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How Zionism was created at Shavuot

Mount Sinai in Egypt (Photo: Shutterstock)

Where does Zionism come from? The answer can be traced all the way back to Mount Sinai and the beginnings of the holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. 

Although it’s become incendiary, the word Zionist simply refers to the belief that Jewish people have the right to self-determination in the land of their forefathers. As we come up to Shavuot, it’s worth noting how those 12 ancient tribes from the Middle East became not only an identifiable ethnic group but also a faith community with a specific geographical base.

Shavuot (literally meaning “weeks”) is a feast that is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. It is believed that seven weeks after the very first Passover the newly freed Israelite slaves reached Mount Sinai, where God imparted the Law to Moses. Here are the instructions about how to celebrate the feast:

“You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath [of Passover], from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord. You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked with leaven, as firstfruits to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:15-17).

Shavuot is something of a harvest festival, appreciating the fruit of the land. Today in Israel it is also referred to as the time of the giving of the Torah, a seminal event in Jewish history. It was a key event not just because of the giving, but also the receiving of the Torah as a contract between God and His people. It was at Sinai that the Israelites willingly entered into a covenant with God. In Exodus 24 we read how Moses presented the Law to the people, and how they responded: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7).

The deal was done. While the Hebrews had been in slavery for 400 years, they had grown from 12 families to an entire people group, separated and enslaved by virtue of their ethnicity. However, at this point, they were not a faith community, as such. The Exodus itself had required a measure of faith from the people: The Israelites had to follow God’s instructions to daub the blood of an innocent lamb on their door frames so that the Destroying Angel would pass over their houses, and this was faith in action. Other than that, there was no “religion,” as such. There were the wonderful stories of the Patriarchs which had been handed down, but no system of worship. No framework for faith. Until Sinai.

In many ways, the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai was like a wedding contract. With clouds hovering overhead like a canopy, a written contract like a ketubah, and even a sign that they belong to each other, like a ring:

“Above all, you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13).

God later talks about the desert wanderings as a honeymoon time: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest” (Jeremiah 2:2-3a). And of course, they were following God to the Land He had promised to the Patriarchs.

From Sinai onwards, there is a bond between the people of Israel and the God of Israel, which is referred to throughout the Bible using the language of marriage, love, faithfulness (and Israel’s unfaithfulness), and divorce and of yearning for reconciliation. The Book of Hosea is a perfect example. 

The people, the covenant, and the journey to the Promised Land are all inextricably linked. The convergence happened at Sinai, at the giving and receiving of the Torah, which we celebrate at Shavuot. This is the story of Israel.

So now we have this unusual, indeed unique situation, where an ethnic people group is also a faith community. This leads to great confusion about what it means to be Jewish. Is it a racial thing? Since many ethnically Jewish people don’t even believe in God but are still considered Jewish? Or is it a religion that can be separated out from the issue of Israel? We are reassured that one can be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic, but it usually degenerates into antisemitism. We have seen this phenomenon spreading like wildfire across western campuses. Some Jewish students from Columbia University have responded with an explanation about how the Jewish people cannot be separated from Zionism, and the catastrophic effects of doing so, saying: “We proudly believe in the Jewish People’s right to self-determination in our historic homeland as a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity. Contrary to what many have tried to sell you – no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief.”

“Our religious texts are replete with references to Israel, Zion, and Jerusalem. The land of Israel is filled with archaeological remnants of a Jewish presence spanning centuries. Yet, despite generations of living in exile and diaspora across the globe, the Jewish People never ceased dreaming of returning to our homeland – Judea, the very place from which we derive our name, “Jews.”

While some try to equate Islamophobia with antisemitism, Islam is not a matter of race or ethnicity, but is purely a religion, an ideology, which people from any background can adopt. The story of Israel is unique, because it was, and is, God’s handiwork. 

However, it was also at Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover when Jesus was crucified and rose again, that the Holy Spirit fell on the first disciples and the Gospel went out to every nation, tribe and tongue. It was at Pentecost (another name for Shavuot derived from the number 50) that God birthed another faith community, but this time in the New Covenant of Yeshua’s blood. While people raise two loaves to the heavens for the Shavuot celebrations, they are lifting two clues about the deeper meaning of the festival: Jew and Gentile brought together in covenant with the God of Israel, but in this new covenant the law of God is written on our hearts.

Jo Elizabeth has a great interest in politics and cultural developments, studying Social Policy for her first degree and gaining a Masters in Jewish Philosophy from Haifa University, but she loves to write about the Bible and its primary subject, the God of Israel. As a writer, Jo spends her time between the UK and Jerusalem, Israel.

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