by Marjorie George
Long before the U.S. Congress officially set the fourth Thursday in November as a federal Thanksgiving holiday in 1941, long before President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving in 1863, long before the Pilgrims set aside three days in December 1621 as a festival of thanksgiving — before all of that, God had impressed upon the Hebrews the importance of setting aside a specific day each week to remember all that the Almighty had done for them and to give thanks.
Sabbath as a day of rest and reflection is commanded by God in two places in scripture – Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:15. Taken together, these two remind us that God is the giver of all good things, but each has a slightly different emphasis. The setting in the Exodus passage is the giving of the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – to Moses. The fourth of these is to “remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Why? Because God himself rested on the seventh day of creation; therefore the children of Israel are to consecrate the seventh day in each week. No work is to be done on the day of Sabbath. Not “you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” (vs 10).
As a day of rest, Sabbath, like our day of Thanksgiving, was to be a day to revel in the sheer glory of God’s creation. Author Barbara Reid points out that on the seventh day of creation, God did not rest to gather energy to continue the work of creating but to take delight in all that had been created (What’s So Biblical About the Sabbath, The Bible Today, Mar 2009).
In our acts of giving thanks, we are invited to roll in the grass, walk barefoot, play in the rain, stand and allow the sun to warm our faces. And not just us – our children, our servants, our animals, the land. All of creation was to live in fruitful harmony with God. Sabbath remembrance was the great sociological equalizer.
Likewise Sabbath is declared in Deuteronomy 5:15, but here the reason for remembrance is the mercy of God: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
We are to live our lives in the sure and certain hope of redemption. The pivotal point of the Hebrew’s story is the Exodus event and their release from Egypt. “This freedom from slavery creates a holy place,” says Reid, “free from bondage, free from want, free from exploitation and oppression, free to praise God.” The wandering Israelites were to be given a home in the land that had been promised to their ancestors. God would be faithful to his word.
This theme is echoed in the history of our American Thanksgiving: the formal declarations were made not during times of great prosperity but in the midst of and in spite of great adversity – World War II, the Civil War, the deploring conditions and dashed hopes of the Pilgrims’ first years in the new land. We have come through, thanks be to God, and he will not desert us in our future.
Stretching back to 1621 in this country, and centuries before that in the history of our ancestors, Sabbath lessons followed from acts of remembering and giving thanks to our God. I pray that in our own day, our praises and giving thanks tomorrow can be for us – and for our sons and daughters, and for all of creation – a day of Sabbath.
Marjorie George is editor of ReflectionsOnline and Reflections magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.