Lessons in Thanksgiving
from the Hebrew Bible
At Thanksgiving, we invite family and friends to our table to partake of the abundance of God’s good gifts and rich provision. We reflect on and appreciate the many spiritual and material blessings received as gifts from the Lord. However, giving thanks will be a challenge this year as so many of us are mourning the loss of thousands of innocent lives—friends, family, and those we served for the gospel’s sake.
Yet, the Bible teaches us our circumstances should not impact our attitude of gratitude! The apostle Paul addressed this issue when he wrote, “Be filled with the Spirit . . . always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18, 20, emphasis added). Godly thanksgiving is, in fact, a powerful witness to others, especially when life is hard!
Thanksgiving is also a time when our blessings overflow to others through the gift of hospitality, especially for those in need. Your Mission to the Jewish People has been helping displaced Israelis, feeding the hungry, comforting the elderly, and serving the children of Israeli parents traumatized by the death and destruction they have seen since the ominous day of October 7. Thanksgiving is our time to stop momentarily and turn to God to celebrate His faithfulness and generosity toward us.
God gave us a holy calendar on Mount Sinai to help us remember His goodness and lovingkindness. Each great festival called upon Israel to stop their usual work and gather to consider the person and plans of God revealed in Scripture. Thanksgiving is not a biblical holiday, but it is based upon biblical principles and is a time when we can turn to the Holy One of Israel with thanksgiving and praise Him for His extraordinary generosity to us . . . even during the hard times. His generosity leads to our generosity, which is one of the great lessons of Israel’s Holy Days!
These festivals also teach followers of Jesus the Messiah some very powerful lessons.
The Jewish calendar is quite different from the non-Jewish calendar. For instance, the Jewish calendar is based on a lunar year, and the Julian calendar is based on a solar year. This difference makes it difficult to align the Jewish calendar with the Julian calendar. For example, we are now just a few months into the new Jewish year of 5784—which started in September—based upon the traditional rabbinic date for the creation of humanity.
Let us pause and look deeper at two holidays not included in the seven festivals of Israel found in Leviticus 23 but are especially helpful to consider during our North American Thanksgiving holiday.
God ordained a weekly day of rest—the Sabbath. In addition, He instituted a sabbatical year of rest every seven years. The Israelites were to leave the land fallow so it could rest during this seventh year. They were to refrain from planting crops and trust God to provide for them.
You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. (Exodus 23:10–11)
A second significant part of the sabbatical year was the forgiveness of loans. As we read later in Scripture:
At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. (Deuteronomy 15:1–2)
The Israelites were also to show special mercy and grace toward the poor during the sabbatical year. They were to do so in a few different ways. First, the “successful” Israelite was commanded to help fellow Israelites who were impoverished by loaning them what was needed for their survival.
If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. (Deut 15:7–8)
Secondly, they were to release those who indentured themselves due to falling on hard times. As a result of poor health, bad crops, or whatever caused them to “lose the farm,” the only way they could survive was to become enslaved to one of their fellow countrymen.
If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. (Deuteronomy 15:12–13; see also 15:14–18)
The “release” of the sabbatical year meant the Israelites could not plant crops in their fields, collect payments on loans, and keep all of what they produced and stored for themselves rather than giving generously to the poor. At the heart of the “release” was the opportunity to trust God for all their needs.
Unfortunately, the Israelites rarely kept the sabbatical year, which became the basis for God’s judgment during the seventy years of captivity in Babylon (Jeremiah 25:11).
Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete. (2 Chronicles 36:20–21)
In the fiftieth year—after seven sabbatical years—the Israelites were to celebrate a year of jubilee. You might view this time as a super sabbatical year! The word “jubilee” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word יוֹבֵל (yovel), literally meaning “ram’s horn” (Exodus 19:13; Joshua 6:5), as the shofar was blown to announce the year to the community.
Whereas the sabbatical year helped alleviate the immediate needs of the poor, the Jubilee year was designed to give the poor in Israel a chance to start all over again. Leviticus 25:8–12 provides a complete description of the laws for the Jubilee year.
You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus 25:10)
God Himself was the original distributor of the Land to the twelve tribes of Israel. He simply allowed the Israelites to use His land (Numbers 32; Joshua 19). Scripture always portrayed the giving of the Land of Israel to Jewish people as a gift from God (Genesis 12, 15, 17, etc.).
Moses also promised Israel if the Jubilee year is faithfully observed, the Lord will miraculously cause the crops to grow during the years when the ground was fallow (Leviticus 25:18–22). The God who demands the land remain unplanted is the same God who promised to provide in abundance.
Significantly, the Jubilee year began on the Day of Atonement, as the spiritual cleansing of the land began with the spiritual renewal of the chosen people (Leviticus 25:9).
As one Old Testament commentary paints the picture:
This year of grace [w]as proclaimed and began with the day of atonement of every seventh sabbatical year, to show that it was only with the full forgiveness of sins that the blessed liberty of the children of God could possibly commence.
There are so many lessons to learn from the sabbatical and Jubilee years. The most important message for us is to recognize all we have in this world comes from God. Everything we think we own is His! Even the possessions we worked hard to earn are ultimately gifts from a good God who loves His children. We are responsible for receiving these gifts gratefully to meet our needs and to use what we have to help those in need.
God also asked the Israelites to recognize the special place He gave to the Levites, who had a permanent right of redemption to their houses and whose crops could not be sold. They did not own land, but the Israelites were to care for them materially as they cared for the Israelites spiritually (Leviticus 25:32–34).
Likewise, Thanksgiving is an excellent opportunity to express our gratitude to our pastors, elders, and others who work so faithfully to nurture our spiritual growth. For example, you could send your pastor or favorite Chosen People Ministries missionary a pumpkin pie! (Our staff decided this would be a good way for you to celebrate Thanksgiving!) Or, you can send us your favorite pie recipe.
In all seriousness (though we and your pastor would still like the pie), we must recognize God has called us to be stewards of His gifts, which He designed to be enjoyed, nurtured, and, most importantly, used to bless others. As you celebrate Thanksgiving with your loved ones, I hope you will joyfully share what God has given you with others.