“When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God.
“And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘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. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. 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 deeds of 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 you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.
(Deuteronomy 26:1-11 ESV)
The text above from Deut 26 is the Old Testament reading set aside to be read on Thanksgiving day. You may not be familiar with the origins of the observance in the United States. Although it originated long before is Massachusetts, it actually was not until 1863 that it was proclaimed a national holiday. Right in the midst of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln decried that the last Thursday of November be set aside to give thanks for “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
He also wrote, “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”
I believe president Lincoln identified a universal human characteristic when he said that we are prone to forget the source of our blessings. Americans today, amidst so much abundance, are prone to take God’s bounty for granted as if our food simply materialized on supermarket shelves. Ancient near eastern people had a much different but equally destructive tendency. While our culture takes food for granted, their culture lived in constant anxiety about whether or not the harvest would come. The Canaanite people that inhabited the promise land that the Israelites were coming into lived in a land of relative plenty and they attributed this to their fertility deities Baal and Asherah.
The perennial temptation of the Israelites when they came into the land would be too look to these deities for the blessing of a good harvest.
I wonder what our modern, American equivalents to Baal and Asherah are?
In our text the Lord reminds his people again and again that he is their God and not only has he given them the land, but he has also called them to be a people, rescued them from Egypt, and sustained them in the wilderness.
After the people come into the land and begin to enjoy its rich blessings, they are told they must acknowledge that what they enjoy is an inheritance from the Lord. This acknowledgement comes in the form of a prescribed liturgy consisting of two statements, and a thanksgiving offering followed by a celebration.
The first statement they are commanded to make is this, ‘I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ They have no claim to the land apart from God. It is a sheer gift.
Ancient near eastern people considered the first fruits of the harvest sacred. For this reason, the Lord asks his people to bring them in a basket to his appointed priest at his appointed alter. It is an acknowledgment, a thanksgiving offering to the Lord, who is the source of all their blessings.
The second statement is a kind of creed that proclaims that they were homeless, sojourners in the land of Egypt and oppressed when the Lord lead them out of captivity, making them a people and giving them a rich and fertile land.
Having proclaimed the story of their salvation and election and presented a thanksgiving offering in worship to the Lord, it is time to party! The Levites and even the foreigners are to be included in the celebration. Why?
God has a soft spot for the poor and the homeless. In fact the passage following the one we have read, God commands that a tithe be paid not only to the Levites and the foreigners but also to widows and orphans. Whenever Israel tells their story they are to remember that they were sojourners—‘a wandering Aramean was my father.” When they were enslaved in the land of Egypt, God had pity on them and so they should have pity on the poor and homeless in their midst.
Likewise, we too have wandered far from our father’s house and fallen into the captivity of sin. The Lord had pity on us and sent his son Jesus Christ to rescue and redeem us. Should we not have pity on the lost and oppressed amongst us? Shouldn’t we remember God’s mercy and invite them to celebrate with us God’s sheer gift of grace?
The way we show our gratitude to God for what he has done for us is to do likewise for our neighbor. To use a popular expression of our day, “pay it forward.”
Abraham Lincoln understood this, which is why he concluded his Thanksgiving day proclamation in this way,
Set apart and observe the last Thursday of November, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to (the people of this nation) that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.