Longing for the Divine

The Thanksgiving Day That Will Never Cease

No American holiday appeals to me more than Thanksgiving, which commemorates the Pilgrims eating with the Indians in 1621. I weep over the fact that Native Americans were massacred as this land was conquered by the settlers, and I long to celebrate a more positive Thanksgiving. I seek a Thanksgiving that even God would want to join, a kind of international feast that commemorates a deep love for all people and mutual blessings among all tribes and nations.

I celebrate the generosity and grace of the Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims fleeing from religious persecution. I celebrate the deliverance from the struggles and hardships that surrounded the Pilgrims. Most often, what people find difficult to accept is ugly cultural and religious ideas about God. Misperception of God lies at the root of our sin, but if God were viewed as altogether lovely, perhaps we would find something truly wonderful to be thankful for. I believe that God identifies with those persecuted or oppressed, and neglecting others opposes the true design of Thanksgiving.

I love the idea of setting aside days to feast and give thanks. The modern Thanksgiving meal celebrated with family and friends resembles the biblical Feast of Tabernacles. Those who celebrated this sacred feast expressed their gratitude for deliverance by enjoying a feast on a national annual Sabbath. Just as Thanksgiving is the most universal of American holidays, the Feast of Tabernacles was the most universal of Sabbaths.

As a side note, while I do not consider the annual Sabbaths to be legally binding obligations today, they are packed with significance, as they display God’s desire for intimacy and fellowship. We will never understand the revelation of God’s love if we disregard the joy and rejoicing expressed through these annual Sabbaths. I do not see them as abolished by Jesus because they are extensions of the joy and gratitude that are ours in the ministry and reconciliation of Jesus.

The feast of harvest and thanksgiving was the most joyous of all the festivals mentioned in Leviticus 23 and Numbers 29. More offerings were devoted to this day than to all the other festivals combined. Among these offerings were the seventy bulls, which are believed to represent the healing of the seventy nations listed in Genesis 10 and the atonement of all cultures stained by man’s sin. In his commentary, scholar Jacob Milgrom provides some helpful insights:

Rabbinic tradition may be correct in stating that the total of seventy bulls represents all the nations of the world, assumed to number seventy. This festival, focusing on man’s need and desire to give thanks to God for the year’s harvest, is of universal appeal. It is small wonder that Zechariah prophesied that Sukkot [Tabernacles] would become a universally observed festival (Zech. 14:16) and that the Pilgrims at Plymouth modeled the thanksgiving celebration for their first harvest on the biblical paradigm.

Milgrom, Numbers, 1990, p. 247

The Feast of Tabernacles is not just about thanking God for a bountiful harvest. It also commemorates God’s provision and deliverance of the Israelites as they wandered homeless in the wilderness. It is about realizing that God protects and sustains us in times of conflict and danger. God’s care and provisions, however, are not exclusive benefits for the Israelites or Pilgrims but diverse blessings for all nations. The offering of the seventy bulls is for all the nations and tribes of the world. They atone for the sins of culture, transforming the world into a new place where all nations are invited to feast together at the same table. It is the most joyous feast, as it seeks a perfected world like that revealed in Zechariah’s vision: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles” (Zechariah 14:16, NKJV).

This feast of thanksgiving remains to be fulfilled—a final celebration in the world made new. This grand day is how it will all end, and the festive thanksgiving will never cease.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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