No turkeys allowed
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I find my thoughts drifting already to that most wonderful of all holidays. In my mind though, the modern version can’t keep pace with its ancient counterpart. No, I’m not referring to the 17th century colonial American first pilgrim harvest. I am speaking about a Thanksgiving that makes the one observed in the Plymouth Colony look recent by comparison: The First-Fruits Festival in ancient Israel. Let me give you a quick tour.
We’ll pick it up more than twenty-five hundred years ago in a Galilean village at the end of the spring harvest. For more than five weeks, weather-beaten farmers have gathered the cereal crop. And now they join together with their families for the week-long pilgrimage to their capital city, Jerusalem. People from other villages along the way will join in and make the trek with them. Nights on the road will be filled with singing and dancing and an endless string of campfire stories. Soon they will arrive in Jerusalem and camp east of the city on the Mount of Olives.
The evening before festival, ovens are built and fires set to prepare fresh-baked barley loaves, two to a family. These from the grains of those first sheaves harvested. It is the best of the crop. Next morning they will deposit the loaves in their baskets and make the descent into the city.
They will enter the eastern gate near the spring, walking together in family units through the city and then uphill into the palace precincts. The King will stand before them there arrayed in purple and red-violet, gold and silver articles of rank hanging from the edges of his garment.. He looks to be what he is: The visible manifestation of the invisible God of Israel. The people follow him then in tribal order from the palace platform up the hill and right into the temple courts.
The wait on-line will seem endless as each family prepares to go before the priest in the outer court. But only the father of each family may draw near him. The other members will wait behind to hear his confession. Listen carefully. It is important.
“My Father was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and became a great nation. But the Egyptians treated us harshly… Then we cried out to the Lord in our misery. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. He brought us to this place and gave us this land. And now I bring the first-fruits of the soil that YOU, O Lord, have given me.” Deuteronomy 26:5-10
Doesn’t sound much like a Thanksgiving prayer, does it? Isn’t Thanksgiving about being thankful for what we have? And no Turkey!? The pilgrims would have been appalled. And what’s all of this about Arameans, oppressions, and rescues?
Well, this confession was a really big deal in ancient Israel. It was the key to being and becoming again, every harvest, the people of God, rather than just another people with stuff. Thanksgiving was about more than just being grateful. It was about setting a priority on HOW Israel would be grateful. At harvest time, when the blessings of life were so visible, there was a subtle temptation to focus on WHAT one has, rather than WHERE it comes from. And that mistake is the essence of idolatry.
For Israel, the trick was to express gratitude in the right way: As a PRAISING PEOPLE, not just as a thankful people. Did you know that the Hebrew language doesn’t have a word for “thank you.” Middle easterners find “thanks” rather offensive. It is looked upon as a subtle way of drawing attention to the one giving it, rather than honoring the one receiving it. As an expression of gratitude, “thank you” would have come across to the biblical peoples as cheap and miserly. Here are some of the ways that middle easterners express gratitude: “May God bless your hands which have given me this gift.” “No one has ever been so kind to me.” “May God hear your every prayer.” These expressions elevate the giver, not the receiver or the gift.
Israel also expressed gratitude by being A GIVING PEOPLE. So often our Thanksgivings become more about getting, whether it is a big meal, football fun, or just a day off. Our Thanksgiving can be the most gluttonous day of the year. But for Israel, as God had given everything, the people celebrated Him by giving back generously, hilariously, and outrageously. Theologians call this “imitating God.”
Finally, Israel expressed its gratitude by being A CONTENTED PEOPLE. “Blessing” is a funny word. In Hebrew we have two words for it. One, barukh, has to do with transfers from one to another out of priority for the other. But the other word, ‘ashrei, cannot be transferred. It refers to the blessing we enjoy when we live with the right priorities for ourselves and about those things we own. This kind of “blessing,” or “contentment, is enjoyed we are fully conscious of how little we really need, rather than how much we could to want.
May I encourage you this Thanksgiving to think about those ancient Israelites and that weird harvest celebration of days gone by? Confess your praise for the Giver rather than offering thanks for the gift. Imitate God by giving ridiculously rather than stockpiling more and more for yourself. And do find contentment whatever your present circumstances in the love and compassion of God, rather than longing for things that cannot satisfy.
If you will do that, you will truly be grateful.