A Biblical Thanksgiving: From Civil Etiquette to Sacred Memory

By Gordon Dalbey
at www.abbafather.com

Popular images of Pilgrims and roast turkeys make it easy today to believe that Thanksgiving began at Plymouth Rock in 1621, and is simply about civil etiquette to appreciate the good things we enjoy in this country.
Not so.
In fact, our American forebears modeled their celebration after a far earlier Thanksgiving—one hosted by another people who were similarly oppressed by a tyrant ruler and fled across a vast emptiness to a new land of abundance, there to establish a nation which would reflect God’s ways to other nations.
What’s more, these very first pilgrims worshiped the God of Jesus and indeed, were our Hebrew ancestors in faith. They were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt just as the “Americans” had been spiritual slaves to the King of England; they set out across the desert wilderness to Palestine like the “Americans” who crossed the vast and empty Atlantic Ocean, and they understood themselves to be a “light to the nations” (Isa. 49:6), even as the “Americans” sought to be a beacon of religious freedom in an otherwise repressive world.

Our guide to celebrating Thanksgiving today can therefore be found in God’s directions to those early Hebrews. “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it,” as He instructed His people,

you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. You shall go to go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.”
The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: “My father (Abraham) was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there, but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil and which You, O Lord, have given me.”
You shall leave it before the Lord your God and bow low before the Lord your God. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.  (Deut 26:1-11 Jewish Publication Society translation)

            This definitive biblical Thanksgiving includes three major acts: 1. Give a portion of your harvest/income to the Temple, 2. Tell the story of God’s saving acts among your ancestors, and 3. Eat, enjoy, and share freely the rest of your first fruits! (see Deut. 14:22-26). Most of us today have no problem with the eating and enjoying part of #3, and most Christians donate money regularly at church. Few of us, however, take time on Thanksgiving Day to remember our ancestors, much less how God acted among them.

Years ago while at seminary in Boston, I took a course on Judaism taught by Rabbi Murray Rothman of Temple Shalom, who declared that “Judaism is the only religion with a commandment to remember.” That commandment most often references the pilgrimage from Egypt to the Promised Land, as in Deuteronomy 8:2: “Remember how the Lord your God led you on this long journey through the desert these past forty years….”
The God of Israel is thereby unique among other gods, Rabbi Rothman emphasized, in that He is revealed not primarily in nature, wise sayings, metaphysical consciousness, or even ritual, but rather, in history.
With our Hebrew ancestors, therefore, we Christians worship the God who acts in human affairs, even intervening decisively—as in Jesus. We testify to His power and goodness primarily not by upholding creeds and theological concepts, but rather, by proclaiming what He has done in our lives.
Faith in a living God is sustained not by correct belief, but rather, by vital memory. “Write down for the coming generation what the Lord has done so that people not yet born will praise Him,” as the Psalmist proclaimed (Ps 102:18). “Think of the past, of the time long ago,” Moses declared; “ask your fathers to tell you what happened, ask the old men to tell of the past” (Deut 32:7).
To remember God’s saving acts in the past is to remind yourself of God’s love and power, and thus be reassured that He’ll stand with you similarly in future trials.

We don’t need fortune tellers; we just need faithful story tellers.
The destiny which God has planned for us, that is, unfolds precisely insofar as we’re faithful to what He has done in our past. The biblical faith, as another has noted, moves us into the future much like rowing a boat: facing backwards and gauging direction by sighting along landmarks passed.
We’re naturally concerned about the future. But until we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving in this biblical way, God can only tell us, “You haven’t recognized what I’ve already done for you—how then can you value what I’m going to do?” Any parent knows how to deal with children like ourselves: “You haven’t appreciated what I’ve already given you—how then can I entrust you with more?”
In fact, if we don’t remember God’s work in our past, we can’t thank Him for it. Worse, we’re easily seduced by our self-centered human nature into believing, “I did it all by myself!” But if you gained what you have entirely by your own efforts, there can’t be any Thanksgiving, simply because there’s no One to thank.
Thanksgiving requires the humility to admit you needed help; without that, you can’t celebrate the fact that you received it.
The Bible therefore urges a “sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord,” as in Leviticus 22:29. In order to thank God wholeheartedly, you first need to sacrifice the proud fantasy of your power to the humbling reality of His saving hand.
And so God commanded the Hebrew Pilgrims,

When you have all you want to eat and have built good houses to live in and when your cattle and sheep, your silver and gold, and all your other possessions have increased, be sure that you do not become proud and forget the Lord your God who rescued you from Egypt, where you were slaves …
(Y)ou must never think that you have made yourselves wealthy by your own power and strength. Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to become rich. He does this because He is still faithful to the covenant that He made with your ancestors. (Deut 8:12-14, 17, 18 italics mine)

         Thus, the New Testament witness affirms, “For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it” (Eph. 2:8). Thanksgiving is not about what you have, but Who provided it.

For Americans, this is a powerful word of correction today, almost 400 years after our Pilgrim ancestors struggled to survive that first Massachusetts winter of 1621. What began then as dependence upon God for life itself has been corrupted through generations of increasing affluence into a national mania for self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and Looking Out For #1, as that popular best-seller urged.
The gospel of the world proclaims, “You’ve worked hard, therefore you deserve good things!” The Good News in Jesus, however, is precisely that we don’t get what we deserve.
A child of the God revealed on the cross dares not pray, “Lord, give me what I deserve!” For God knows—even if we proudly refuse to accept it—that in our hopelessly sinful nature, we deserve death (see Romans 7:18-8:2). In fact, that’s precisely why Jesus came: to save us from the death we deserve for the life God has planned for us. It’s called grace.
“Your father was a wandering Aramean…”
“Do not become proud…”
These texts, and the God of History whom they proclaim, became graphically alive to me at 42, when I visited for the first time my father’s hometown just outside Philadelphia (see “Boots for a Working Man,” in Healing the Masculine Soul). Though as a Navy brat I never lived there, Dad told me many boyhood stories about it, including how his mother and grandmother had worked long hours in the local fabric mills for as little as $3 a (six-day) week.

And then, wonder of wonders! I stood myself before the very steel workers’ house where my grandfather—who quit third grade to work in the mills—had lived with my grandmother after their wedding in 1900. Reverently, I walked up the stairs, by then covered with weeds, to the now dark, soot-stained factory where my grandfather had worked sixty hours a week, coming home at night—as my father told me—with bloody scars on his arms and shoulders from white-hot steel sparks.
Later, I stood before the dilapidated tire and rubber factory where my father himself had worked after high school, breathing its foul air and suffering its heavy loads until he stood up one day and declared, “There must be something more to life than this.”
What’s more, I stood on the platform of the train station, now an antique shop, where my father stood after his factory work, waiting for the train to college night school in the city—the very train, in fact, on which he met the person who introduced him to my mother.
The words you read here almost a hundred years later, are written by the grandson of an illiterate steel worker. Yet I have no burn scars on my arms from factory work.
Before the God of History—even my own history—I can only fall on my knees weeping for those men and women of the past on whose scarred and overworked shoulders I stand today. In that pain, I cry out for God to forgive me for taking so much for granted, and beg Him to show me how I can be faithful in my own life to all that He has done in my past.
I’m thankful that I don’t have to work sixty hours a week beside a blazing steel mill furnace and die of factory-induced cancer at 52. Before the God of History, however, I know that I don’t have to do it because my grandfather did it.
In fact, I have too often assumed, and in that sense abused the freedom others suffered that I might enjoy.

My eyes do not hold enough tears to embrace all the suffering my ancestors endured–nor to atone for my own failure fully to appreciate it. I’m therefore eternally thankful that I don’t have to die for my sin. Before the God of History, in fact, I know that I don’t have to do it only because Jesus did it.
In that thankfulness, in fact, I’m freed to live, even in the fullness of God’s purposes for me.
And so, on this as every Thanksgiving, I bow before the God revealed to the family of Abraham millennia ago, to the world over 2000 years ago in Jesus, unto this very day to me in His Holy Spirit:
“Father, I’m forever grateful to you. And so I will give a portion of my income to your church. Help me always to remember what you have done for me in the past, so I can live humbly and faithfully for you now and in the future. And on this Thanksgiving Day, I will eat and enjoy what you have provided, sharing freely with others as you lead me.”

at www.abbafather.com

1. “With Power and the Holy Spirit” Three podcast links at Home Page
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C. An Introduction to Spiritual Warfare: Facing the Reality of Evil
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5 thoughts on “A Biblical Thanksgiving: From Civil Etiquette to Sacred Memory”

  1. Gordon – This is a wonderful reminder of the staggering debt of gratitude we owe our Savior and the Father God who sent Him. Thanks for sharing a part of your history and through your eyes helping me see more clearly how easily I can slip into an oblivious state of taking God’s rich blessings for granted. <

    1. Thanks, Ron. Yes, it’s an easy “slip” alright. Remembering reminds me Whose I am and keeps me able to receive from Him what I need for the adventure He’s called me to.

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