The Transformative Power of Breaking Bread

thanksgivinggoodThanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love the very concept of Thanksgiving: gathering family and friends around a table laden with delicious foods to contemplate blessings, express gratitude, reminisce with loved ones and get acquainted with new friends. I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinner since I was fourteen years old, when my mother gladly turned over the turkey duties to me while she joined the guests in the living room. Over the years I’ve learned to prepare most of the meal the night before, giving me time to play hostess and enjoy being with the family while the turkey fills the house with tantalizing aromas.

Pieter_Brueghel_de_Jonge_-_Bruiloftsmaal_voor_een_boerenhuis“Breaking bread together” is a long-standing cultural tradition. We celebrate significant occasions with feasting or treats, and associate special foods with special occasions. “Let’s get ice cream!” is often heard when happy announcements are made. We break bread together in glad times and in sad, when we celebrate and when we mourn. We even call it “comfort food.”

First-Thanksgiving_brownscombeAt the first Thanksgiving, two different cultures, one indigenous and the other immigrant, came together to share a meal and a land. In biblical times, breaking bread was a way to signal that negotiations were finished and an agreement had been reached. The very word “companion: means “one with whom bread is broken.” Eating together was an intimate act, one that symbolized becoming a part of the family (Nelson). Eating also had sacred symbolism. Under the ancient law of sacrifice, families brought an animal to the altar to be slaughtered and burned, shared a portion with the priest, and then brought a large portion of the cooked meat back home with them, reminding families that all gifts came from God while providing a blessing on their food. Similarly, God used the seder meal of roasted lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread as a symbol of the Passover, when the destroying angel passed over the homes of the faithful. During the last supper of His mortal life, Jesus instituted the sacrament during the Passover meal, using bread and wine as a symbol of His atoning sacrifice as He broke bread with His apostles.

Rebekah-and-eliezerWe see an example of breaking bread in the story of Eliezer and Rebekah in Genesis 24. Eliezer, Abraham’s chief servant, had been sent to Haran to find a bride for Abraham’s son Isaac. A gentile from Damascus, Eliezer was not of Abraham’s faith. Nevertheless, he prayed to the God of Abraham for guidance, and his prayer was answered in a miraculous way, leading him to find Rebekah at the well in exactly the manner Eliezer had described in his prayer. Overjoyed, Rebekah brought Eliezer to meet her brother Laban, who, seeing that Eliezer was tired and dusty from his journey of 400 miles, set food before the traveler.

But Eliezer refused to eat until he had told his story. He was fairly bursting with excitement about the miraculous answer to his prayer, and he would not break bread until an agreement had been reached about the marriage. After the negotiations were complete they ate together, shared their stories, and marveled at the goodness of God. The next morning, when Rebekah was asked whether she was willing to accompany Eliezer back to Canaan to begin a new life as the wife of the prophet’s son, she replied simply, “I will go.” The story begins with a heartfelt prayer and ends with a feast of Thanksgiving.

Isaac-blesses-Jacob Isaac-blesses-Jacob2One generation later, that same Rebekah would recognize impending crisis when she heard her husband, the prophet Isaac, ask his son to
go out to the field, and take me some venison, and make me a savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die” (Genesis 27:1, 3-4). Rebekah knew from experience that food is associated with celebration and covenant making: Isaac was about to bestow the birthright blessing on his son, and Rebekah responded with one of the most intriguing stories of the Old Testament, as she prepared a feast of her own for Jacob to bring to his father. The story ends perfectly, with three revelations–one given to Rebekah before the birth of her sons (Genesis 25:22), one given by Isaac to Jacob (Genesis 28-29), and a third given to Jacob during his flight to Haran (Genesis 28:13-15)– all confirming the same promises.

Thanksgiving_grace_1942We break much more than bread on Thanksgiving (although those soft yummy pillows of yeast and flour play a big role in the feast). Sharing food helps us break down barriers, open hearts, lubricate stories, heal wounds, and seal relationships. Movies, merchants and media tend to trivialize this holiday; Thanksgiving movies and tv episodes create scenes laden with hostility, merchants put up Christmas decorations as soon as the Halloween witches come down, and the media call it derisively “Turkey Day.” Nevertheless, let us remember the essence of this holy holiday, as recorded in the hymn: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing….Sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own. ”  Neither should we forget Him on this day made holy by our sincere gratitude for all that He has done for us.

Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Chapman University.

You can read more about Rebekah and other remarkable heroines of the Bible in her book Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ.

For an autographed copy go to

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