What Is Thanks? Rite and Speech Act

What Is Thanks? Rite and Speech Act September 12, 2017

Most English translations introduce the terminology of “thanks” in of Leviticus, as a translation of todah (Lev 7:11-15), a noun derived from yadah. In the Levitical system, todah does not refer to emotions or verbal expressions of gratitude but to a sacrificial ritual, a specific form of the peace offering (shelem).

Leviticus 7, which describes the thank offering, assumes the general shelem rite of Leviticus 3, prescribes an assortment of cakes and breads, and requires that the flesh of the todah be consumed on the same day it is offered. Peace offerings are offered on a variety of occasions. In addition to todah (thank/praise) offerings, shelemim can fulfill a vow or be presented as “freewill” offerings, presumably motivated by the sheer desire to feast in the presence of God.

Uniquely among the offerings in the Levitical system, the shelem climaxes with a meal that includes non-priests. It is a shared feast. Fat and entrails are placed on YHWH’s altar-table as his “bread” (cf. Lev 21:21-22), some mean is given to the priest, and the remainder belongs to the worshiper (Lev 3:1-17).

Since most animals are too large for a single person to consume, the peace offering typically feeds a group of worshipers. YHWH, his servants the priests, and lay worshipers join together in a common feast of peace-making. Whenever the Torah speaks of Israel “eating and drinking before the Lord,” it has the peace offering in view. In the Hebrew Bible, the noun “sacrifice” (zavach) denotes the shelem; as a verb, zavach means “to slaughter for a meal.”

Peace offerings are introduced at Sinai when Israel cuts covenant with YHWH (Exod 20:24). The treaty of peace is sealed with a feast of elders on the mountain (Exod 24), and that peace is renewed perpetually in the peace offerings of the tabernacle and temple. By entering into a marital bond with her divine Husband, Israel is welcomed to the court of the bridal suite, the tabernacle, to enjoy the banquet of the marriage covenant.

Todot, like other shelemim, are meals. Thanksgiving is not a private emotion that comes to public expression, but is inherently a public, ritual act. Thanks is not an emotion that motivates generosity, but is itself an act of generosity, a meal that the worshiper shares with others. This festive, corporate, and generous form of thanksgiving continues in Christian Eucharist and forms the pattern for the sacrificially Eucharistic life of the Christian and the church.

Leviticus gives no detailed description of what might motivate the offering of a todah, but the Psalms do. In Psalm 50, the sacrifice of thanks is connected with paying vows (v. 14) and with the promise that the Lord will rescue his people in their “day of trouble” (v. 15). Elsewhere, David brings thank offerings because the Lord has delivered him from death and kept him upright in the face of his enemies (Ps 56:12-13). This is, in a sense, repayment for a benefit done, but Psalm 50 makes the limitations of this model explicit. YHWH has no need of the flesh of bulls or the blood of goats because all things are already his (50:7-13).

A todah is not a return-gift of what is ours to God, because the return came from God in the first place. In this respect, it is similar to the firstfruits offering, which is not a return but a token acknowledgement that all comes from God and never leaves his hand, even when it is in human hands.[1]

Offering the todah is not an attempt at an impossible repayment.[2] Instead, it is a communion meal shared between YHWH and a person, a family, or all Israel. The covenant relationship, established at Sinai, inflects every celebration of thanks. Thanksgiving is covenant renewal through a sacrificial feast.[3] The worshiper does not hope to “balance the books” with YHWH. Instead, he hopes to maintain good fellowship, friendship, and table companionship with his divine Benefactor.

It is not a bribe. The worshiper offering a todah seeks communion with YHWH. Yet, sharing a feast with YHWH, the worship does hope and expect that his divine table companion will continue to be his Benefactor in the future.

Speech Act

When todah refers to verbal acts of thanks, the ritual context remains in place. Todah spoken and sung is conceived as a verbal sacrifice, a “sacrifice of praise.” At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, Nehemiah assigns the Levites to offer joy, thanks, and song with cymbals, harps, and lyres (Neh 12:27). The Levites are so defined by their acts of thanks and praise that the choir is called todot gedolot, “great thanksgivings” or “great thanks-givers,” as they process around the wall (Neh 12:31, 38, 40). While Solomon dedicated the temple with blood and smoke, Nehemiah dedicates the city with music and songs of thanksgiving.

This transposition of sacrificial todah into verbal and musical thanksgiving makes it difficult to determine what the Psalms refer to. David cries out for vindication and cleansing so that he can approach the altar to make-heard the voice of todah (Ps 26:7). This could mean that he wants to sing and say his thanks in the presence of God, or it could mean that his voice will mingle with the smoke of a todah peace offering, rising in song as he eats and drinks with joy. Exiled beyond the Jordan, David remembers the throng at the house of God keeping festival, voicing joy and todah (Ps 42:4).

Many expressions of thanksgiving in the Psalter assume a public, liturgical setting. David fulfills his desire to offer praise and thanks by joining Israel in praise. Ritual and verbal thanksgiving, in any case, coalesce into a single rite: Verbal expressions of gratitude accompany sacrificial todot.

Psalms of thanks share certain characteristic features.[4] Thanksgiving includes a narrative recital of YHWH’s actions on behalf of the worshiper. “I cried to Thee for help, and Thou didst heal me. YHWH, Thou hast brought up my soul from Sheol” (Ps 30:2-3). To give thanks involves an act of memory that retells “all Thy wonders” (Ps 9:1). Thanks in the company of the upright celebrates the “great” works of YHWH, his “splendid and majestic” works, his justice, his provision of food for all creatures and his faithfulness to covenant (111:1-6).

Because he has been delivered, David is filled with joy (30:11) and promises to sing praise and “give thanks (yadah) to Thee forever,” a continuous witness to YHWH’s mighty acts (30:12). Giving thanks means glorifying the name of God (86:12) before the world. David looks for the day when the kings of the earth will abandon their idols and give thanks to YHWH, having heard of his words and ways (138:4).

Thanksgiving witnesses to YHWH among the Gentiles and against the gods of the nations. Giving thanks exalts YHWH before and above all gods, in defiance of the claims of all idols (138:1). It declares that rescue and abundant life come only from the God of Israel, Creator of heaven and earth. Thanksgiving is an act of spiritual warfare.

As a recitative, thanksgiving memorializes God’s works, not only to other humans but before God himself. In reciting past acts, David implicitly calls on YHWH to continue acting on his behalf. Thanksgiving is often a response to a “righteous” act of God, YHWH’s justice displayed in his rescue of his people in their desperation and need, justice displayed in YHWH’s defanging of predatory enemies.

David does not want to be alone in giving thanks for his deliverance. He calls on “godly ones” to “sing praise to YHWH” and “give thanks to his holy name” (30:4). Like the sacrificial todah, verbal acts of praise are shared, communal events.

Praise and thanks, todah and yadah, come from the heart. “I will give thanks to YHWH with all my heart” (Pss 9:1; 86:12; 111:1; 138:1). “I will give thanks to you with uprightness of heart” (Ps 119:7). These passages explicitly describe a public liturgical setting: “I will give thanks to YHWH with all my heart, in the company of the upright and in the assembly” (111:1).

In no case is “heart-thanks” seen as a substitute for verbal or ritual expressions of gratitude. The thanks David gives in word, song, and sacrifice comes from the heart and expresses his whole heart, but what is in the heart must take exterior, public form. There is a correspondence, a truthful fit, between the heart and the voice. By doing yadah from the heart, David shows that he is a son of Judah to his bones, living his tribal identity of praise and thanks.

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


[1] David expresses this in a prayer responding to the generosity of Israel’s donations to the temple: “all things come from You, and from Your hand we have given You” (1 Chr 29:14). David offers thanks to God for Israel’s generosity, her expression of thanks.

[2] Ancient writers like Seneca and Cicero discuss gratitude under the rubric of justice, and Thomas Aquinas follows their lead, arguing that gratitude is “annexed” to the virtue of justice. Thus, for Thomas, gratitude involves not only acknowledgement of a benefit and verbal thanks, but repayment at an appropriate time and place. In fact, to repay the gratis for of the original, unowed benefit, the repayment should tend to exceed the original gift (ST II-II, 107). That notion of gratitude obviously fails in respect to God. This notion of gratitude also underlies Anthony Kronman’s complaint that Christian gratitude imposes an unbearable infinite debt of gratitude on finite beings (Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan [New Haven: Yale, 2016]). Stressing that thanksgiving takes festive and ritual form may untangle some of these knots.

[3] Pao, Thanksgiving, stresses the covenant dimensions of thanksgiving throughout.

[4] See Harvey H. Guthrie, Theology As Thanksgiving: From Israel’s Psalms to the Church’s Eucharist (New York: Seabury, 1981) 2-14. I am doubtful that the Psalms are as neatly classifiable as some have suggested, and doubtful also of Guthrie’s reconstruction of the history of Israel.

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