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15 May 2023

In America and Canada they celebrate Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving meal combines elements of national history and personal commitment. It contains reminders of historical events: the foods traditionally eaten at Thanksgiving (turkey, corn, pumpkin) are those that fed the Pilgrim Fathers when they first arrived in the land. Thanksgiving is also, or can be, an expression of commitment to God: a celebration of God’s goodness; an opportunity to reflect on the past, to give thanks, and to share God’s blessings with others. The presentation of first-fruits in Israel, described in vv. 1-11 of Deuteronomy 26, was somewhat like Thanksgiving in North America.

According to Leviticus 23, the Israelites were to present the first-fruits before God every year. But Deuteronomy 26 pictures an individual Israelite, newly entered into the Promised Land, presenting the first-fruits of his land for the very first time. What would it be like to be in that person’s shoes? Finally, after hundreds of years of your people’s history, to be settled in the land that God had promised your ancestors, to be able to offer the first-fruits of crops that you had planted in your inheritance, your allotment in the land of promise?

When an Israelite (the head of the family) presents first-fruits before God, he makes a declaration. This declaration, in a very striking way, links personal and national history. It locates this Israelite’s life story within the larger history of the nation Israel (v. 3): “Today I declare… that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” The worshipper comes before God conscious that he belongs to a nation whose roots go back to ancestors who lived hundreds of years previously.

In verses 5-10 he makes a longer declaration, highlighting key points in Israel’s history: the promise to the Patriarchs; the entry into Egypt; oppression in Egypt; delivery from oppression in the exodus; entry into Canaan. All this history lies behind his final words: ‘So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.’ (v. 10).

If you asked me about my life story, I could go into some detail, depending on your level of interest. But I could not trace my ancestry back more than about 150 years: part of it lies in England, part of it in Scandinavia, and that’s really all I know. And if you asked me about my spiritual ancestry (the chain of events that led to me becoming a Christian), I couldn’t trace it back even that far. One strand of it would run through C.S. Lewis: reading his Mere Christianity nearly 50 years ago was certainly one of the things that drew me towards Christ. Another strand could be traced back to the Welsh revival of 1904: I believe that the grandfather of the school-friend who led me to Christ was converted in that revival. More than that I don’t know. Ultimately, of course, the roots of my conversion can be traced back to Pentecost, to Jesus, and even further back, into Israel’s history. But all this history is not a living presence in my mind in the way that Israel’s history was for many Israelites.

In vv. 1-11, Moses imagines an individual Israelite, aware of all that God has done for his people, grateful for the blessings that he enjoys personally, making this declaration and presenting first-fruits as a token of all that God has given him. It is a familiar pattern in Deuteronomy: God blesses you, and you respond to God’s blessing in kind.

The annual presentation of first-fruits was a time of worship, a solemn occasion when the Israelite stood before God and gave heartfelt thanks. It was also a time of rejoicing and celebration, which ended in a meal for all the family, a meal to which those who were not part of the family (the Levites, aliens mentioned in v. 11) were also invited.

The central section of Deuteronomy (cc. 12–26) is filled with detailed teaching which sets out God’s covenant requirements for Israel (how God wants them to live). It is striking that this section ends by describing a ceremony which is intended to focus the worshipper’s attention on God’s goodness to Israel, a ceremony whose message is: you follow God’s teaching as a response to what God has done for you, you obey God out of gratitude for God’s goodness.

Rejoice in what God has done for you: let that attitude of rejoicing be what drives your obedience, and fuels your service for God. Follow the teaching, yes; observe the detailed regulations (all that you’ve just read through); but above all, serve God gladly, and not grudgingly. Keep reminding yourself of God’s generosity towards you, and let your own response to God be equally generous.

Imagine if throughout Israel’s history, Israel had been made up of individuals all of whom had the attitudes expressed here: how different the history would have been! Imagine, we might add, if the church were full of members who were similarly motivated by gratitude to God, people whose regular practice it was to remind themselves of God’s mercy towards them, and to give thanks to God for their salvation through Jesus Christ.

What would that be like?

Dr Philip Satterthwaite is the Principal Emeritus of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST). He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.