The Concept of Fasting in the Holy Bible
by Father Daniel Sous
Adam and Eve: After God created Adam and Eve, He commanded them to refrain from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). As long as they obeyed God’s commandment and did not eat (fasted) from the fruit of that tree, they remained in Paradise. But one they disobeyed and ate, they were cast out.
Abstinence from food shows our dependence on God and submission to His will.
From Adam to Noah: All the people from Adam up to Noah were vegetarian (Gen. 9:3-4). After Adam was cast out of Paradise, he was not permitted to eat meat, but only the fruits of trees and the produce of crops, herbs, and vegetables. After the Flood, man was allowed to eat meat, yet still some animals were considered “unclean”; he was permitted to eat only the “clean” animals.
Esau: We see that he lost his birthright on account of one meal, i.e. because of food (Gen. 25:29-34).
Moses: In preparation for receiving the Ten Commandments, he fasted for 40 day and 40 nights. He neither ate bread no drank water (Ex. 34:28). On the other hand, after fleeing from Egypt, the Israelites longed for the meat in Egypt, and they died because of their desire and lust (Gen. 25:29-34; Sum 11:4-6). They grew fat, thick and were so full; they sacrificed to the idols and thought, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die” (Deut. 32:15-17). St. Paul warns us and says, “Now these things became our example, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.” (1 Cor. 10:6)
Also, in Leviticus, we read that the Day of Atonement was a great national day in which the entire congregation fasted (Lev. 16:29-34).
The Judges: We read in the Book of Judges that fasting was practiced during times of problems and danger. “Then all the children of Israel, that is all the people, went up and came to the house of God and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening; and they offered burning offerings and peace offerings before the Lord” (Judges 20:26).
David the Prophet: He fasted on many occasions; after Saul’s death (2 Sam. 1:12), after Abner’s death (2 Sam. 3:35), and when his child was sick (2 Sam. 12:16). In his Psalms, he wrote, “I humbled myself with fasting” (Ps. 35:13); “My knees are weak through fasting, and my flesh is feeble from lack of fatness” (Ps. 109:24), expressing the deeper meaning of fasting, which is humbling oneself before God.
Elijah the Prophet: He fasted for 40 days and 40 night as he was fleing from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:7-18).
King Ahab: He was the most impious of kings. Yet, with fasting, he humbled himself before God and God forgave him. Thus, he escaped calamity during his days (1 Kings 21:27-29).
Daniel the Prophet and the three youths: They refused to eat the delicacies of the king’s table and ate only vegetables (Dan. 1:12). Yet, they appeared better, fatter in flesh, and wiser than those, who ate meat from the king’s table and drank wine. Daniel, also, fasted for three weeks as he prayed over the mysterious vision, which God has sent him, and he said, “I ate no pleasant food, no meant or wine came into my mouth” (Dan. 10:3-13).
This book reveals to us the kinds of food to be eaten during fasting. Also, in the Book of Ezekiel, it is written what kind of food to eat during fasting (Ezek. 4:9).
The Ninevites: As soon as they heard the preaching and the warning of Jonah, the king arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. He said, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything” (Jonah 3:7). By fasting, the Ninevites won God’s compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. They show us the power of repentance accompanying fating, when the entire congregation fasts.
Nehemiah: In this book, we see how fasting and prayer go hand and hand. It is written, “So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Neh. 1:4).
Ezra the priest: It is written that Ezra fasted as he wept over the sins of the returning remnant of the children of Israel (Ezra 1:6-17), showing how the priest fasts for the sins of his children.
Joel the prophet: he called out for a fasting of the entire congregation saying, “Blow the trumpet in Zion. Consecrate a fast. Call a sacred assembly” (Joel 2:15).
We also see in Jeremiah 14:12 and Isaiah 58:3-7 that fasting must be accompanied by compassion and concern for other and for their justice.
B. In the New Testament:
Our Lord Jesus Christ: Our Lord Himself fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before beginning His public ministry, showing us how to conquer Satan and his temptations (Matt. 4:2). By answering Satan, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), He showed us that it is better to enrich our soul than to stuff our body. Moreover, Christ taught us how to truly fast; He said, “When you fast, anoint you head and wash you face” (Matt. 6:17-18). Also, that it should not be practiced ostentatiously, like the hypocrites, for pride can distort the meaning of fasting as it did with the Pharisees, who fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. Tradition says that these were the days in which Moses ascended and descended Mount Sinai.
Our Lord also indicated that there would be times when we must fast; He said, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt. 9:15). When the bridegroom, our Lord Jesus Christ, ascended, the disciples did indeed fast. He taught both His disciples and us that demons are cast and over-powered by prayer and fasting, “However, this kind odes not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21).
John the Baptist: He demonstrated the ascetic life for all his life he ate locusts and wild honey, and it was said of him that he came neither eating nor drinking (Matt. 11:18l Mk. 1:6; Lk. 7:33). Also, his disciples fasted (Mk. 2:18).
Anna the prophetess: It is written of this righteous woman that, “This woman was a widow of about eighty four years who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fasting and prayers night and day” (Lk. 2:27).
The Holy Apostles: Fasting was evident in the early Christian Church from the time of the Apostles for it is written, “Then having fasted and prayed and laid hands on them” (Acts 13:3), and also, “So when they had appointed elder in every church, and prayed with fasting” (Acts 4:23). Both incidents indicate that fasting was accompanied by prayer and preceded making important decisions such as the ordination of presbyters (laying of hands). Also, in the Didache, it is written that fasting was the usual practice from the early on in the Christian Church (Didache 7:4).
Cornelius the Centurion: We read in the Book of Acts that this gentile practiced fasting and prayer and was found worthy because of his almsgiving and frequent fasts. God sent St. Peter to him, and he received the Holy Spirit and was baptized along with his family (Acts 10:30).
St. Paul: He fasted before his baptism (Acts 9:9). St. Paul described his ministry that it was hunger and thirst and that he fasted throughout his ministry; he wrote, “In fastings;” “In fastings often” (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27). He also teaches us that we should not fear for our health, for “When I am weak then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
In conclusion, we see that fasting is present throughout the Holy Bible. Although fasting may be practiced in other religions, yet is Christianity, it is given a different meaning. It is not only abstaining from good for a period of time followed by eating Lenten (vegetarian) food, but also more importantly it is abstaining from sin. It is an act of piety by which we grow in virtue, by the grace of God.
Let us ask our Lord to help us harvest good fruits during our fast so that year after year we welcome it with joy.
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