Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving for some hundreds of years now, and it’s easy to assume we invented it.
But the basic idea of giving thanks to God for a good harvest is an old idea.
In the time of Jesus, all Jews celebrated three different harvest festivals every year: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.
Now it’s true that each of these festivals was not 100% about the harvest. These festivals commemorated other things too. But each festival included a celebration of the harvest as an essential part.
Let’s look at each of these.
Passover—Celebrating the Barley Harvest
Passover is an English word used for the celebration Jews call Pesach, which falls in March or April.
The celebration commemorates the Exodus story told in Exodus 12.
To summarize the story, the Hebrew people had been slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. The prophet Moses demanded that the Pharaoh release his slaves. The pharaoh refused, and Moses responded by calling down ten plagues on Egypt.
The last and worst of these was the death of every firstborn son in Egypt. The Hebrews were instructed to kill a lamb and smear its blood on the doorposts of their homes to mark them out to be “passed over” by the angel of death. They roasted and ate the lamb and prepared to leave.
In the morning, all of Egypt mourned their dead, and the pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go.
The Passover festival has been celebrated most years ever since. (2 Kings 23:21-23 says that the Passover was not celebrated for several centuries, beginning in the time of the judges in the 11th century BC, right up to the time of King Josiah in the 7th century BC.)
At the time of Jesus, Passover was the second most important festival of the year. The gospel of John records at least three Passovers that Jesus celebrated in Jerusalem.
And part of the celebration was bringing in the barley harvest. (In Israel, wheat and barley are planted in the fall. Barley matures first, in March or April, and wheat matures in late May or early June.)
Leviticus 23:10-16 spells out the regulations on how to celebrate the barley harvest at Passover.
Pentecost—Celebrating the Wheat Harvest
Pentecost come from a Greek word that means “fiftieth,” because it’s celebrated 50 days after Passover, in May or June. Jews call this festival Shavuot, which means “weeks” or “sevens”. Note that 50 days is effectively seven weeks, because in Jewish reckoning, you always count both the first day and the last day of an interval of time.
What does 50 days have to do with anything? Because in the story of the Exodus, the Israelites took 50 days to walk from Egypt to Mount Sinai, where they received the Ten Commandments. So Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Law on Mount Sinai.
Christians have long celebrated Pentecost to mark the story told in Acts 2:1-40, in which the Spirit fell on the followers of Jesus. Jerusalem was packed with visitors who had come to celebrate Shavuot.
It’s helpful here to remember that all the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, and they all observed the Jewish festivals, just as Jesus did. So the story told in Acts 2 is about good and loyal Jewish followers of Jesus who were in Jerusalem doing exactly what Jesus would have done if he were still alive on earth—they were celebrating Shavuot.
And part of that celebration was a celebration of the wheat harvest. Exodus 34:22 spells out the command in the Torah to celebrate this harvest at the time of Shavuot.
Tabernacles—Celebrating the Fall Harvest
Tabernacles is the English word for the Jewish festival “Sukkot,” which means “booths.” The festival falls in September or October. To this day, part of the celebration of this feast requires you to make a flimsy shelter and sleep in it, commemorating the flimsy shelters the Israelites used while wandering in the desert in the Exodus story.
The command to live in these booths is given in Leviticus 23:42-43.
But this festival is often called the feast of ingathering, because it came just as the fall harvest of grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives was wrapping up. These were a major part of the diet in ancient Israel, and a good harvest meant a year of good eating and good drinking.
The command to celebrate this feast of ingathering is given in Exodus 34:22.
Jesus and Thanksgiving
We can be absolutely certain that Jesus celebrated all three of these thanksgiving festivals every single year of his life.
He may have celebrated some of them at home in Nazareth.
But the gospels record several instances of him celebrating them in Jerusalem, which was where every loyal Jew hoped to celebrate them every year.
It’s common to speculate on “what would Jesus do” if he lived in our place and our time.
I think we can be very sure he’d celebrate Thanksgiving with us.
But would he discuss politics? Would he watch football? Would he eat a second helping of pumpkin pie?
You bet your socks he would. Jesus doesn’t seem to have been shy about talking about important political issues (preaching the kingdom of God in first-century Jerusalem was a political statement). He was accused by some of having too much fun with the wrong sort of people (even hanging out with prostitutes and tax-farmers). And he was specifically called a glutton and winebibber.
But I think he would have also taken time to reflect on the good things that had happened in the past year.
And we know Jesus lived in a time when very bad things happened. People sometimes died in epidemics, or starved to death because the economy was bad. People sometimes died in riots caused by ethnic divisions. Crooked politicians and rich oligarchs took advantage of ordinary people who had no way to fight back.
Jesus knew all that, and yet he celebrated the feasts every year when they came around, and he found a reason to be grateful for the food set before him (and apparently also the wine).