Although spelled with a little less Jewish flair, Hollywood crafted a movie experience in 1970 called Tora! Tora! Tora! The film featured a host of the country’s premier actors — Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, Joseph Cotton, E.G. Marshall and James Whitmore — in a dramatic retelling of the story of the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. A United States embargo on raw materials strained the relationship between the States and Japan, causing the smaller nation to plan a pre-emptive strike against the superpower. Tora in Japanese means “tiger,” but in this setting, it was a code word acronym for Japanese words meaning “lighting attack.”
Roger Ebert, movie critic of the famed Siskel and Ebert team, said the telling of this story is “one of the deadest, dullest blockbusters ever made. The very word ‘blockbuster’ may be too lusty to describe it; maybe ‘blocktickler’ is more like it for this timid epic. The subject is grand enough, but the screenplay mostly concerns itself with clerks.”
Ebert’s lesson seems clear: If you have an epic story to tell, you had better tell it well.
We have been counting down the days to an epic story. This year, June 9 marks a significant, even epic event. In Christianity, it is the Day of Pentecost, the traditional beginning of the church. Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter. After being empowered with the Holy Spirit, the once timid disciples stood in the midst of reveling Jews and accused them of killing their Messiah. In response to the convicting message, 3,000 Jewish men with as many, if not more, women and children repented of their indifference and sins, accepting Jesus as their Messiah. Certainly cause for celebration.
But before an Ebert could cry “timid,” Paul Harvey would bid you hear “the rest of the story.”
The people gathered in Jerusalem on that day had not just been sitting around, waiting for Peter to preach a sermon. Most of those who were in the Temple area for the Passover were locals, for that holiday is not considered a pilgrimage feast. After Passover, they returned to their homes and went about their business.
But exactly 50 days after the Passover, the Jews celebrated another festival called Shavuot (pronounced “shaa-vuu-oat”), the “Feast of Weeks.” Because of the Greek word for “50,” those who spoke the Greek language called the festival “Pentecost.”
Shavuot actually combines two major religious observances. The first is the grain harvest of early summer, which determines the ritual for the holiday. Shavuot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel, when Israelite males were commanded to appear before God in Jerusalem. On this day, they were to bring the first fruits of their harvest.
The pilgrimage drew everyone who could possibly come to Jerusalem. Luke records in Acts that on the day of Pentecost, people were gathered from 16 different geographical areas in the Temple area. Is it any wonder that they were amazed when they heard the disciples speaking in their own languages? While some thought they were drunk, an expected hazard of the celebration, Peter assured the crowds that instead their words were the work of God’s Holy Spirit.
The second observance of Shavuot is the giving of the Torah — the Law — on Mount Sinai seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. This determines the significance of the holiday for Judaism, tying it to one of the most monumental events of Jewish religious memory. The Jews remembered entering into a covenant with God, exemplified by the words of the Ten Commandments and the Law.
Much of the observance of the holiday centered on the Temple and its rituals. Shavuot is one of the holidays where the Hallel or Psalms of Praise are recited. A memorial service called the Yizkor is observed. A tradition that has grown over the years includes reading the book of Ruth in public, a book that takes place during a harvest time, and reflects on Ruth’s acceptance of Naomi’s religion in the same way the Israelites accepted the Torah at Sinai.
Reading Scripture has long been a way that Christians celebrate the importance of God’s word. First Christian Church in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, recently completed a 75-hour marathon of reading the Bible from cover to cover in the church auditorium. Over 180 people signed up to take turns reading from God’s Word to commemorate the dedication of their new church building. The opening Sunday conveniently corresponded with Pentecost. Stuart Jones, the preaching minister at the church, said this is the sixth year that they have set aside time to symbolically dedicate themselves to God’s Word.
How will you celebrate Pentecost? Dedicate some time — yourself or with your family — to honor God’s word in your life. Here are some practical things you can do. You might choose to read Exodus 20 and recall God’s words to Moses as He delivered the Ten Commandments. Talk about how impossible it is to keep the Law perfectly and be thankful for the grace of God that offers forgiveness through His Son.
You might choose to read the book of Ruth to build a better understanding of the context of the celebration. But instead, you could read the first chapter of the gospel of John. In it you will hear Jesus described as the Word. The writer of Hebrews tells us that in the past, God spoke through the prophets and through the giving of the Law, but now God speaks through His Son.
On the church’s first Pentecost Luke concludes the day’s events by saying the early believers spent their time breaking bread (a phrase indicating they remembered the body and blood of Jesus), prayed regularly, spent time with one another, and paid close attention to the words of the apostles (Acts 2:42).
God’s words matter. God’s Word matters. What we believe about both matters. Torah! Torah! Torah!
— Tom May is a freelance writer who has held paid and volunteer ministry positions at several churches in the tri-state area. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.