A major biblical theme as it relates to food is thanksgiving for God’s provision. One of the most interesting food-related stories in Scripture is the miraculous appearance of manna each morning for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4). That they gathered only enough for one day on each morning demonstrated the extent to which they had to trust and depend on God’s faithfulness. For them, the manna was a very tangible, honey-tasting reminder of why eating food is an act of thanksgiving.
Frequently in scripture, thanksgiving manifests itself through celebration and feasting on food. In the Old Testament, meals were often events that symbolized the ratifying of an agreement. After Isaac and Abimelech made a covenant of peace, Isaac “made them a feast, and they ate and drank” (Gen. 26:30). Similar feasts happened after Jacob and his father-in-law made an agreement of peace (Gen 31:54), or when David and Abner patched things up at Hebron (2 Sam 3:20).
For the Israelites, feasting together on food was the central act of public, communal thanksgiving for God’s provision. In the Jewish calendar, a cycle of seven annual feasts celebrated food and the blessings of God.
“The covenant requires human response to God’s initiatives of created goodness and blessing,” writes L. Shannon Jung in Food For Life. “Understanding food as created good, a blessing, and a gift from God leads to a central aspect of human response: appreciation. In response to Yahweh’s gift, the creatures are to enjoy that gift; they are to celebrate, feast, and party.”
I was recently invited to attend a Friday night Shabbat dinner with a small community of twentysomething Messianic Jews in Los Angeles. Enticed by the promise of plenty of good food — fish tacos, margaritas and cake were on the menu — and the opportunity to get to know more about the culture of Jesus-believing Jews, I happily accepted the invitation. It was a beautiful experience. As the kick-off service of the day of rest (for Jews, beginning at sunset on Friday night), the Shabbat dinner was a rich, sacred, long meal full of prayers, songs, scripture reading, laughing, and plenty of “L’chai-im!” toasts.
Though I was a “goy” guest in this intimate gathering, I didn’t feel like an outsider. We were all believers, and we joined together in the breaking of bread, the drinking of wine, and the joyful consuming of fish tacos and a table full of other delicious things. Some of those in attendance had read Hipster Christianity, so we talked about that, and we talked about Israel and Palestine, and the Jesus people, shofars and worship flags, even Rob Bell and the Love Wins controversy (still a topic of discussion even among this group of a dozen or so Messianic Jews). The whole evening actually reminded me a Rob Bell quote from Velvet Elvis on “the art of the long meal”:
"As Christians, it is our duty to master the art of the long meal.... What was the ritual the first Christians observed with the most frequency? Exactly. The common meal, also called the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper. And what did this meal consist of? Hours of talking and sharing and enjoying each other's presence. Food is the basis of life, it comes from the earth, and the earth is God’s. In a Jewish home in Jesus’ day - and even now - the table is seen as an altar. It’s holy. Time spent around the table with each other is time spent with God."
The Shabbat dinner experience was a great reminder to me of the sacredness of the dinner table and its knack for bringing together people of diverse classes, ethnicities and cultures who together break bread in fellowship, celebration and thanksgiving for the bounty of God’s provision for us.
L. Shannon Jung argues in Food for Life that the Biblical themes of eating coalesce around two poles: “the pole of enjoyment, providence, goodness, delighting,” and “the pole of hospitality, justice, mission, sharing.”
Indeed, if we look at the instances/themes of food in the Bible, these two broad themes do come up again and again. There’s a vertical component to how we should eat — as an act of gratitude to God and worship of Him — but there is also a horizontal component: eating in community, missionally, with hospitality. Both the vertical and horizontal were in wonderful harmony at the Shabbat dinner I attended, and it offered me a picture of just how meaningful, rich and transformative food can be in the context of our faith.
This Thanksgiving, as we feast on good food, among family and friends, let's remember that food connects us both vertically and horizontally: With God, the provider of all things, and with our fellow man, with whom we share in the goodness and bounty of God's provision.