Tongues of fire and 70 languages

Illustration of the tongues of fire on Shavuot in the book of Acts, by Gebhard Fugel (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Seven weeks, or approximately 50 days, after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, God’s people are commanded to celebrate the Shavuot or the “Feast of Weeks.” This feast is now upon us this week. But what is there to celebrate?

The Feast of Weeks is the day when the Torah was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It commemorates when God gave His commandments to His people. For 430 years the Israelites lived in bondage and slavery in Egypt, and there they had been surrounded by a pantheistic religion that knew little of and cared little for, the God of the Israelites.

At last, the Israelites were delivered from Egypt and given specific instruction on how to love God, worship Him, and walk in right relationship with Him.

The Church today typically recognizes Shavuot by a slightly different name – Pentecost, a Greek word simply meaning “50 days.” Though the Church celebrates this day, they usually do it for what happened in Acts 2:1-4 rather than for what happened on Mt. Sinai.

“When the day of Pentecost [or Shavuot] came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

There’s a purposeful connection between what happened on Mt. Sinai and in Acts 2. The two “miracles” from Acts 2 that we always affiliate with Pentecost are the tongues of fire resting on the people and the speaking of many languages (or tongues).

Is this the first time that fire had rested on people and other tongues been spoken? A well-known Midrash, or Jewish commentary on Scripture, may cause us think twice about saying, “yes,” to this question.

Shemot Rabbah, which is Hebrew for “Great Exodus” records in 5:9, “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.” It goes on to record Rabbi Yochanan saying, “God’s voice, as it was uttered, split up into seventy voices, in 70 languages, so that all the nations should understand.” The number 70 in Scripture is usually associated with “the nations.”

When the literature of the Rabbis and the New Testament line up, I get excited! How incredible is it that rabbinic literature records the voice of God appearing like fire and the speaking of 70 languages being present at the first Shavuot?

During this season of Shavuot or Pentecost (whichever you prefer), reflect on God’s Word. Reflect on the Shavuot when it was first given to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, and on the Shavuot when the 120 disciples of Yeshua were equipped by the Holy Spirit to speak the Gospel to the nations of the Earth.

This article originally appeared on FIRM and is reposted with permission.

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Dustin Herron is a men's ministry coordinator at Gateway Church in Southlake, TX, and has a Master’s in Christian Leadership from Moody Bible Institute. He attended a Messianic congregation in southeastern Kentucky while growing up, and through this experience, the LORD cultivated a passion for Israel and for God’s Word in Dustin. He greatly enjoys spending time with his wife, Andrea, and reading in his hammock whenever cooler Texas weather permits.