Shavuot and the Mormon Endowment
Anticipating the restoration of what was first given in Sinai
One of the holiest celebrations that has persisted from ancient Israel till the present is known in English as The Feast of Weeks. To modern Jews, it is known as Shavuot. For Mormons, this feast has a surprising timing that correlates to higher ordinances in the New Testament, The Book of Mormon, and even the first temple ordinances given to Latter-day Saints (a better way to say “Mormons”) in modern times.
The origins of this celebration come from the time that Israel was in the clutches of the evil Pharaoh of Egypt. As you may recall, God granted Moses power to plague Egypt with an escalating and highly symbolic series of punishments, culminating with the 10th and final plague: the loss of the Firstborns. In the evening, all of the Israelites struck their door posts with hyssop, dipped in the blood of a lamb. Anyone who choose to forgo this sign lost their firstborn son. On that fateful following morning, Egypt awoke to both terror and sorrow, and Pharaoh finally let the children of Israel leave Egypt. Seven weeks later, after passing through the Red Sea, getting water from a rock, and receiving instructions on how to build a sanctuary known as the Tabernacle, the children of Israel found themselves camped at the bottom of Sinai, waiting for Moses who had gone up to meet with the Lord in the midst of terrible clouds and fiery thunder. In their impatience and terrible lack of faith, they created a golden calf and had begun to worship it.
It was then that Moses descended from the Mountain of the Lord, carrying the covenant that God had given him and which was to be established among His people. When Moses saw Israel’s idolatry, he smashed the tablets he had been given to pieces.
So let’s back up just a bit.
First, what was on the tablets? In Hebrew, the literal translation is “Two Tablets of the Testimony/Tablets of Stone”. What was the testimony they bore? Or more importantly… whose? Since God wrote them with his finger, they clearly contained God’s testimony. What was that testimony?
In Exodus 19, the Lord tells Moses not to let the people join him on the mountain, because they are not sanctified (made holy). But always showing the way forward, God gives the 10 Commandments and various other laws to help Israel become ready to join with Moses in the highest realms of the mountain. This encompasses Exodous 20–23. In 24:12, he tells Moses about the tablets he plans to give him, which he said would contain the Law. But as previously noted, when Moses saw Israel worshiping the calf, he broke those first tablets to pieces, recognizing they were not ready for them.
Several chapters later, God has Moses fashion two new tablets, and commands him to return to Sinai’s peaks where the Lord will write on them. Exodus 34:1 says they were the same as what was written the first time. In other words, there was no harm done: God would correct Moses’ impetuous mistake. But was he mistaken? Did Moses act hastily when he smashed the first set? Did Moses misjudge the people’s spiritual preparedness? Or did the people truly repent in lightening-quick fashion from such an egregious sin like idol worship?
For Latter-day Saints, there is another explanation which Christians and Jews alike ought to consider.
According to Joseph Smith, a man who many today believe was a prophet of God just as much as Moses was, the answer lies in an inspired translation of Exodus 34:12. Joseph made the following correction as he says he was moved upon by the Spirit, and in his capacity as a revelator and someone with the ability to tap into the mind of God in his role as a prophet:
“1 And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two other tables of stone, like unto the first, and I will write upon them also, the words of the law, according as they were written at the first on the tables which thou brakest; but it shall not be according to the first, for I will take away the priesthood out of their midst; therefore my holy order, and the ordinances thereof, shall not go before them; for my presence shall not go up in their midst, lest I destroy them.
2 But I will give unto them the law as at the first, but it shall be after the law of a carnal commandment; for I have sworn in my wrath, that they shall not enter into my presence, into my rest, in the days of their pilgrimage. Therefore do as I have commanded thee, and be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning unto mount Sinai, and present thyself there to me, in the top of the mount.”
According to Joseph Smith therefor, the 2nd set of tablets contained what we would now recognize as the “Mosaic Law”: a version of the 1st set that did not contain the full revelation of priesthood — and therefore ordinances — and which was based on a carnal law which would preclude them from entering into “the Lord’ rest” until they were no longer pilgrims.
It is in this very same chapter (34:28) that Exodus confirms that the 2nd set contained a covenant (given over the course of several chapters before, and quite lengthy) as well as the 10 commandments (that presumably prepared them for that covenant). The only remaining question then - if you are not yet a believer in Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet — is if the first set of tablets did in fact contain some higher law or teachings that were withheld.
That last question will remain rhetorical for the purposes of this article, but I would encourage you to honestly seek out an answer for yourself. Until then, we’ll return to the present topic.
What is Shauvot?
Shavuot is a celebration of the tablets given on Sinai. It happens 7 weeks after the 2nd day of Passover. As you may recall, the 1st day of Passover is when the doorposts were smeared with blood. The second day is when the exodus from Egypt began. Seven weeks later they were at Sinai. So even to this day, 7x7 +1 day from Passover, Jews celebrate the Feast of Weeks. According to the Lord, it was to be recognized as a celebration of “the Firstfruits”, ie. the first, most delicious, and valued of the yearly harvest. The people would bring these offerings to the Temple, and perform a ceremony and observances found in Deuteronomy 26. Some aspects included:
~A profession that their purpose was to inherit the land
~A profession that their father was a wander in a dreary place, but that he eventually became the father of a great nation. The implication is that they seek the same thing, considering themselves as if they were their forebearer.
~Acknowledgement that the world deals harshly with God’s people
~Acknowledgement that the Lord will one day rescue them with the following: A) a mighty hand, B) an outstretched arm, C) with great terribleness (“fear” perhaps meaning penalties?), D) with signs, E) and with tokens (“mopheth” is the Hebrew. Sometimes translated as “miracles”, according to Strong’s Bible Concordance, “tokens” is also an acceptable usage.)
~Recognition that the Lord has given them a land flowing with that which is easily consumed (milk and honey, as opposed to meat).
Today, some may feel that the current traditions overshadow the original meaning. They reflect to varying degrees the same elements of the Levitical mandate — eating dairy products like blintzes, for example — but they lack the powerful simplicity of God’s original instructions for observance.
Pentecost: First Shavuot after Resurrection
Because it happened 50 days after Passover (1 day plus 7x7), in Greek, the Feast of Weeks was known as Pentecost (“Penta-” is the Greek for “five”. Hence we have the words “pentagon” for a five-sided object, “ Pentateuch” as the term for the first five books of the Bible, etc.) Christians believe this was the time of a great outpouring of God’s Spirit.
Latter-day Saints and other Christians believe that the outpouring in Acts chapter 2 was a fulfillment of the promise made in Luke 24:29: “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem until ye be endowed with power from on high.” Joseph Smith said that it was during the first post-resurrection Pentecost that his apostles received that which had been withheld for so many centuries since Sinai.
Acts 2 concludes by saying that the apostles showed many wonders and signs to the people (again, “wonders” or “miracles” could also be translated as “tokens”). It also says that the entered into some sort of consecrated order, having “all things in common”, and that they went frequently to the temple to eat . . . meat.
Shavuot in the New World
The Book of Mormon is an ancient record of peoples living in the Americas during a time frame that includes Christ’s death and resurrection. During Passover, when Christ was crucified, their lands suffered a terrible destruction. Only the most righteous of the people survived. This can be read about in the Book of Mormon’s Third Book of Nephi. Some time after this, Christ appeared to the people who had gathered at their Temple in a land called Bountiful, and gave them teachings very similar to the Sermon on the Mountain given in Matthew 5–7.
Why were they there? I believe the answer is simple: it was the set time to go to the Temple, 49 days after the second day of Passover. It was time for the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot. They knew they no longer had to keep the Law of Moses, but they didn’t know what they were to do in it’s place. So they simply gathered to the Temple, marveling at the great destruction that had happened, and perhaps thinking their prophet would instruct them. It was then that Christ appeared to them, restoring what I believe was withheld at Sinai. This can be read about beginning in chapter 11 of Third Nephi, and going through at least chapter 14.
Shavuot in Nauvoo
By now, the following should not come as surprise. When the Latter-day Saints were forced from their homes in Missouri and Ohio, they settled on what was a remote swamp at the edge of America: Nauvoo, Illinois. It was on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. The swamp was quickly drained, and a thriving city sprung up. A marvelous temple began to be constructed. It was later destroyed by arson and then a cyclone, but it has since been restored.
Joseph Smith never lived to see it’s final completion, as he was martyred with his brother Hyrum several months before. But feeling impressed to convey the ordinances he believed God wanted mankind to have, he initiated several groups of people with a series of sacred teachings, ordinances, and covenants, that would later be given only within the Temple. This was on May 3 and 4th inside Joseph’s red brick store in Nauvoo. Joseph prepared the second floor to represent “the interior of a temple as circumstances would permit.”
And just when was Shavuot being observed in 1842? It was May 3rd, of course. Just like in the old and new worlds anciently, the higher teachings withheld at Sinai were being given once again to individuals on the earth. Temples that operate under the same authority as that which Joseph Smith held in Nauvoo now dot the globe.
With a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, solemn oaths, signs, and sacred tokens, God once again offers meat to those who desire a sacred place, following in the footsteps of the ancients that came before Moses. We need not be wanderers any longer.
One short articles hardly does this topic justice. I highly recommend the following if you want more on this topic:
John Welch’s “The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount”, particularly the chapter called “Toward an Understanding of the Sermon as a Temple Text”. It can be found online free at the above link.
“A Pentecost and Endowment Indeed: 6 Eyewitness Accounts of the Kirtland Temple Experience”. The previous link is again a free download.
“A School and an Endowment” — Article from history.lds.org