What Is Thanks? A Name

“What is thanks?” Scripture answers that thanks is neither an emotion nor a virtue.[1] It is accompanied by emotions, and as we get to the New Testament it broadens to become a tone or stance of life, something like a meta-virtue. Fundamentally, thanks is a name, a ritual, and a speech act. Let us start there and see what it yields. In this first installment, I look at “thanks” as the name of a man, tribe, kingdom, and people.

Hebrew has no distinct vocabulary of “thanks” or “gratitude.” The verb normally translated as “thank” is yadah, which also comes into English as “praise.”[2] It is first used in Leah’s etymology of the name Yehudah/Judah: “‘I will yadah YHWH,’ so she named him Yehudah” (Gen 29:35). Yehudah is the fourth of Leah’s sons, and their names trace her experience as an unloved but fruitful wife: YHWH sees my affliction (Reuben); he heard I was unloved (Simeon); my husband will be bound to me (Levi); I will yadah YHWH (Judah).

In Genesis, names designate character and set a trajectory for life. Abram becomes Abraham, “great Father,” while Jacob the “Supplanter” becomes Israel, “He who wrestles with God.” Leah praises/thanks God, and Judah is the occasion of that praise, and so Judah’s name lays out a vocation of praise. In Jacob’s blessing at the end of Genesis, Yehudah becomes the object of praise: “Yehudah, your brothers shall yadah you.” Because Judah’s hand (yad, another pun) will be on the necks of his enemies, his father’s sons will prostrate themselves to him (49:8), as they have already done to Joseph. The one called to praise takes precedence over his brothers as the one praised.

Judah, of course, fathers the royal tribe, and is already designated as a father of kings at the end of Genesis. His willingness to take the place of his brother Benjamin puts his royal virtue on display. The royal tribe bears the name yadah, praiser and praised, the son whose very existence brings praise to YHWH and whose exalted position as king elicits the praise of his brothers.

The name is later extended beyond the blood descendants of Judah. During the monarchy, it designates the multi-tribal southern kingdom ruled by the Judahite Davidic kings, the dynasty that maintains proper praise/thanks of YHWH at the temple in Jerusalem. After the exile, “Judah” names the entire people of Israel. “Jew” is Yehuday (cf. Ezra 4:12; Dan 3:8, 12), an Aramaic variation of Yehudah that comes into Greek as Ioudaios.

This linguistic history is theologically pregnant: “Judah’s” migration from tribe to kingdom to people signals an expansion royal privilege. The Davidic “king of the Jews” is the King of a royal tribe and eventually a royal people, a King of kings. What Paul calls “true Jews” have been made kings and priests to God, maintaining praise and thanks.

For the purposes of this paper, the expansion of the terminology suggests an expansion of yadah as the identifying name of the people of God. As Yisra’el marks the people as those who wrestle with God (Gen 32:22-33), so the Yehuday are both praising and praised, or, to shift ground, thanking and thanked. We have a hint too that praise and thanks express royal status.

This is a portion of a paper written for a consultation on gratitude, joy, and complaint at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, September 8-9, 2017.

 

[1] I register here my skepticism about the category of “emotion,” a comparatively recent catch-all category that replaced the more nuanced concepts of the life of the soul. On this, see Thomas Dixon, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge: CUP, 2006). Dixon argues that many of the puzzles of the philosophy of emotion are created by the very category “emotion.” Kevin Reinhart links the “interiorization” of gratitude in the modern West with the privatization and interiorization of religion (“Thanking the Benefactor,” in John B. Carman and Frederick J. Streng, eds., Spoken and Unspoken Thanks: Some Comparative Soundings [Harvard: Center for World Religions, 1989] 133).

[2] In the AV, the verb is translated “praise” over fifty times, nearly forty times as “give thanks” or “thank,” and nearly twenty times as “confess” (e.g., Lev 5:5; 16:21).


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