Their taskmasters oppressed them. But a charismatic, spiritual leader rose up and offered to lead them into an abundant promised land where they could be free. He first had to lead them across a desperate wilderness where they wandered many days. Many died on the journey. In that wilderness, they made a covenant, and bound themselves to God’s laws and to each other. Once they arrived in the Promised Land, they discovered that some inhabitants were hostile and unwelcoming. Nevertheless, in obedience to the Law of Moses, they celebrated a harvest festival and gave back to God a portion out of their abundance.
Isn’t this the story of Israel’s flight from Egypt into Canaan? Yes. It was also the spiritual narrative told by the members of John Robinson’s 17th century church of English separatists, also known as Pilgrims. They saw themselves as the New Israel, the story of the Exodus as their story, and the command to observe a harvest festival as their obligation.
In the early 17th century, Pastor John Robinson concluded that the Church of England was beyond redemption and chose to separate his congregation from the Church. These Separatists saw themselves as the New Israel which was called out from among the nations. They sought to create a holy society, but needed a place to do that. When the London Company offered available land in the New World, the congregation believed this was God’s providential hand, providing for them a New Canaan.
Their long voyage across the Atlantic was likened to Israel’s wilderness journey. En route, they covenanted with God and to each other to follow His Law. In later writings, the Mayflower Compact was likened to the Mosaic Covenant, and the Mayflower, their Sinai. As the New Israel, they saw themselves as obligated to the Law of Moses. Moses commanded Israel that once in the land they were to celebrate a harvest festival each fall: “You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress” (Deut.16:13). Therefore, in obedience to that command, and despite the fact that one third of their number had died that first winter, the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. In the nineteenth century Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday in the United States.
It may be surprising that an American holiday has its roots in a Jewish harvest celebration. Some might object that the Pilgrims appropriated Israel’s story for themselves. But, the act of giving thanks to God knows no political or social boundaries, for “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness; the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). We are all obligated to dedicate to God what belongs to Him, including ourselves. And those of us who have a personal relationship with Him through Yeshua the Messiah should be all the more ready to acknowledge His providential hand of redemption in our lives and give Him thanks. Ultimately, the observance of Thanksgiving doesn’t belong only to Pilgrims, Jews, or Americans. It belongs to all those who recognize and are thankful for God’s abundant grace, mercy, and redemption.