The Ten Commandments Were Not Given on Pentecost!
by Jesse Ancona
- Who said the Law was given on Pentecost?
- A Desire for Meaning
- The Biggest Problem
- Adjusting the Chronology
- Example 1: Quails sent after sunset Saturday
- Example 2: Calendar with Latest Possible Wavesheaf
- A Last Fit of Desperation
- Example 3: The Most Honest Interpretation of Scripture
- Why Does it Matter?
- How Does This Affect Our Salvation?
- List of Assertions and Assumptions
I was writing a very general introduction to the Biblical Holy Days found in Leviticus 23, using the example of North American holidays, and put in a throwaway mention of the Ten Commandments having been given on Pentecost (an idea many modern Jewish people also believe), when Keith Hunt corrected me, and told me there was no Biblical evidence this was so.
So, I thought Iíd take a look. What is the situation? Is the chronology of the book of Exodus so unclear that we donít know when the Law was given, so it might have been on Pentecost, but we canít prove it one way or the other? Or is it simpler than that? Keith said that you could not prove, from Biblical chronology, that the Ten Commandments were given on Pentecost. I decided, not only to see if that was true, but if it were true, to look at the converse: could a person prove that they werenít? Or were we to be left with a mystery?
Who Said the Law was given on Pentecost?
When I first presented an earlier version of this paper to a small group of holyday-keepers on Pentecost, two of them did not see the significance of the topic. One had never heard the idea that Pentecost was the day the Ten Commandments were given, and the other had heard of it, but only in passing, and it had made little impression.
Those of us who were taught by the Worldwide Church of God in earlier days, before the death of its founder, learned that the Ten Commandments were given on the day of Pentecost. Considering that this church has given rise to literally hundreds of sects (commonly called "offshoots"), many of whom repeat most of the original teachings, this affects a great number of people.
But where did this idea come from? A general book on the Jewish people (Ausubel, 1953, p. 36) says, under Shavuot:
"The consecration of Israel as a "holy people" at the foot of Mount Sinai when Moses presented it with the stone-tables of the Covenant is commemorated in the Festival of Shavuot, the two-day "Feast of Weeks," often referred to in sacred Hebrew writings as zeman matan toratenu, "the season when our Torah was given us."
In a book that looks at the history of the festivals more critically, we find the belief originated more in a felt necessity than in validity (Gaster, 1952, pp. 61-62):
"Thus, even it its rudimentary stage, the Feast of Weeks possessed its own spiritual values. For Judaism, however Ė especially after it had outgrown its Palestinian origins Ė these alone were not sufficient. The presence and activity of God had to be recognized at this season not only in the phenomena of nature but also, and on parallel lines, in some crucial event in history. Accordingly in the first centuries of the Common Era, inspiration and ingenuity combined to produce the necessary development.
"The Scriptural narrative states clearly (Ex. 19:1) that the children of Israel reached Mount Sinai in the third month, to the day, after their departure from Egypt. This, it was now argued, does not mean that a full three months elapsed, but only that the event took place in the third month of the year, and in that case the giving of the Ten Commandments might (with a little latitude and fancy) be made to coincide with the Feast of Weeks."
Yet another book, which goes into more depth (Schauss, 1938, pp. 88-89), reports:
"It appears that as far back as the second Temple, Shovuos was a twofold festival. It was the festival of the wheat harvest, when a sacrifice was offered from the new wheat crop; it was also considered the observance of the pact entered into between God and mankind. At least, that is the interpretation presented in the previously-mentioned "Book of Jubilees." The festival is celebrated, according to this book, as a symbol that the pact God made with Noah, in which he promised no further general flood, is renewed each year. ... How widespread this interpretation of Shovuos was in the days of the second Temple we do not know ... . But the book does show us that in the days of the second Temple there was already a demand for a new interpretation of Shovuos on an historical basis. ... The holiday first attained importance when it became the festival of the giving of the Torah, of God revealing Himself on Mount Sinai."
A Desire for Meaning
So, for the Jewish people, believing the Law was given on Pentecost adds significance to an otherwise little-noticed holiday, and gives it a greater meaning than a harvest in a land many no longer live within.
For Christian holyday-keepers, believing the Law was given on Pentecost makes for a nice symmetry: the day God gave the physical law written on tablets of stone being the same day that God gave His Holy Spirit to the New Testament Church (Acts 2) Ė on Pentecost. It is a satisfying, neat idea, and works out very poetically for all kinds of typologies: it just doesnít happen to be true.
The Biggest Problem
In researching this, I found a huge difficulty, right away, and I was gratified to later find that Gaster also emphasizes the plain meaning of the scriptures. The chronology is counting from the Exodus, not following the numbering of the months.
In Exodus 16:1, it says,
"the children of Israel came unto the wilderness of Sin...on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt."
This is clearly counting from their departure. Two full months after their departure is the 15 Sivan.
Then, just before the giving of the Law, we see in Exodus 19:1:
"In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai."
This is also clearly counting from their departure, so would be the third full month to the day, from when they left Egypt, or 15 Tammuz.
So, to even go down the path of what Gaster cheekily calls "a little latitude and fancy," we must decide, from the beginning, to ignore the plain meaning of Scripture, which is obviously counting full months from the day of the Exodus.
This point alone should be enough to disprove the giving of the Law on Pentecost, since that day always falls in the month of Sivan, however calculated, and the earliest the Law could have been given, according to the Bible, would be the middle of the following month!
However, let us, like the rabbis, assume "the third month" of Exodus 19:1 means "the third month of the year." Since we will be making many assumptions to reconcile the giving of the Law with Pentecost, let us keep track of them. This interpretation of the third month, I will call Point #1.
Adjusting the Chronology
We know Israel left Egypt in the first month, the month of Nisan (or Abib), which God said was to be the first month of the year to them (Ex. 12:2). While I believe they left on the 15th of Nisan, others differ, and this point bears slightly on the chronology. We will call them leaving on Nisan 15 Point #2.
We have Israel leaving Egypt in the middle of Nisan, then coming to the wilderness of Sin on the 15th day of the second month. There are two ways to take this: either two months had passed from their leaving Egypt (the more natural reading), so this would have been in the third month of the year (now called Sivan), or, the 15th of the second month of the year, now called Iyyar. Since we are going with the rabbis in this argument, we are, of necessity, assuming this refers to 15 Iyyar. A month after leaving Egypt, they were in the wilderness of Sin. Then, just before the Ten Commandments are given, we see in Exodus 19:1-3:
"In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai.
"(v. 3) For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the wilderness of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount. (v. 3) And Moses went up unto God..."
We donít know, in verse 2, how many days they camped at Sinai before Moses went up the mountain, but we will assume, for the sake of argument, that they had just pitched their tents, and this whole chapter is talking about the same day (Point #3).
Exodus 19: 10-11:
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes, (v. 11) And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai.
So, with these assumptions, God spoke to Moses on 15 Sivan and said the people were to prepare themselves that day, the next day, and on the third day the Lord come to them. So we are talking about the 15th, 16th, and 17th of Sivan, and the Ten Commandments were given on 17 Sivan.
Continuing in Ex. 19:16:
"And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount..." and in Exodus 20 we have God speaking the words of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20: 1-17).
So, this occurred on the third day, beginning with the 15th of Sivan, as it said, "today, and tomorrow. ... And be ready against the third day" (Ex. 19:10, 11).
By the modern Jewish reckoning of Pentecost on Sivan 6, the Ten Commandments were given 11 days after Pentecost! But is there any other reckoning by which the Ten Commandments could have been given on Pentecost?
Letís look at the various ways of counting 50 from the wavesheaf: there are three: 1) from the first High Sabbath during the Days of Unleavened Bread, 2) from the weekly Sabbath during Unleavened Bread, and, rarer, 3) from the last High Sabbath during Unleavened Bread. For 1) and 3), dates are all that is required; for 2), we need to know which day of the week Passover fell on.
Example 1: Quails sent after sunset Saturday
(Click on link to see sample calendar in popup window)
While we donít know what day of the week the first Passover occurred on, an argument could be made that the murmurings of Israel on the 15th day of the second month (Ex. 16:2), were on the Sabbath, after which the quails came (v. 13) , then the first manna the next morning (v. 13-15), and the sixth day there was twice as much (v. 22) against the Sabbath. But it is not totally clear that the sixth day was also the sixth day after the manna was first given. But we will look at this as an assumption for our first example (Point #4a).
Even assuming this day was a Sabbath, we do not know how many days were in the month that the children of Israel were using. We know it was lunar, in that the months began with the new moon, and we can fairly safely assume it was lunar-solar (Point #5), as all the ancient Mesopotamian calendars were, in that it kept pace with the seasons, so harvest time occurred around the same time every year.
Luni-solar calendars normally alternated days of 29 and 30 (OíNeil, p. 88), to keep with the moon, then intercalated a month every few years, to reconcile with the sun. The modern Jewish calendar has 30 days in Nisan, 29 in Iyyar, and 30 in Sivan, though, again, we do not know how many days were in the month at the time of the Exodus.
Clearly, any reconstruction is going to be based on many assumptions. Letís just, for the sake of argument, accept 15th Iyyar was a Sabbath, and Nisan had 30 days, and Iyyar had 29 (Point #6).
In this case, Passover (the 14th) would have been on a Wednesday, making Friday the wavesheaf day of the modern Jewish people and the early Pharisees. This would count to a Pentecost on Sivan 6, which is the fixed day most of them keep it on. For those whose wavesheaf is calculated after the weekly Sabbath during Unleavened Bread, in our first example, (Quails Saturday after sunset), the wavesheaf would be Nisan 18, and Pentecost Sivan 8. For those who calculate the wavesheaf after the last day of Unleavened Bread, the wavesheaf would be on 22 Nisan and Pentecost on 11 Sivan. Finally, to stretch a case, imagining someone who did such counting, and did it exclusively, that is starting the following day, instead of beginning with the wavesheaf, Pentecost would be on 12 Sivan.
Example 2: Calendar with Latest Possible Wavesheaf
(Click on link to see sample calendar in popup window)
In this example, letís discount the assumption that the quails give us the day of the week, and go with the week that would give us the latest possible wavesheaf by the calculations of those who reckon the wavesheaf as falling after the weekly Sabbath (Point #4b). This is also the latest possible wavesheaf, as it is the day of the wavesheaf for those who keep it after the last day of Unleavened Bread.
This would be one where the Passover occurs on the Sabbath. Discounting those who would have the wavesheaf on the first Day of Unleavened Bread (weíre going with the latest day possible), this makes the wavesheaf on 22 Nisan, for a 12 Sivan Pentecost, or, at the latest, with exclusive counting, 13 Sivan.
Since 17 Sivan is the earliest possible date for the giving of the Ten Commandments, assuming that Moses spoke to God the very same day the Israelites camped, and that they did not camp for a longer time, there is no way, by any method of reckoning, that the Ten Commandments could have been given on Pentecost.
A Last Fit of Desperation
Or could it? Is there any twists we could introduce to make it closer? We could shave a day off Nisan, and assume both Nisan and Iyyar had 29 days (Point #7), which would bring everything closer by 1 day, but 14 Sivan is still three days away from the 17 Sivan. Since the lunar month averages a bit more than 29.5 days, lunar calendars alternate 29 and 30 days (OíNeil, p. 88): there is no way they would ever have one month of 28 days, let alone two, but even with two months of 28 days, weíre at 16 Sivan versus 17 Sivan, and we have made so many assumptions from the insupportable to the downright ludicrous, that we could not honestly push it even this far!
Example 3: The Most Honest Interpretation of Scripture
(Click on link to see sample calendar in popup window)
A final scenario, I present to you, that contains none of the unfounded assumptions. The natural reading of the Bible is used, counting full months from the Exodus (Point #4c), and no monkeying with the months is allowed. The only assumptions are that there is a lunar-solar calendar, with alternating 29 and 30 day months. In this example, the calendar with the latest possible wavesheaf is given, as it is obvious from a glance, that even this makes no difference.
Why Does it Matter?
What difference does all this make? This question is certainly a technical point on a technical topic, but the significance is much more spiritual than technical.
Firstly, it shows how easy it is to assume that what we have been taught, whether by the rabbis, by our original church, or by books, is correct, without even being aware that we are making an assumption. I didnít question this point until I was challenged on it, and then I realized Iíd never looked into it.
What difference does it make? Or, to put it, using a phrase I resoundingly dislike, "it isnít a salvational issue," is it? In one sense, of course it isnít. Chronologies, by themselves, do not matter. If you fail Math, you donít lose your salvation, but it doesnít mean youíre right, either.
How Does This Affect Our Salvation?
The immediate response to the question of how it affects our salvation would be to say, "it doesnít." In another sense, though, we must not be so cavalier. The motivation behind this whole exercise was to prove what is right, according to the scriptures, which the Bible calls noble (Acts 17:10, 11). So, even to search the scriptures on a small point shows a willingness to listen to God and not to man.
And, if you go through the assumptions of the arguments one has to make to assert the Law was given on Pentecost, there is more than "a little latitude and fancy" at play here. There is an attitude of mind that "I want to believe what I want to believe, and if it isnít there, Iíll make it be there," and that attitude of mind is serious indeed, and I do believe that such an attitude is a salvational issue, for "whatever is not of faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23).
It is important that we constantly examine our assumptions. This is part of examining ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).
And there is another matter in this: why did this question come up? Because people wanted something that wasnít there. They wanted Shavuot to be more than a harvest festival: they wanted an historical connection, and we saw that, before the great assertion that the Law was given on that day, some rabbis made the more fanciful assertion that the promise to Noah and the world was given on that day. Clearly, the rabbis were looking for something to give significance to the day.
In a similar way, many of the holyday-keeping churches may be following an assumption that began with a desire for symmetry, typology, and the same kind of historical significance the rabbis sought.
If we follow our desires first, rather than scripture, we will fall into all kinds of error. And this impulse to be taught what we want to hear, to fulfil our own desires and lusts is definitely not godly, but sinful (2 Tim. 4:3).
Lastly, even in small, technical points like this one, we show our hearts by the way we approach it, as our Lord Jesus Christ himself said: "he who is faithful in little is faithful in much." (Luke 16:10). So letís not be too quick to dismiss small things and rush to comprehend the large.
As the old Chinese saying is more accurately translated, "The journey of a thousand miles consists of putting one foot in front of the other." And each step, though small in and of itself, helps to take us across a vast distance.
©2002, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at firstname.lastname@example.org. No permission is required for fair use, which includes short quotations in other work with citation. For information on citation of Internet sources using the Harvard System, see Library - BRIDGES: Harvard System - Electronic Material.
List of Assertions and Assumptions:
- Anti-scriptural Assumption: that Ex. 16:1 and Ex. 19:1 do not refer to the full number of months counting from the Exodus, as they plainly do, but that they refer to the months by their number, so the second month since the Exodus is really just the second month of the year, and the third month since the Exodus just the third month of the year. This is the major assumption: without it, the rest are unnecessary. It is also the one that takes what Biblical chronology we have, and twists it into another meaning for another purpose. Though a casual reading of the text might make one mistakenly think the second or third month was meant, deliberately taking this interpretation is the most dishonest assumption of them all.
- Assertion: the children of Israel left Egypt on the 15th of Nisan (Num. 33:3-5). Though some disagree with this, and think they left on the 14th, there is much evidence that they left on the 15th (Coulter, 1999, pp. 70-84; Hunt, 1998)
- Assumption: that Ex. 19:1-10 refers to the same day, and the Israelites hadnít camped any longer, whereas it could have been days or weeks, making the giving of the Ten Commandments much farther away from Pentecost.
- Each Sample Calendar is based on a different scenario with the following criteria:
- Assumption for Example 1: Quails in Ex. 16:2 were sent Saturday after sunset.
- Assumption for Example 2: In the year of the Exodus, the wavesheaf occurred on the latest possible day. While this is statistically unlikely, it is at least possible.
- Assertion for Example 3: The scripture is to be taken at its plain meaning, and the second and third months were full months, to the day, from when the children of Israel left Egypt. In this example, the calendar of Example #2 is used, with the latest possible wavesheaf day, to demonstrate how unimportant these matters are when the scriptures are taken at face value.
- Assertion: Israelís calendar was luni-solar, as were all ancient Mesopotamian calendars (OíNeil, p. 88).
- Assumption: Nisan had 30 days, and Iyyar had 29 days, as in modern times; not clear, but very likely the months alternated 29 and 30 days, to keep with the moon, as did all luni-solar calendars (OíNeil, p. 88).
- Ridiculous, Desperate Assumption: that Nisan and Iyyar both had less than 29 days! This would cause the months to fall out of synch with the moon. Highly unlikely. No calendar is given for this idea, as it falls outside any rational possibility.
Ausubel, Nathan, 1953. Pictorial History of the Jewish People from Bible Times to our own day throughout the world. New York: Crown Publishers.
Coulter, Fred R., 1999. 2nd ed. The Christian Passover: What Does It Mean? When Should It Be Observed Ė the 14th or the 15th? Hollister, California: York Publishing Co.
Gaster, Theodor H., 1952, 1953. 1978 pb ed. Festivals of the Jewish Year: A Modern Interpretation and Guide. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks.
Holy Bible, The (KJV).
Hunt, Keith M., 1998. Passover Study #20 [online]. Available from Ė http://www.keithhunt.com/passover20.html [Accessed 19 May 2002].
OíNeil, William M., 1978. 2nd ed. Time and the Calendars. Sydney: Sydney University Press.
Schauss, Hayyim, trans: Jaffe, Samuel, 1938. 1962 ed. The Jewish Festivals: History & Observance. New York: Schocken Books.