Was the Law Given at Mount Sinai on Shavuot?
Of all of the traditions that have been handed down about Pentecost (Shavuot), perhaps none is more universally accepted than that of its being the anniversary of the day that the Eternal came down upon Mount Sinai and spoke the Ten Commandments (or Words) to the assembled Israelites. It is a very ancient tradition in rabbinic Judaism and has been transferred intact to holy day observant individuals and groups who are disciples of Yeshua in our own day, as well as, very probably, those in past centuries.
The modern followers of Yeshua the Messiah, in accepting this tradition, have sought to link the "giving of the Law (Torah)" with "the giving of the Holy Spirit (Ruach haKodesh)", which the book of Acts (2:1ff) documents as having come in power upon the disciples that day. The question remains, however, as to whether the original tradition can be reconciled with the scriptural accounts. Although most popular Jewish sources tout the traditional point of view, leading Jewish scholars are clear about the origins of this "Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Law" tradition.
Hayyim Schauss says,
"Shovous played a minor role in comparison with the other two harvest festivals; it was considered no more than a continuation of and an epilogue to the Festival of Unleavened Bread. There was no effort made, even in later biblical times, to tie up the festival with a historic event; it remained through all that time, an agricultural holiday, the festival of the completion of the grain harvest. In none of the books of the Bible is there any trace or mention of Shavuos in connection with the giving of the Torah." (emphasis added by author throughout this study)
And he adds,
"At any rate, Shavuos did not play a great role in the Jewish life of those days. It was obviously a festival observed only in the Temple, and not to any noticeable extent outside of Jerusalem. The holiday first attained importance when it became the festival of the giving of the Torah, of God revealing Himself on Mount Sinai." 
Abraham Bloch tells us,
"The connection of Shabuot with the Revelation at Mount Sinai is of later origin and is not mentioned either by Josephus or Philo. In the Torah the day is designated as the 'feast of harvest' or 'the day of the firstfruits' or 'the feast of weeks.' The designation as 'the day of the giving of our law,' found in the prayerbook is of much later origin."
Given these acknowledgements, perhaps a reevaluation is in order to discover if we have an opportunity to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18)
The Exodus Account
The stage is set for the Israelites to receive the Law when they arrive at Sinai:
In the third month after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on the same day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.
Because of their tradition that the giving of the Law occurred at Shavuot, rabbinical authorities have to interpret this verse to mean that the people arrived at Sinai on the first day of the third month, since Shavuot could have been on the fifth, sixth or seventh of the same month and there was at least a three day period of ceremonial cleansing in the interval. The text itself, however, does not support this interpretation. It uses the phrase "on (or in) the same day". The same day as what? The Hebrew is as unambiguous as the English translation: it is "in the same day" () that the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt. To what day does this phrase refer?
So you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt.
Clearly, the reference is to the first day of Unleavened Bread, Aviv 15. Notice in Exodus 12:17 the use of the phrase "same day" () just as Exodus 19:1 uses "in the same day" (). Repeatedly in the account of the exodus, the day (yom) the Israelites went out of Egypt is used with the demonstrative adjective.
3And Moses said to the people: Remember this day () [is just the untranslatable accusative marker] in which you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out of this place. No leavened bread shall be eaten. 4On this day you are going out, in the month Abib.
And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years -- on that very same day ( literally, "in the bone [i.e. substance] of this day) -- it came to pass that all the armies of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt.
And it came to pass, on that very same day (), that the LORD brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt according to their armies.
It should be clear that when all of these passages use the phrase in some form and all clearly refer to the 15th of Aviv, the day of the Israelites' departure from Egypt, then Exodus 19:1 means that they came to the wilderness of Sinai on the fifteenth day of the third month. Since this is after Shavuot, the giving of the Law could not have occurred on that day. The question then becomes how long a period of time elapsed between their arrival and that momentous day when the Law was thundered from the top of the mount. There are indeterminate time periods in the account in chapter 19, such as between v.2 and v.3, in v.8, and between v.8 and v.9.
In verse 10 the Eternal begins to tell Moses (Moshe) to prepare the people for His meeting with them. Among other things, He says, "...When the trumpet ( ram's horn) sounds long (is drawn out), they shall come near the mountain (v.13). The passage continues, "Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled" (v.16); and then, "And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice" (v.19). After these dramatic events, the Eternal gave the people the Ten Commandments and then it is related, "Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet ( shofar), and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off" (20:18).
How hard can it be to understand what day this is when Leviticus 23:24 tells us, "...In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, ( Teruah, blast), a holy convocation"?
Nehemiah's Yom Teruah
While these texts alone present a strong case for the giving of the Law on Yom Teruah (Trumpets), other scriptural evidence points to the same conclusion. Notice what Ezra did upon the return of the people from the Babylonain captivity almost a thousand years later:
1Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel. 2So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. 3Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose; and beside him, at his right hand, stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Urijah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah; and at his left hand Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. Then all the people answered, "Amen, Amen!" while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
Was it just happenstance that Ezra read the Torah and the people reacted in this manner on Yom Teruah? We are persuaded otherwise. Ezra acted with knowledge and, with the shofars which were surely blown on this day, it was truly "a memorial of blowing of trumpets." Ezra, the other priests, and the people probably knew that they were rehearsing the Law on the very day the Eternal Himself had spoken to their ancestors.
A Second Temple Witness
The reader might wonder if any extra-biblical evidence exists which would comfirm that the above interpretation was extant in the second Temple era. Indeed, there is a witness who will show that this was understood all the way down to the very time of the Messiah. That witness is Philo of Alexandria (~20 BCE-40 CE):
The Eighth Festival
XXXI. (188) Immediately after comes the festival of the sacred moon; in which it is the custom to play the trumpet in the temple at the same moment that the sacrifices are offered. From which practice this is called the true feast of trumpets, and there are two reasons for it, one peculiar to the nation, and the other common to all mankind. Peculiar to the nation, as being a commemoration of that most marvellous, wonderful, and miraculous event that took place when the holy oracles of the law were given; (189) for then the voice of a trumpet sounded from heaven, which it is natural to suppose reached to the very extremities of the universe, so that so wondrous a sound attracted all who were present, making them consider, as it is probable, that such mighty events were signs betokening some great things to be accomplished. (190) And what more great or more beneficial thing could come to men than laws affecting the whole race?
Back to Exodus
Now that we know that Exodus 19-20 are relating the events leading up to and taking place on Yom Teruah just as Exodus 12:1-13:10 chronicles the events of passover and the first day of Unleavened Bread and chapter 14 what happened the last day of Unleavened Bread, what about Shavuot and the fall Holy Days which come after Yom Teruah? Are they also embedded in the Exodus account?
Notice how the writer of the book of Hebrews, in making his case that Yeshua is now our great ever-living High Priest, intermingles the accounts in Leviticus 16 (the instructions for Yom Kippur/Atonement) and Exodus 24:1-8. In Hebrews 9:7 he quotes or alludes to Lev.16:17 when he uses "alone", to Lev.16:34 when he uses the phrase "once a year" and to Lev.16:3, 11-15 when he says, "not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance." He alludes to the same things in vv.11 and 12: "But Christ came as High Priest of the good things that have come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption." Later, he continues to reference Lev.16 in 9:25 and 10:1-4. In some of the intervening verses in chapter 9, however, Exodus 24:1-8 is referenced with these words:
18 Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood. 19 For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you."
We therefore can tentatively assign Yom Kippur in the year of the exodus to Ex.24:1-8. Likewise, a close comparison of the texts of Ex.24:9-16 with Matthew 17:1-8 (the transfiguration account, with Peter offering to build sukkot for Yeshua, Moses, and Elijah) lends credence to assigning those verses to the first Sukkot time period under Moses.
But what about Shavuot?
In Exodus 18, Moses' father-in-law, comes to visit and, after Moses rehearses the events of the people's deliverance from Egypt, Jethro is convinced that Moses' God is the true one:
11"Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; for in the very thing in which they behaved proudly, He was above them."
Notice what happens next:
12Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God. And Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God.
Jethro, Moses, Aaron and "all the elders of Israel" had a Feast and ate "before God." What does it mean to "eat before God"?
When Moses many years later was rehearsing to the Israelites of the following generation, before they entered Cana'an, how to use the tithe to observe the pilgrimmage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot), he used this term several times:
And there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households, in which the LORD your God has blessed you.
And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.
And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.
It seems reasonable to propose, by use of this terminology, and by what the elders of Israel together with Moses, Aaron and Jethro did that day, that this is the account of Shavuot that first year.
The Second Year
The brief account in Exodus 18 which we have proposed to be Shavuot does not seem to offer any linkage to the dynamic events recorded in Acts 2 which transpired also on Pentecost (Shavuot). Perhaps not, but there is an interesting parallel in Numbers 11 to the Acts account.
16So the LORD said to Moses: Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tabernacle of meeting, that they may stand there with you. 17Then I will come down and talk with you there. I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone.
25Then the LORD came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and placed the same upon the seventy elders; and it happened, when the Spirit rested upon them, that they prophesied, although they never did so again. 26But two men had remained in the camp: the name of one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad. And the Spirit rested upon them. Now they were among those listed, but who had not gone out to the tabernacle; yet they prophesied in the camp.
The similarity to Acts 2 is obvious:
1 When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
The similarity becomes even more pronounced when we look at the Hebrew word ( v'yotnabu) translated "prophesied" in Num.11:25-26. The Hebrew verb here is from the verbal root naba, to prophesy. Notice what the Theological Word Dictionary of the O.T. has to say about this word:
The derivation of nabi is a matter of controversy. The old Gesenius Lexicon (ed. Tregelles), for example, derives this noun from the verb naba, "the ayin being softened into aleph, " and meaning to bubble up, "boil forth," hence, "to pour forth words, like those who speak with fervour of mind or under divine inspiration, as prophets and poets." Ewald, Haevernick and Bleek agree (see Samuel Davidson, Introduction to the OT, II, p. 230) as does also Oehler (OT Theology, p. 363). For these reasons this group of authors have supposed that to utter revelations from God's spirit (ecstatic speech) is the function of the nabi.
It would seem that the elders in Numbers 11 were doing something very similar to what the disciples in Acts 2 were doing. Perhaps they were also each speaking a tongue of the seventy nations.
But what day was this? The text does not specifically say but it does tell us very nearly. Earlier, in chapter 10 we read,
Now it came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, that the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle of the Testimony.
As we continue reading the narrative, we find, in v.33, that the Israelites leave Mount Sinai for a three day journey, which would have ended on the 23rd of Iyar (second month). This means that, at this point, the Israelites would be only about 11 days from Shavuot in that second year. The events of Numbers 11:1-15 would have taken several days to play out, although no reckoning of time is given. Nevertheless, when we continue to v.16, at which point the Eternal tells Moses to gather the seventy elders, several days must have passed. From v.17 to v.24, at least one more day and possibly more transpire before the elders are gathered and the Spirit comes down and rests upon them.
While we certainly have no definitive proof, it seems plausible, given the strong correlation in wording between chapter 11: 24-26 and Acts 2, that the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) may well have come upon the seventy elders of Israel on the day of Pentecost in the second year of the exodus.
1Schauss, Hayyim, Guide to Jewish Holy Days History and Observance, p.87.
3Bloch, Abraham P., The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days, KTAV Publishing House, 1978, p.229.
4New King James Version used throughout this essay. Copyright statement: "Scripture taken from the New King James Version ®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved." Copyright statement for the font used in the images of the Hebrew words in this essay: "BWHEBB, BWHEBL, BWTRANSH [Hebrew]; BWGRKL, BWGRKN, and BWGRKI [Greek] PostScript ® Type 1 and TrueType fonts Copyright © 1994-2013 BibleWorks, LLC. All rights reserved. These Biblical Greek and Hebrew fonts are used with permission and are from BibleWorks (www.bibleworks.com)."
5Yonge, Charle Duke, The Works of Philo Judaeus, The contemporary of Josephus, translated from the Greek, London, H.G. Bohn 1854-1890. The Special Laws,II.