Our God is a God of black swans.
“Black swan” is a term popularized by former Wall Street quant Nassim Nicholas Taleb in the book titled by the same name. He describes a black swan event as having three elements: (1) An outlier event outside the realm of expectation, (2) that has extreme impact, yet (3) seems normal, predictable and explainable in hindsight. Classic examples of black swan events are the advent of the internet in the 1990s or the September 11 World Trade Center attacks. No one foresaw the emergence of a worldwide system of interconnected computer networks that would revolutionize human learning, commerce and communication. No one foresaw jihadi terrorists hijacking a plane to use in a kamikaze mission on buildings in New York and Washington. (And let me emphasize this: despite the self-serving bloviations of the intelligentsia and punditry after the fact that these phenomena were inevitable or that they were the expected natural historical developments, no one saw these things coming.) But when black swan events do occur, they change everything. Moreover, the most important and most impacting changes in human history happen in the form of black swans rather than some slow, foreseeable gradualism. Think about the biggest social, technological or geopolitical events in the last hundred years, or even in your lifetime, and consider how many of them could have been predicted when you were born, or even a few years before they occurred.
Our God is a God of black swans. Indeed, he is responsible for the biggest black swan occurrence of all, the existence of the everything as opposed to non-existence. The fact that the universe came into being at all is the most outrageous, most unbelievable claim in Scripture, more than a whole planet populated with Balaam’s talking donkeys or a whole ocean of Cana wedding wine. Someone can balk at the idea of the universe being six millennia old. I’m amazed the universe can be sustained for six seconds–yet here we are. Every other miracle in the Bible is but an addendum to this very bizarre, quite unexpected, very freaky occurrence. A universe where something is possible is a universe where anything is possible.
Shavuot is a holiday of God’s black swans. Granted, Passover also celebrates transformative events, but Passover events are isolated lightning flashes of creation, while Shavuot events are thunder reverberating through all of creation. A collapse of an ancient empire while its slaves ran free, or a man returning from the dead is historical; but the Torah among the Jews and the Spirit in the Body of Messiah is now and is affecting the world and people you know now. It shows Hashem’s ironic sense of humor that he made cyclical-seasonal harvest festivals into holy days commemorating black swan events. Throw a bunch of pellets flaking off from a dying, desiccated plant into the ground and months later, ironically, come multiple living plants that can feed a community. If you never heard of the phenomenon and saw it happen for the first time, you would think it a miraculous act of divine providence. In the same way, the Shavuot events surrounding the tablets from Sinai and Holy Spirit fire surprised everyone but Hashem.
For the Israelites, Shavuot brought a sudden reversal–not just to their behavior in Moses’ absence–but in the very worldview conception of the divine. Traditionally, the golden calf in Exodus 32 is interpreted as a false god which Aaron made in lieu of Adonai and/or as a reification of him. This is partially true, but the function of the calf in the mind of an ancient Near East denizen is a little more complex. It may itself be considered a divinity, but it could also be understood as a seat for a god, or many gods–the horns and back of the calf being a throne of sorts. “Gods” or elohim is consistently plural in this episode and (contrary to some translations) should probably be understood in the plural. The Israelites said to Aaron “Make us gods that will go before us,” and Aaron says upon making the golden calf “These are your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.” In this sense, the golden calf was an anti-ark or an anti-tabernacle. Instead of being seat for the one true God it was a haunt for many nebulous ones. Instead of being sealed off for safety and cleanness sake, it was out in the open. And instead of being the center from where Torah and mitzvot would go forth, it was a locus for orgiastic unrestraint.
Hashem had other plans. Israel wanted and expected a powerful, reified god (or gods) to command and lead them, and made the calf for that purpose. Instead, Moses gave them…tablets. These would be the source of divine instruction and command for Israel, and they still are to this day. It would be the Torah that would be the seat of the divine Presence, be it in the Ark of the Covenant which stored them, or in the Shekhinah dwelling among Israel in their keeping, teaching and communication of Torah mitzvot.
The Shavuot of Acts was a comparable experience. Before Yeshua’s ascension, the disciples ask him “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” This was not an inappropriate question in light of what the prophets foretold of a messianic reign that Yeshua had very noticeably begun. But Yeshua had other plans: “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” Again, the disciples (along with all of Israel) wanted and expected a personal Messianic King for command, guidance and power. Instead, Yeshua gave us…his Spirit. In both instances we see that it is not enough for God simply to be one person among us while external to our own personalities. He loves us enough to want to be in and among us in the most intimate way, in the form of a true daas Torah and spiritual indwelling.
This brings us to the present time, a time where even if the messianic age has begun, the messianic ideal is still noticeably unrealized. If we look only at present, predictable trends (trends we cannot break out of by our own power) we can only expect a Body of Messiah continually dogged by apostasy, temptation and persecution; and a Jewish people under assault from the world and estranged from her King. Present trends will not continue. Our Lord will act boldly, decisively, swiftly and soon even in our days, in a manner that will shock and surprise everyone: Church, Israel, the world. Everyone. The wait for such a time is difficult, but wait we must–soberly, watchfully, bracing ourselves for that Prophet like Moses to return, to smash our idols, to give instruction, to build his dwelling place, and to transform his people in fiery renewal.