Rich Israel, Chair of the Vanguard University Religion Department and Professor of Old Testament, wrote our featured article this month. As we prepare for Thanksgiving this month, he writes this –
George Washington initiated it nationally, on November 26, 1789, and Abe Lincoln institutionalized it in 1863, but Thanksgiving began here in America much earlier.
Claims for the first one include Texas, at San Elizario in 1598; Florida, at San Augustine, in 1565; Virginia, at Berkeley Hundred in 1619, as well as the Pilgrims, in Plymouth, in Massachusetts, 1621. The Pilgrims set theirs separate from Sabbath worship, held on a weekday, and ours is most like theirs.
But let’s step back even further, to Bible days. Let us consider Thanksgiving from the perspective of biblical festivals.
The Hebrew word for ‘thanksgiving’ is todah (תּוֹדָה). The todah offering is one example of a ‘sacrifice of well-being’ (zevach shelamim) (זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים) according to the instruction in Leviticus 7:11-15. Prayers of thanksgiving in the psalms are offered with sacrifices of thanksgiving (Psalm 107:22, 116:17 for example.)
For a parallel to the Pilgrim festival of Thanksgiving, as they entered a new land, Deuteronomy 26:1-11 provides instructions for thanks to God as the Hebrew entered the promised land. The verses describe a harvest festival of first-fruits, probably celebrated in conjunction with the festival of weeks (called Pentecost in the New Testament.) The ‘order of service’ in the text indicates several steps:
- A pilgrimage (vv.1-2)
- A declaration by the worshipper (v.3): A testimony that God has been faithful to his promise of land (‘erets)( אֶרֶץ)
- A transference of the offering to the priest (v.4)
- A response by the worshipper (vv.5-10): A ‘historical credo’ (Latin for “I believe”) that acknowledges the “fruit of the ground (אֲדָמָה)” comes from the “gift of the land (אֶרֶץ).”
- A communal celebration (v.11)
Through this festival, the Israelites were bearing witness that bountiful blessings come from a promise-keeping God, not the fertility deities of their Canaanite neighbors. Thanksgiving calls us to the same confession.
Contact Rich at Richard.Israel@vanguard.edu for further information.