One of the often-forgotten elements of Thanksgiving (a celebration that either suffers hatred because of political correctness or is neglected in the midst of a mercenary mindset as companies seek customers to bail out their bottom line for longer and longer each year) is the fact that it was a covenant meal. Hardly anyone stops to ponder what this means, even those children who might still celebrate the Thanksgiving meal between the Pilgrims and the local tribes. What is a covenant meal, in the context of the biblical ethic, and what does it mean for us today? Since so few people know about it, it is a worthwhile topic to discuss.
Colonial America gives us two emblematic pictures of a covenant meal. One of them, the Thanksgiving meal, we celebrate as Americans every year with large amounts of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin and/or sweet potato pie. Even a picky eater like myself enjoys most of those foods (aside from the cranberry sauce). Thanksgiving was a covenant meal between rather impoverished British colonists and the local population, a sign of peace and harmony and mutual respect, typical of a parity covenant, a sign of the better angels of our natures given the temptation of imperialism. It should be noted that the Plymouth colony (like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania) generally had good and trustworthy relationships with its local tribal populations, while it was the far more imperialistic and expansionistic Puritans that provoked warfare with the local tribes of New England. Here is a case where political correctness simply fails to reflect historical reality, and where a celebration of a ‘traditional’ festival is a celebration of racial harmony and honest and just dealing between people of very different backgrounds. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be all about as Americans?
The picture of honorable dealing shown by the Thanksgiving covenant supper has its ugly shadow in a contemporary supper in Virginia where the leaders of the Jamestown colony invited two hundred and fifty local leaders of their neighboring tribes to a covenant dinner and promptly slaughtered them in an act of appalling bad faith. Given the moral evils that the South gave to colonial America, from chattel slavery to plantation “democracy,” their act of bad faith in pretending a covenant dinner that ended up being a massacre is part and parcel of their generally unbiblical worldview that pretended to righteousness while being full of deception and treachery within. It should be noted that this is traditionally the worst kind of treachery–as hospitality required a host to make every effort to protect their guests from harm. It is an act of unconscionable evil to invite someone to a feast with the intent to betray them. It was also an act of incredible evil to participate in a covenant meal with the intent to betray one’s host (e.g. Judas). Unsurprisingly, no one celebrates that feast this day.
What is important about a covenant meal? In the Bible, a covenant was forever. Even a covenant obtained under false pretenses (like the covenant between the Gibeonites and the people of Israel ) could not be revoked, and its terms were valid hundreds of years later. Most of us simply do not think of treaties and alliances and covenants with this level of seriousness. It is hard enough to keep our parity covenants to our own spouses for a lifetime, much less the “eternal” covenants between nations that God holds us accountable to. When the Pilgrims ate that Thanksgiving meal, it was more than a gluttonous feast of turkey and all the fixings, but it was a pact of eternal peace between two different peoples who considered themselves to be worthy of mutual respect and protection. It was an immensely serious act, one whose seriousness we often neglect.
To engage in a covenant without that required seriousness is an act of great evil, and yet it is commonplace nowadays for treaties and agreements and covenants to be counted as nothing. And yet even with the lightness most of us treat our solemn obligations, there is still a certain cachet in making an oath. We still consider it a big deal to make an oath of office, or make an oath in court (where we would perjure ourselves if we speak dishonestly), and even those who might be judged as somewhat irresponsible young people still feel the need of stability that comes from making an “oath” of loyalty to their lovers, showing an intuitive understanding of its seriousness even if they fail to understand its full implications.
It is not coincidental that the celebration of covenants for believers comes with a feast. Whether it is the Jewish seder or the Christian Passover of unleavened bread and wine, a covenant comes with a meal that is deadly serious. Even our weddings generally come with feasts, a relic of the time when the people marrying were aware of the way that their unions were alliances between families and sometimes even nations, and were a matter of great seriousness. Thanksgiving is simply one of the many festive occasions that celebrates covenants, where the feasting survives long after the covenant and its meaning has been forgotten. By recognizing the covenant of the Thanksgiving dinner, and the just and fair dealing that lies at its heart, we can better appreciate the meaning of Thanksgiving, and seek to achieve the standards of honor and fair dealing of some of our ancestors, while remembering the importance of our own covenants, and the temptation to treat those lightly or under false pretense, a course of action that would bring us under judgment for all time.