As we approach American Thanksgiving, and my Facebook feed ends up filled with posts expressing a mix of views about the holiday – some objecting to the mythology attached, the occasional post in favour of the mythology, and many more concerned about Covid-19 spread – I find myself thinking about a Biblical thanksgiving mention. Deuteronomy 26 tells that when people enter the land “the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance” they are to take the first fruits of their harvest and give it to God in a basket, reciting to the priest a specific creed: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5 – 10a NIV)
Some Biblical scholars (including Robert Alter) points out that the term “wandering Aramean” contains an element of desperation. This is not someone peacefully strolling around or exploring, but someone seeking help. A refugee. A Syrian refugee. The King James Bible says “a Syrian ready to perish.”
Some Biblical translations go ahead and say that the father in question was Jacob, who in the book of Genesis is said to go into Egypt with his sons during a famine. However, it is possible that the creed originated long before the stories of Jacob, and that the stories of Jacob were an expansion on it. It could have predated the stories of Moses. I remember one professor at university suggesting that the creed could potentially be one of the oldest parts of the Bible.
Sometimes I imagine one small group of people reciting this is a family ritual, and then it spreading throughout their community. Going down into Egypt during times of famine was common, and people may have felt their God’s presence in leading them out. The story may not have originally included the miracles attributed to God through Moses and Aaron or the huge, forty year wandering described as part of the Exodus story.
I think of how at Thanksgiving Americans try to imagine themselves connected to the Puritans, and the story of the Puritans being altered and adapted by a larger number, later, for political purposes. It was Abraham Lincoln in 1863 who tried to make the puritans Thanksgiving story unite the country. So too did the Biblical writers try to take a story of a small group and extend it to a wider group.
Both the Biblical first fruits ritual and the American Thanksgiving are tied in with entering a land already occupied by others and claiming it for one’s won. Both are part of stories of conquest. While Americans often try to overlook the violence of the conquest, there are Biblical scholars who suggest that the Biblical stories of conquest are unnecessarily violent, and that the people who claimed that they entered and conquered the land from elsewhere on the command of their God may have in fact been descendants of the Canaanites they claimed to have conquered. Or they might have been immigrants settling in the difficult and previously unsettled highlands.
The Biblical belief that their God gave them the land might have been part of how later kings understood their connection with their God, as vassals of him with loyalty to him and not to the Assyrians or Babylonians. It may have been part of how the people themselves understood their connection to the land, as given directly to them as farmers and shepherds, rather than owing their land to their kings. (The story of Naboth’s Vineyard shows that they rejected the idea of a king being able to claim whatever land he wanted.) However, the idea of their God giving one group of people the land has created problems in modern times, as Palestinians who have lived in Israel for generations and generations find themselves second class citizens. The violent conquest of Canaan is re-enacted with the destruction of Palestinian homes and the shooting of Palestinian youth. The conquest of North America from the natives continues in the ignoring of native land claims and continuing environmental damage to the First Nations.
Thanksgiving – both Biblical and modern – is a weird holiday, involving claiming land, but even if one tries to overlook the history and focus simply on one’s own blessings, one runs into awkward problems. How often, when we express gratitude, are we expressing gratitude that we are not like other people? That we do not suffer the same problems they face? How often when we urge people to be grateful for what they have, are we encouraging them to look away from injustice? To accept their lot?
I like the idea that the Biblical first fruits ritual involved offering a gift to God and, in every third year, a percentage to go to the poor – widows, orphans, foreigners. Gratitude for what we have must be tied in with action. We should celebrate what we have not just for ourselves but for what we can do for others with it.