Bless God, Not the Bread

Thanksgiving-An Ancient Holiday

The Thanksgiving holiday has been practiced in North America during the last four centuries, though this tradition has roots in the old harvest celebrations of England and Europe. It's even possible, and quite likely, that different native tribes which resided in the Americas before the European discoveries practiced various forms of harvest festivals. The harvest festival phenomenon is known to be pervasive in many ancient cultures and societies- indigenous peoples throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas seem to have a penchant for thanking a Higher Being or Beings for their food. So, the American Turkey Day was not an outright invention, at best, it was an adaptation where two worlds sat down together and communed: the circumspect Protestant English folk and the curious animist Wampanoag people (AKA the Pilgrims and the Indians).

One of the world's oldest fall harvest festivals is the biblical Sukkot or Feast of Tabernacles (also known as the Feast of Ingathering). During this mid-October festival, the last fruit of the year would have already been collected, and the Israelites would give thanks before the Lord for seven days. Its name, Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths, commemorates the children of Israel's 40-year wandering in the wilderness and the portable booths or tents they lived in during the Exodus. Later in Canaan, the Israelites would also dwell in temporary booths to protect their olive orchards during the September harvest. This holiday continues on today in Jewish tradition around the world, and is especially noticeable every fall in Israel when wooden booth structures are assembled outside of homes celebrating Sukkot.

The Magical Blessing for Food

If there is one meal during the year which populates prayers to God and attitudes of gratefulness, it is the Thanksgiving meal. Have you ever prayed a prayer like this or heard someone pray this way before a meal…Dear Lord, bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies or Our Father, bless this food and may it strengthen us to do your work, Amen. While these are common and acceptable Protestant prayers today, they perpetrate a widespread spiritual misnomer. According to the Bible, we should be blessing God and not the bread. Think about this for a second - if an outsider not versed in our prayer rituals would hear us ask God to "bless the food," it may come across as superstitiously silly. It's almost as if we invoke a magical incantation to envelop our baked potato or kosher hot dog. (Really, how much more kosher can a kosher hot dog get?)

Jesus and His Jewish Blessings

To grasp the biblical foundation for blessing and thankfulness, it helps to understand Jesus' Jewish world. The written Scriptures that Jesus grew up reading were the books from the Old Testament or Tanach, and he would have had similar oral traditions as practiced by Jews living two thousand years ago. In the Bible, God blesses people's fields, crops, livestock, and future offspring by making them fruitful and abundant (Deut. 7:13-15), and the people return the favor by thanking their Provider for His goodness and bounty. Jesus follows this practice in the New Testament, when he serves food to others, he offers prayers of thanksgiving and blessing to God (Luke 24:30, Luke 22:19, Mark 14:22, Matt. 26:26, I Cor. 11:24).*

There are many stories in the Gospels that are more insightful when viewing them within their historical Jewish context. For instance, the "Last Supper" was really Jesus' "Last Passover Supper" (Luke 22:15-20, Mark 14:22-25, Matt. 26:26-29). As an observant Jew, Jesus would have been celebrating Passover in Jerusalem as commanded by Deuteronomy 16:2. Breaking bread and drinking wine was and still is an intricate part of Passover, but most important of all during Passover is blessing God before and continually throughout the ceremony. The word "bless" in these Hebraic prayers means expressing thanks to God. An ancient Jewish blessing that is still pronounced today with the entrance of the Sabbath on Friday evenings as participants sip wine from a cup is, "Blessed are you, O Lord, Our God, King of the Universe who creates the fruit of the vine." Another blessing as members break bread is, "Blessed are you, O Lord, Our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth." These would probably have been analogous to the prayers that Jesus would have uttered during his "Last Passover Supper." Notice that in these "blessings", God the Creator is being thanked for giving food (bread) and drink (wine)-not the bread and wine.

Living in a Big Mac World that Has Forgotten the Big Mac Maker

Today, in the 21st century world of the United States, less than two percent of the population are farmers. When was the last time that you killed what you ate? Or planted and threshed what you baked? In ancient Israel, it was the flipside; practically every Israelite had some type of encounter with planting and harvesting, hunting and fishing, agriculture and wildlife. Bread was not something to be taken for granted in the biblical culture - it was made and eaten on the same day, hence "our daily bread." Some years were bountiful and others were famine-stricken. No one, including kings, was guaranteed a consistent amount of food especially during a long-standing drought.

In contrast, the contemporary Western world has not experienced a serious food shortage, where people have starved to death, since World War II's attrition. We would like to think that technology's efficiency and prosperity have ensured this generation, and those to come, a satisfied stomach. The Pilgrims on the other hand, like the Israelites, were not assured a Big Mac on demand in an air-conditioned or heated Plymouth restaurant. In fact, half of the Pilgrim settlers died during their first winter in the New World due to cold, sickness, and disease. This has been common throughout human history, the struggle for survival in a harsh and an unpredictable world. Can it be any more obvious why Jesus and the ancient biblical culture would emphasize the necessity of thanking God for his provision of food? Yet, it is so hard in our world of plenty to hallow our ancestors' pangs of want. May we be encouraged to be thankful always and in every way (I Thes. 5:18). Let us remember to thank God the Creator of our cornucopia, instead of enchanting the salad with "God bless the food!"

So the next time you sit down to a big breakfast, thank God for it and don't Harry Potter-ize the pancakes. Bless God, not the bread. A prayer we learn in pre-school summarizes this perfectly, "God is great, God is good, Let us thank him for our food. Amen."

* Also see the "Feeding of the 5,000" in Matt. 14:19, Mark 6:41, Luke 9:16, and John 6:11. Of these four witnesses, all describe Jesus as blessing or giving thanks except Luke 9:16 which apparently describes Jesus blessing the bread itself. A more historically intuned Greek manuscript's reading of Luke's passage is found in the uncial Codex Bezae where Jesus "prayed and said a blessing over them (bread)." In other words, Jesus thanks God for the bread, but does not literally bless the bread itself. Same for the "Feeding of the 4,000" in Matt. 15:36 and Mark 8:7. In Matt. 15:36, Jesus gives thanks to God for both the fish and the bread, while in Mark 8:7, Jesus gives thanks for the bread but then, curiously, it reads, "he blessed them (the fish)." Referring to Codex Bezae, again, among numerous variant manuscripts, we find readings of this passage which say "and he gave thanks" or "and he blessed" with no mention that the fish itself is being blessed.