commemoration retained thanksgiving for the harvest as its primary focus. The main stipulations of verses 10-11 were to make a freewill offering to God and to conduct communal celebration in all the villages of Israel. Both of these elements are naturally linked to harvest time, with the offering being a means of thanking God for the harvest and the celabration a common element of harvest time remembrance in ancient agrarian societies (cf. Ruth 3:7, Isaiah 9:3).

Christians naturally question the link between Old Testament Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. But already in the Old Testament there was a link between the agricultural blessings of grain and a good harvest and the spiritual blessings of the outpouring of the Spirit. This is especially clear in Joel, where a promise of rain and a good harvest (Joel 2:21-27) is immediately followed by a promise of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). In light of this connection, it makes sense that the gift of the Spirit is associated for Christians with Pentecost, an agricultural thanksgiving holiday.

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