November 22, 2018

The Unlikely Origin of Thanksgiving

For many, our Thanksgiving holiday is inextricably tied to the image of Pilgrims dining with Native Americans, feasting on turkey, squash, and corn on the cob. Historically the event took place in 1621 near Plymouth, Massachusetts. Pilgrims gathered with their Native American friends to celebrate—in thanksgiving—that year’s successful harvest.

Some deny that this “first Thanksgiving” has anything to do with our modern celebration. It wasn’t until 1789 that George Washington proclaimed November 26 of that year to be a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer” in honor of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Regardless of this historical debate, it’s worth considering that Thanksgiving really originated long before the Pilgrims. Arguably, the origins of a formal day of Thanksgiving are surrounded not by turkeys but by camels.

Among their many required offerings and sacrifices, Israelites also engaged in voluntary offerings, acts of worship, and commitment. Among them was the peace offering. The idea was not making peace with God, but of recognizing that peace already existed between God and humanity.

The peace offering was generally preceded by a sin offering and a burnt offering. Blood had been sprinkled, atonement had been made, forgiveness extended, and justification assured. Next was a voluntary offering of gratitude.

Some translators have called this the fellowship offering because it is the only sacrifice of which the one offering it may eat part of it. It involved fellowship because the one offering it would share the offering with the priest and others. Fellowship with God and with others centered on eating together.

One of the types of fellowship offerings is called the sacrifice of thanksgiving. Before the Pilgrims, football games, and  cranberry sauce, a celebration was called the sacrifice of thanksgiving. The description is found in Leviticus 7:11-15.

Several elements in this passage could be the model for our Thanksgiving celebrations. The passage allows me three observations.

The Sacrificial Center

First, the ancient Jewish thanksgiving centered on a sacrifice. The one doing the thanking would sacrifice something precious as a token of thankfulness.

Merely saying thank you, or feeling it, was not enough. A three-minute prayer at the thanksgiving table was not enough. After the sin offering, the justification, the forgiveness of sins, and the successful harvest, celebrants were so moved by the unmerited outpouring of God’s love that they voluntarily wanted to give something valuable back to God. An Israelite family would take an animal of perfect quality (the best they had) and offer it to God as an expression of thanksgiving.

Consider its significance. The offering was valuable; it could have brought a good price at market. The offering was truly a sacrifice.

Question: Is something a sacrifice if we really wouldn’t miss it or if we have plenty of it? Is it a sacrifice if it is average or can be replaced? Is it a sacrifice if we can readily give it away without it affecting us in some way? As we look at our family, our home, our health, our relationships, our job; as we look at the assurance we have of salvation, what sacrifice could we consider putting on the altar of thanksgiving?

We gain deeper insight into that sacrifice by considering another element brought for the fellowship offering—bread.

At first glance we may be tempted to think of bread as common, even cheap. However, to Israelites it was a symbol of God’s provision. “As the mainstay of life, bread came to be a primary metaphor for life and sustenance.”1 Bread was part of the offering of thanksgiving because it represented life itself, and thus, the bringing of one’s life as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

God essentially says, if you want to bring a meaningful sacrifice of thanksgiving, why not start by bringing Me your life; why not bring Me yourself? Some of us may be holding on to a part of our lives that we need to let go: an attitude, a grudge, material items, a destructive habit, or a stubborn perspective. Thanksgiving is a good time to let go of ourselves.

A Complete Celebration

A second observation: the ancient Jewish thanksgiving was a joyous feast—a party, if you will. An Israelite family would bring its offering, but not in a sullen, depressed manner.

In fact, among the items prescribed for the sacrifice of thanksgiving was leavened bread—a bit odd, since normally unleavened bread is associated with sacrifices. Bible commentators have noted that God prescribed leavened bread for the sacrifice of thanksgiving so that “nothing might be wanting to make it a complete and pleasant feast; for unleavened bread was less grateful to the taste.”2

If we thought we had reason in the past to celebrate Thanksgiving, here is another: God wants us to enjoy life to the fullest—even as we remember His grace and provision for us.

Today is the Day

The passage concludes with a verse that instructs the offering of thanksgiving be eaten on the day it is offered. None of it can be left till morning. The food was to be eaten that day; the feast was to be celebrated that day; the thanks was to be given that day; the living was supposed to begin that day.

We are confronted here with God urging us to live life in the present. God knew the temptation for Israelites to save and store, and perhaps even to skip the feast altogether.

It’s equally possible that God knows what we may be thinking—that we’ll get around to living out a celebratory spirit of gratitude when things settle down, when we’re out of school, when the kids are grown, or when we’re out of debt.

Today is the best possible day to embrace gratitude.

A Thanksgiving Challenge

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, consider the following challenges.

First, let us come individually to the altar of thanksgiving, carrying with us a tangible and worthy sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Second, let’s accept God’s gift in return—the gift of a life full of meaning and full of joy. Accept a place at the feast He has prepared for us this Thanksgiving season.

Finally, let’s seize the moment so that our offering of thanksgiving will not sit around until tomorrow. Genuine thanksgiving cannot wait until tomorrow because God is alive and active in our life today.

Happy Thanksgiving!

  1. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
  2. Matthew Henry’s Complete Bible Commentary.

Costin Jordache is news editor and director of communication for Adventist Review Ministries.