Wednesday, November 27, 2013

God, Food, and Thanksgiving

"To thank the Lord for all of his blessings many of us in this country gather together with our families at this time of year. We bring our best food, lots of meat and baked goods made from scratch with the best ingredients. Then we offer a prayer of thanks, recounting what we are grateful for. After that we spend the day eating, talking, and laughing, enjoying each other's company -- and God's blessing. Of course we don't have to do this. But it's a very old tradition and we always look forward to it."

No, I'm not describing the Thanksgiving Day my family will have tomorrow. This is a thanksgiving celebration the way that ancient Israelites did it, 3000+ years ago.

It's buried in the depths of the almost-never-read Book of Leviticus, the third book in your Bible. Here is how the Common English Bible translates it:

This is the Instruction for the communal sacrifice of well-being that someone may offer to the LORD: If you are offering it for thanksgiving, you must offer the following with the communal sacrifice of thanksgiving: unleavened flatbread mixed with oil, unleavened thin loaves spread with oil, and flatbread of choice flour thoroughly mixed with oil. You must present this offering, plus the unleavened flatbread, with the communal thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being. From this you will present one of each kind of offering as a gift to the LORD. It will belong to the priest who tosses the blood of the well-being offering. 
The flesh of your communal thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being must be eaten on the day you offer it; you cannot save any of it until morning. (Book of Leviticus chapter 7, verses 11 - 15,  CEB)
 There are obvious differences of course and the last thing I'm trying to do is suggest that Americans are modern Israelites (although the Puritans, who started our Thanksgiving tradition, are just the kind of guys who would read Leviticus).

But it is interesting to me that there is a more than passing similarity between their thanksgiving and our thanksgiving. In this section of Scripture God is setting up an organized way for Israel to relate to him. But as part of that he includes a way to spontaneously say "thank you" to him when they are so moved.

Most of the other sacrifices ordained in the first 7 chapters of Leviticus are either completely consumed in the altar fire or part is set aside for the Priests. But when it comes to thanksgiving, God's idea is: Get your family together, bring your best animal (which is what a sacrifice had to be), make 3 kinds of baked goods, and then gather before me (at the Holy Tent -- the forerunner of Solomon's Temple) and we'll have a good time together. And eat all you want because there won't be any leftovers.

The God of Banquets

Throughout the Scriptures we find God working through community and food. He is not an austere, far-off deity or the kind who does everything himself. God is constantly, intimately involved with every mundane thing in his people's lives, working through them to fulfill his eternal purposes.

The ancient prophets tell us that at the end of time God will hold a banquet like no other and everyone will be invited. "The Lord who commands armies will hold a banquet for all the nations on this mountain. At this banquet there will be plenty of meat and aged wine—tender meat and choicest wine" (Book of Isaiah chapter 25 verse 6). Jesus picked up on this image in his teaching and spent a good deal of time urging his countrymen, whose Messiah he was, not to miss out.

Even the most profound, sacred thing we do as the Christian movement, taking the bread and wine of Holy Communion, is God working through food to transform his people and through them the world.

God is not an old spoilsport, not a stern deity who looks down his nose at "frivolity." On the contrary, he is a celebrating God who even built feasting and thanksgiving into his Old Testament law. Jesus was not infrequently seen at banquets and parties, incidentally. And God promises that history will not end in a bang or a whimper, but in a party.

That in itself is a good reason to give thanks.


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