We say some words and phrases so quickly that we may no longer recognize their meaning. We need to slow down, think about what we are saying, and why.
Here are some examples.
Holiday. Holy day.
Christmas. Christ mass, or the mass to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Thanksgiving. Giving thanks.
Significantly, the phrase “thanksgiving” is redundant. It is like saying “give, give.”
Going back into the Gothic and Germanic tongues from which the word originates, “thank” probably derives from the sense of giving back, rendering or returning.
If the word “thank” means to give, render or return, at Thanksgiving we should consider what exactly we are returning, to whom and why.
The scriptures can help to clarify what we are giving in the act of thanking, to whom and for what purposes.
In the days of Moses and for many years afterwards, animal sacrifice was a primary way in which the people “gave back” to God. For example, Leviticus 7 prescribes that to demonstrate thankfulness to God, ancient Israelites were to sacrifice an animal, along with bread, and share that sacrificial meal with the priests and God.
This is how it worked: An Israelite who wished to show thankfulness to God would bring an animal to the temple. A priest of God would sacrifice the animal by the altar. The priest covered (Hebrew kafar) the altar with the blood of the animal. The priest would then divide up the animals parts, much like a butcher would do. The priest then put the animal on the altar to cook. The altar was like a very large barbecue.
There would then be a feast. The Israelite family which brought the sacrificial animal would get to eat a portion of the sacrificed and cooked animal. The priest who labored at the temple would eat a portion. And the rest would burn up into smoke and ascend into heaven. Hence, God was a participant in this holy feast.
Hebrew kafar is translated into English as “atonement.” The blood from the animal made an atonement for the thanks-giving Israelite. Notice that kafar even sounds a little like the English word “cover.” Perhaps “cover” ultimately derives from the Hebrew kafar.
And that is what the Atonement does; it covers something up.
In our case, the Atonement covers up our sins. We have stained our garments with blood (that is, with sin). But by applying the blood of Jesus Christ to our garments, our stains are covered, hidden, indistinguishable from his blood. Therefore, instead of showing up at the judgment bar of God stained with our own unclean blood, if we accept Christ, we are “stained” with his blood, which is pure and clean and holy. We have thus been washed in the blood of the Lamb.
In addition to the sacrificial animal, if an Israelite wanted to express thanks, he would also bring bread to the sacrifice. Thus blood and bread were the key elements of an ancient Israelite thanksgiving sacrifice.
Our sacrament has some interesting connections. We come to sacrament meeting to have a spiritual feast with God. Our sacrament table is the modern equivalent to the ancient altar. We are all able to partake of the blood and bread of the sacrificial lamb. There is enough for each member who has come in thanksgiving. The priests also get their portion. And God is present in spirit to partake and participate with us.
In review, across hundreds of years of ancient Israelite history, animal sacrifice was one of the ways in which God asked his people to express thankfulness to him. But eventually, God asked for different forms of thankfulness. In the second part of this column, I’ll discuss what God now asks of his people. As a preview we can remember the words of King Benjamin.
“O how you ought to thank your heavenly King! I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:19-21).
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D., biblical studies, instructional tech) is a BYU teaching & learning consultant; founder of Creativity, Innovation & Design Group; and travel leader to Mesoamerica and Middle East. taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.