Although Thanksgiving tends to be associated with the United States, several other countries observe the holiday on various dates. As the American celebration approaches, participants become more introspective about the act of giving thanks. The giving of thanks is common in Israel’s Scriptures and, often, this act of praise is a reaction to being in the presence of God. When the Lord’s people offer thanksgiving, they express gratitude for the human-divine relationship and acknowledge the nearness of God.
As with the modern Thanksgiving holiday, the ancient offering of “thanks” (תודה; todah) included various foods. The thanksgiving sacrifice originates in Leviticus. God says that the priest “shall offer with the thanksgiving sacrifice (זבח התודה; zevach hatodah) unleavened loaves mixed with oil, unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and loaves of fine flour” (Lev 7:12). In Israelite worship, meals were events in which God and the people participated together, and they signified the divine presence among the congregation. God commands the priests to “set the bread of the presence (לחם פנים; lechem panim) on the table before me regularly” (Exodus 25:30), and the Lord even partakes in the sacrificial meal when the scent of the burnt offering ascends as a “pleasing aroma” (ריח ניחח; reach nihoach; e.g., Genesis 8:21; Leviticus 1:9). These ancient communal feasts underscored the depth of Israel’s thankfulness to God.
The Psalms provide many songs of thanksgiving, and several of them speak to God’s enduring presence. For instance, Psalm 100 declares, “Serve the Lord with gladness; come into his presence (פניו; panav) with singing…. Enter his gates with thanksgiving (תודה; todah), and his courts with praise. Give thanks (הודו; hodu) to him; bless his name!” (100:2, 4). Literally, the Hebrew for “presence” (פניו; panav) means “face,” which shows that the psalmist offers thanksgiving with the expectation of seeing God in the Temple. Indeed, offering of thanksgiving was an opportunity for fellowship between those on earth and in heaven. The psalmist tells God, “I will offer to you the thanksgiving sacrifice (זבח התודה; zevach hatodah) and call on the name of the Lord…. I will pay my vows to the Lord with all his people” (Ps 116:17-18). Giving thanks is the communal activity of praising God’s perpetual presence.