It’s Thanksgiving here in the United States, where both TWI and a large portion of our readers are based. For those of you feasting today, Happy Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving begs the simple question: “To whom?” If we give thanks, that implies an object. Who is the recipient of our thanksgiving?
For ancient Israel, the phrase “They soon forgot” might well have been written on the nation’s figurative tombstone. Israel’s forgetting was more than simply a lack of gratitude. Instead, it was a turning away from giving credit where credit was due. It was a giving thanks to the wrong object.
To counter that forgetfulness, feasts punctuated the Israelite calendar, times to remember God from whom blessing had come. Leviticus 23 details seven feasts, times holy to the Lord to remember. Deuteronomy 16 calls out three as great pilgrimage feasts when Israelite males were to gather before the Lord in Jerusalem:
Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. (Deuteronomy 16:16–17, ESV)
The point? To celebrate the blessings of God. Seven days after the Passover was the Feast of Firstfruits, the two almost merging into a “happy holidays” week. Firstfruits celebrated the beginning of the grain harvest:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, so that you may be accepted…: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. (Leviticus 23:9–14, ESV)
The Feast of Weeks celebrated the end of the grain harvest:
You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord. You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah.…And you shall make a proclamation on the same day. You shall hold a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a statute forever in all your dwelling places throughout your generations. (Leviticus 23:15–21, ESV)
Finally, the Feast of Tabernacles, Booths, was the ingathering, the end of the final harvest, the conclusion of the agricultural year:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the Lord. …. “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the Lord seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:33–43, ESV)
The point, in all cases? God had blessed them richly, so they feasted to celebrate him, to give thanks where thanks were due.
Yet, in the Bible, the feasts also take on a different character, a focus less on the agricultural year and more on the great acts of God in salvation. Firstfruits, coming the week after the Passover, was part of the great celebration of God’s deliverance of his people from slavery, the Exodus from Egypt. Weeks, 50 days later, became associated with the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. Finally, Tabernacles reminded Israel of its 40 years wandering in the wilderness.
In other words, these agricultural feasts were also a celebration of salvation history. Because agriculture and salvation were linked in Israel—not linked in a pagan way, but linked in understanding that the God who had saved them was the same one who fed them—the God who had fed them in the wilderness with manna and also the God who fed them in the land with crops.
The book of Deuteronomy enjoins:
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. (Deuteronomy 8:10–18, NIV)
Israel was to regularly feast in order to remember, to celebrate the God who had saved them and sustained them.
We do not live in ancient Israel, and many readers live in lands whose agricultural calendar does not match that of the Old Testament. We do not keep these feasts. Yet, Jesus does not permit us to view the Law as irrelevant:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17–18, ESV)
Instead, we understand that the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ, and we expect it to still teach us. As the apostle Paul writes:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1–4, ESV)
The principles given in the feasting laws remain essential to Christians today, and we celebrate salvation history in these biblical events, with Christ’s crucifixion on the Passover, his resurrection being the firstfruits of our own, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the festival of Weeks, and looking forward to the great wedding supper of the Lamb, the eschatological feast, the expected fulfillment of Tabernacles.
So, whether you feast specially today, or simply take your daily bread, each time we feast, each time we eat; we remember. Whom? The God who has saved us, who is also the God who has fed us, giving the glory and thanks to him, not claiming it for ourselves.
Blessings to you from the TWI staff on our Thanksgiving holiday.