Day of Pentecost: What does divine revelation look like? (June 4, 2017)

June 2, 2017 | by Leah Laird

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Numbers 11:24-30 Psalm 104:24-34, 35b 1 Corinthians 12:3-13 John 7:37-39 & 20:19-23

Numbers 11:24-30: Some elders may receive the spirit of the divine, their receiving and sharing of revelations are not location specific.

There is no way to definitively know when Numbers 11 was written; however, the post exilic period is a supportable possibility.1  

Imagine: It is sometime in the early Persian Period (late 6th century BCE), some of the exiled Yahudites are returning “home,” to a land most never knew; called by a name they know, Yehud, but which is foreign to the inhabitants. These migrants are a brave people, who likely find comfort in discussing similarities between their migration and that of their ancestors, who followed Moses through the wilderness and Joshua into their promised land. Once in this land, they find no place of worship, nor are they allowed to build a temple. It is in this context that we can hear the question being asked: “With no temple, no priests, and no prophets – Who will the divine be revealed through? Where will this revelation take place?”

Here in Numbers 11:24 we have the answer of who will be the prophets: “So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people…” With the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 came the disolvement of the system that legislated how a priest was trained. This led to a new system in determining who will be priests. According to Marvin Sweeney, the priests and the prophets were not necessarily separate groups.2 Here we learn that the new prophets (and potential priests) will be gathered from the elders.3

In his work on synagogues, John Van Seters notes the possibility that the tent here is one of the earliest examples of what we today call synagogues. This tent was a meeting place where in the people could receive revelations from the divine. Yet, the prophecy is not contained solely in the tent, two men prophesy among the people (v. 26) and are not discouraged from doing so (v. 29).

This passage can be understood as helping disseminate the notions that divine revelation is no longer for a certain family group, but is available to those outside of the traditionally understood priestly tribe (all elders at least),4 and that the divine does not require a set location to be revealed.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b: The divine is revealed to all and is manifest in a multitude of ways.

In Psa 104 we have an excellent example of general revelation. I am using the definition penned by David Ray Griffin, “General revelation would occur whenever someone correctly interprets any event in such a way as to learn something of God.”5 In this passage, the author uses naturally occurring phenomena to point to the presence of the divine.

The author is enamored with creation – the variety of animals, the natural accessibility of food to the creation, and life and death.

Regarding life and death, as described in vv. 29 & 30, the Hebrew word ruah is used; however, in v. 29 it is translated as breath and in v. 30 as spirit, it can also be understood as breath. All are legitimate translations. In this case, the author is likely relying on the multivalence of the word to mean all of these at once. Life and death are natural, but they are distinct among the revelations listed. The choice to use such an intimate word as breath highlights the closeness one has (even animals6) to the divine in the life/death transitions.

It is at this point that the author breaks out in unbridled rejoicing (v. 31), a reminder of the frightening power of the deity (v. 32), and more praise (vv. 33, 34, &35b).7

John 7:37-39: The Spirit is coming.

Here in John chapter 7 we have the foreshadowing of what will come in spring. Jesus and his disciples are celebrating the Feast of the Tabernacles. This feast has a long history and is mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible; it is among the most important. It is a fall festival to celebrate the ingathering of fruit.

On the last day of this festival Jesus prophesies, and is recognized by those around him as doing so, of the coming of the divine spirit. At the celebration of ingathering Jesus makes an invitation to those present to have their thirst quenched by the living water that is the spirit to come.

John 20:19-23

Days after the crucifixion Jesus revealed himself to his disciple, Mary. Though other disciples had also gone to the tomb, Jesus was revealed to them first through his servant Mary, and later by his own presence. It is here that we pick up.

When evening had come on the day of his resurrection, Jesus made himself known to his disciples. After an inspection of the wounds Jesus offers his final gift to his disciples. It is an invitation to remain in connection with the deity.

This gift comes with a warning. This connection affords the disciples a power previously reserved for the divine: the power over life and death. The breath language here reminding our present audience of Ps 104:29 & 30 [see above]. In this case, however, it is not a power over physical life and death. This is a spiritual/psychological life and death.

Acts 2:1-21:8 Revelation is for everyone!

Divine revelation is not for a select few, it is now for a specific class, ethnicity, race, or species. As is the case in so many places throughout the biblical text (Gen 1:28; the Tower of Babel; Ruth [for so many reasons]; Psalm 104 [see above]; Matt 28:19; to name a few) diversity is encouraged, embraced, and celebrated by the divine. Acts 2 is no different. If homogeneity had been the divine purpose for creation and the end goal, would not the deity have made all those in Jerusalem divinely inspired to know one tongue on the day of Pentecost?9 On the contrary, when the tongues of the divine spirit came to rest upon the followers of Jesus, they were blessed with the ability to speak new languages, so that all might receive this special revelation.

Here the biblical author insures that the reader not be quick to exclude any from revelation. Peter is quoted as making the specific point to include, as recipients of the spirit, all flesh: sons and daughters, young and old, male and female slaves – all.

1 Corinthians 12:3-13: The divine spirit is revealed in a number of ways to a variety of people.

Paul writes concerning the vast number of ways the deity is revealed in and through believers. Here we see a developed explanation of special revelation. Griffin writes of special revelation, “This occurs when an event that is indeed a special act (perhaps the supreme act) of God is appropriately received, so that God’s basic character and essential purpose are communicated through the event to the believer, and the believer thereby appropriates a vision of reality which provides a basis for making all reality intelligible.”10

The whole of this canonized history has been pointing to this. The divine is available to all. There is no set place in which the divine is revealed, there is no certain kind of being to whom the divine is revealed, and there is no one way in which the divine is revealed. A major factor in whether there is divine revelation (or a bestowing and receiving of the spirit) relies on the reception and retransmission. It is up to the creation to receive, interpret, and share the revelation. The sign that “a special act…of God is appropriately received”11 is spelled out by Paul in v 7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

1 Van Seters, John. 2015. “The tent of meeting in the Yahwist and the origin of the synagogue.” Sjot 29, no. 1: 1-10. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 1, 2017).

2 Sweeney’s work on Ezekiel, the exilic prophet and priest in training is particularly poignant here.

3 Please note that the neutral plural for mixed groups in Ancient Hebrew is the always masculine plural. Therefore, this group of elders could very easily have included women.

4 This is not a new concept, biblically speaking. Rather it is one repeated throughout the canon.

5 Griffin, David Ray. 1971. “Is revelation coherent.” Theology Today 28, no. 3: 278-294. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 1, 2017).

6 Cf. my work on Ps 104 in 2015 for the Process and Faith Lectionary.

7 Though left out of the lectionary, I find it necessary to comment on v 35a: “Let the sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Though it may go against our understanding of the uncontrollable loving divine, this phrase is a continued recognition of the special power the divine has over life and death. A person may not simply kill another, the removal of breath is a distinctly divine action and must be requested.

8 Adapted from my 2015 Process & Faith Lectionary post.

9 Pentecost existed before Christianity. Though Christians often refer to this date as the “Birthday of the Church,” its significance is in part due to its historical context. This day was set aside to celebrate the harvest and is called the Festival of Harvest in the Hebrew scripture. Read more about this holy day here.

10 Griffin, “Is revelation coherent.”

11 Griffin, “Is revelation coherent.”