Deut. 26:1 -15
Today we are looking at the origins of “Thanksgiving” as a Harvest Festival in Ancient Israel. These festivals were not just a celebration of “the first fruits” but the time that the people gave a tithe of their harvest. (See note).
According to the Mishna (which was not written down until c. 250 C.E.) there were three tithes in Ancient Israel: 1) The first tithe of 10% was to the Levites, the priests, and their families. 2) The second tithe of 10% was for personal consumption at the festivals during the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th annual cycles of a seven-year sabbatical cycle called the Shmita. 3) The third tithe of 10% was for the poor and it was paid in the 3rd and 6th year of the Shmita cycle.
According to Deuteronomy 26, when the people had taken possession of the land, and lived in it, and farmed it, they were to take the first of all the fruit of the ground they harvested, and put it into a basket and go to the chosen or designated place of worship (this was before the building of Solomon’s temple) and go to the priests who was in office and say to him, “I declare this day to the LORD your God that I have come into the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.” Then the priest would take the basked from the hand of the one who brought it and place it before the altar of the LORD. Then the person bringing the first fruits would recite the Holy History in much the same way that we recite the Apostle’s Creed saying:
“A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O LORD, hast given me.”
Then, leaving the basket of firstfruits of all the harvest before the altar the one bringing it was to “worship before the LORD his (your) God,” rejoicing in all the good which the LORD had given to the person and the person’s house, and “to the Levite, and the sojourner who lives among you.”
In giving the farmer a harvest, the LORD was a blessing not only to the farmer and his family—sorry Margaret it was all “his” at this point, but to the Levite, who received the tithe and his family—ibid., and to the sojourner, in the land, too.
The Harvest was more blessing than the farmer alone could bear! This was the rule in years, 1, 2, 4, and 5 of the seven-year cycle which culminated in “the Year of Jubilee.” (The Year of Jubilee is another story for another time, sorry.) In years 3 and 6 of the seven-year cycle the tithe was taken not just for the Levites, but also for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. This tithe, too, was accompanied by a confession before the priest who received it:
“When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within your towns and be filled, 13 then you shall say before the LORD your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all thy commandment which thou hast commanded me; I have not transgressed any of thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them; 14 I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead; I have obeyed the voice of the LORD my God, I have done according to all that thou hast commanded me. 15 Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people Israel and the ground which thou hast given us, as thou didst swear to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
The tithes of years 3 and 6 were not the only provisions that the Law of Moses made for the poor. In Deuteronomy 24:17 we read that charity in ancient Israel was based on the charity the people themselves had received from the LORD.
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge; 18 but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this.”
Thus, the people were to practice a “generous” harvest, always leaving something in the field, or on the tree or vine, for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. “
Verse 22 reiterates the reason why Israel was to practice a generous harvest: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, I command you to do this.”
Today, Thanksgiving is bigger than a harvest festival, but this was also true for Ancient Israel and for the New Testament Church. The book of Leviticus (7:15, 22:29) prescribes a sacrifice of Thanksgiving, and, whether a person offered this sacrifice with regularity or not, the people as a whole lived in appreciation of all that the LORD had done for them. Remember, according to Deuteronomy 6:7 they were to teach what God had done for them when they sat in their houses, and when they walked by the way, and when they lay down, and when they rose up.
In the New Testament, the word “thanksgiving” occurs 13 times, primarily in the books associated with Paul, with one occurrence in the Revelation of St. John the Divine. However, the word “thank” or “thanks” occurs 49 times, mostly in Paul but also in the gospels. Notably, Jesus himself gave thanks:
“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” ( Luke 22:19)
Today, Thanksgiving is an American Holiday, first proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of a terrible civil war. It is a custom that has spread around the world, and many countries have proclaimed a “day of thanksgiving.”
Psalm 126 does not use the word, “thanksgiving.” It is technically, “a song of ascents” that was sung when a procession of worshipers led by the king would climb up to the Tent of Meeting, and, later, after it was built, to the Temple. However, Psalm 126 is certainly appropriate for any day of Thanksgiving, for it celebrates a victory over ill-fortune. This year, 2020, is the year of the Pandemic. Most of us will eat Thanksgiving Dinner in much smaller gatherings. We will miss our traditions and must find new ways to celebrate and give thanks. Let us hope that next year, Psalm 126 will find its way more naturally back into our hearts, and our lives. This year, I invite you to pray it with me in faith and in anticipation:
Psa. 126 A Song of Ascents. 1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” 3 The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad. 4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb! 5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy! 6 He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
Stay safe as you celebrate Thanksgiving Day.
Note: The festival of the first fruits provided a wonderful image for understanding the importance of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He is the first fruits, and we are the harvest. Thus in 1 Corinthians 15:20 the apostle writes, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”