When we think of the first Thanksgiving, do our minds tend to drift to memories of Pilgrims and Indians in November of 1621? Do we recall images of these sharing corn and fowl together on makeshift tables after their first harvest in the New Land?
But, did “Thanksgiving” start there? Although America’s first one may be remembered in that way, did you know there was a Thanksgiving feast thousands of years ago that continued for well over a millennium?
The Scriptures tell us in Leviticus of several specific offerings that were required in the celebration and service of God’s Tabernacle, and later His Temple, One of those offerings applies to the concept of a Thanksgiving feast.
Leviticus contains several passages detailing a specific offering, called the “Peace Offering.” One particular verse speaks of the motivation of the heart by saying, “And if you offer a sacrifice of a peace offering to the Lord, you shall offer it of your own free will.” (Leviticus 19:5 NKJV) A corresponding New Testament reference calls this an offering of a “cheerful giver.” (See 2 Corinthians 9:7)
In these passages, both the Old Testament and the New, this gift signifies a thanksgiving offering given out of free will with no coercion. The giver, filled with a heart of gratitude, joyously offers this with great delight and cheerfulness in honor and thanks for the graciousness they received.
The Old Testament peace offerings specified exact rules and requirements for the offering and the donor, all of which hold significant meaning. But the primary basis of this offering was three-fold: either as a thanksgiving, as a payment of some fulfilled vow to the Lord, or as a freewill offering, one we might call a “Just-because” offering.
I love how one Rabbi describes it in this way, as a “Just-Because” offering. He points out how an individual could bring this offering to the Lord, in essence saying to God, “I offer this gift to you just because of your goodness to me. Just because of your mercy. Just because I love you and I want to take this opportunity to thank you for you. To thank you for what you have done for me. To thank you for what you mean to me. To thank you for who you are.”
Some have even called it a “Jewish Thanksgiving” of sorts. The reason rests in how this, of all the various offerings, had one other element of specialness: it was a shared offering. In Bible times, a portion was offered to the Lord, a portion was enjoyed by the priests, and a portion was shared by the donor in a sacrificial meal. In this way, it bears similarity with our American Thanksgiving.
The priests and the individual donor would both share a meal in the presence of the Lord as this person expressed his or her gratitude, whether for a specific act or gift, or as a “just-because” offering. It stood out as a special sacrifice, and one that carried significant tenderness when given to express such gratitude.
Think about how special this would be for the Lord, by just imagining how we would feel. For instance, think about how precious it would be for you if one of your grown children brought to you a full-course meal including dessert one night after a hard day’s work. In the conversation, your child just simply says, “I wanted to bring this to you just because I love and appreciate you. This is one small way I can show my gratitude.”
Even writing that paragraph brings tears to my eyes, as a parent of three grown children. What joy and delight would that give us. How precious and tender our thankful response. And, how much more motivated would we be to do more for that son or daughter, because of their heartfelt thankfulness.
Could the Lord perhaps feel similarly? Might He just smile at such an offering of appreciation? Might He just love to sit down with us and share such a meal of joy and gratitude, so to speak? The peace offering encouraged Jewish individuals to come and say “thank you” to the Lord whenever they wanted, or of their “own free will.”
One example from Scripture of an individual who lavished such thanksgiving on the Lord is Solomon. In reading the story found in 1 Kings chapter 8 and 2 Chronicles chapter 6, we see that Solomon prayed a prayer of dedication over the newly-completed Temple, resulting in the glory of the Lord filling the Temple with His divine presence. In a heartfelt response of thanksgiving, Solomon and all the people lavished gratitude upon the Lord. As a peace offering, Solomon offered 22,000 bulls and 120,000 sheep in one peace offering. Extravagant thankfulness poured out in honor of the great God who filled this house with his glory. What an exorbitant thank offering to the Lord.
Most of us could not give so exquisitely. The good news is that God doesn’t expect us to. He merely asks that our gifts be given from a sincere and thankful heart with joy and delight.
Maybe the next time we think about the first Thanksgiving, we can remember the Peace offering of the Old Testament, and receive our own encouragement to come anytime, anywhere in a moment of prayer to just say, “Thank you, God. I love you and appreciate you.”
Could we incorporate this motif not only into our Thanksgiving Day celebrations, but perhaps our daily prayers? The Scriptures give us an open invitation to do just that..