The Hebrew Bible designates three times each year in which all males are to appear before YHVH, in the place that he will choose.
Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that he has given you. (Deuteronomy 16:16-17, ESV).
[Compare Exodus 23:14-17 and 34:23.]
Of these three festivals, perhaps the feast of weeks is the least understood. As VanderKam stated in his Anchor Bible entry on the subject, this “festival is unusual among the holidays in the Hebrew Bible in several respects: it is never assigned a precise date; it is never associated with one of the great events of Israel’s history; and it is never mentioned by name except in lists of cultic festivals.”
The biblical feast of Weeks is not assigned a precise date, rather we are told that the timing for the observance of Weeks is to be determined by counting seven weeks “from the time you first put the sickle to the standing grain” (Deuteronomy 16:9). The book of Leviticus provides additional clues in that it informs the one counting:
You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. (Leviticus 23:15-16a, ESV)
The difficulty in determining the precise date has presented an opportunity for disagreement among the various religious groups past and present. Which “Sabbath” is one to use? The book of Jubilees, as well as certain texts from Qumran suggests that they “interpreted the ‘morrow after the Sabbath,’ in Leviticus 23:11, 15 to mean the first Sunday after the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The Pharisees, however, understood it to refer to the day after the first day of Unleavened Bread (i.e., 1/16) and hence Weeks would occur on 3/6. Still other groups (the Boethusians, Samaritans, and Karaites) took ‘Sabbath’ to mean a literal Sabbath and regarded it as the one that fell within the seven days of Unleavened Bread.” (VanderKam).
Regardless of when the count begins, the period of 50 days puts one into the third biblical month. While the Bible does not make a direct association with any specific event in Israel’s history, ancient writers, based upon their reading of the biblical stories, were able to draw certain parallels between the third month, covenants, and ultimately the meaning of Shavuot. The covenant at Sinai, for instance, was made in the third month (Exodus 19:1). Could it be that the precise date of this covenant corresponds with the Festival of Weeks? Quite possibly since prior to Israel’s departure from Egypt, there are references to an unnamed festival (Exodus 5:1; 10:9). What festival is meant in these verses? The Chronicler writes of a religious reform under the reign of King Asa that took place in the third month (II Chronicles 15). In that covenant the people join by oath, which in Hebrew suggests a possible connection with Shavuot since the name of Weeks in Hebrew is based upon the same root word as oath.
VanderKam points out that other covenants were associated with the third month. The author of Jubilees, though unsupported by any direct scriptural reference claims that God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, and the covenant between Jacob and Laban all took place at this time of year.
Perhaps the precise dating of weeks must remain a mystery. Perhaps, there is no historical event that can be shown to be the source of this ancient Hebrew festival. Given the uncertainties surrounding Shavuot, those seeking to live a biblical life are left to sort through the arguments and count for themselves. From the available information that has come down to us in modern times we must admit the complexities involved in determining a precise date for Weeks. If the ancient Israelites debated over the date, one should not be surprised that we too will be forced to enter the fray if we hope to solve the old question of when to begin the count. Maybe it is enough for us to think of this season as a time of renewal to the covenants of old, or a time to reflect on the goodness of YHVH. According to Jeremiah, a people with a “revolting and rebellious heart,” refused to say, “Let us fear the LORD our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks (Shavuot) appointed for the harvest” (Jeremiah 5:24).
For further reading:
Exodus 23:14-17; 34:23; Leviticus 23:9-16; Deuteronomy 16:9-17
Feast of Weeks, VanderKam, J.C., Anchor Bible Dictionary