Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 2 April
2013; Revised 15 September 2021
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB Updated Edition (1995). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Quotations marked with the initials "BR" indicate the translation of the author.
Syntax: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009), and the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB." The numbering system of the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is identified with "SH" (Strong's Hebrew number) and "SG" (Strong's Greek number). Strong's Online.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic writings and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament) and incorporate other appropriate Hebrew and Jewish terms. (See the glossary.)
"Yet even now," says ADONAI, "turn to me with all your heart, with fasting." (Joel 2:12 CJB)
Noun: Heb. taanith (SH-8589), humiliation, by fasting (Ezra 9:5).
Adverb: Aram. tevath (SH-2908), fasting (Dan 6:18).
Verb: Heb. tsūm (SH-6684); Grk. nēsteuō (SG-3522), to fast or abstain from food. The Hebrew verb occurs 21 times in the Tanakh. The Greek verb occurs 20 times in the Besekh, all in the apostolic narratives.
The root idea behind fasting is to humble oneself before God (cf. Lev 23:26). Generally fasting was a response to some personal or national crisis or tragedy, but fasting might also be done for a spiritual purpose of drawing close to God. Merely skipping a meal or dieting is not fasting. The practice of fasting in the Tanakh will be covered first, and then the Besekh and finally conclude with some practical guidance. To be clear at the outset, some occasions in the Bible in which personalities abstained from food do not qualify as fasting.
Appetite: A loss of appetite that occurs because of upsetting circumstances is not fasting (1Sam 20:34).
Privation: Some expositors classify Elijah's going without food for 40 days when he fled from Jezebel (1Kgs 19:8) as a fast, but merely abstaining from eating (e.g., Gen 24:33) or not having food available (Mark 8:2) is not biblical fasting. Elijah ate a meal that God miraculously used to sustain him for forty days. Elijah did not eat after that meal (which would have required hunting, gathering, and preparing) in order to expedite his escape from Jezebel and travel from Mount Carmel in the north of the Land to Mount Horeb in the far south of the Sinai peninsula. Some consider Paul's comment of going without food (2Cor 11:27, KJV "fastings") as fasting, but in context Paul is talking about privations that he suffered due to poverty and persecution.
Restricted diet: Some regard Daniel's vegetarian diet (Dan 1:8) as fasting, but Daniel simply refused to be defiled by unclean food or food that had been offered to an idol. Kosher meat was probably not available. Some classify Yochanan the Immerser's restricted diet of locusts and honey (Matt 3:4) as fasting, but his diet reflected his overall commitment to a life of simplicity and forsaking the normal pleasures of life to focus totally on his mission for God. The abstention of the Nazarite from any product of the grape (Num 6:3) would for the same reason not be considered fasting.
Preference: Merely avoiding the consumption of food because of temporal circumstances (e.g., working instead of eating) or being unable to afford certain foods is not included in the biblical concept of fasting.
Fasting in the Tanakh
In Tanakh historical narratives most fasting was done by the nation of Israel, a community or a group of people for various important reasons.
· To mourn (soldiers of Saul, 1Sam 31:13). Weeping and grieving replaced eating.
· To avert divine judgment and seek divine mercy (Jdg 20:26; 1Sam 7:6; Neh 9:1; Joel 1:14; 2:12, 15; Jon 3:5). In this case intercession replaced eating.
· To prevent calamity or to deliver from calamity (2Chr 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23; Esth 4:3, 16; 1Macc 3:47; 2Macc 13:12). In this case, too, intercession replaced eating.
· To observe a memorial event of a past calamity (Isa 58:5; Jer 36:6; Esth 9:21; Zech 7:3-5; 8:19).
As for private fasting, there are only five individuals identified as having "fasted."
· David fasted in mourning upon news of Saul's death (2Sam 1:12). He later fasted for healing of his baby conceived by Bathsheba (2Sam 12:16), but the baby died. He fasted another time to pray for healing (Ps 35:13) and twice in praying for God's deliverance from adversaries (Ps 69:10; 109:24).
· Ahab put on sackcloth and ashes and fasted upon hearing a message of judgment from Elijah (1Kgs 21:27).
· King Darius fasted all night (which included abstaining from entertainment) after Daniel was thrown into the lion's den (Dan 6:18).
· Daniel fasted as part of intercession for Israel (Dan 9:3).
· Nehemiah fasted as part of intercession for Israel (Neh 1:4).
There are narratives of individuals who went without food for a lengthy period, the purpose of which would satisfy the strict definition of fasting.
· Moses abstained from food and drink forty days and nights in his devotion to receiving instruction from God (Ex 34:28; Deut 9:9).
· Daniel went without tasty food, meat and wine for three weeks in mourning after the revelation of the 70 weeks (Dan 10:2-3).
· Ezra abstained from food and drink as he mourned over the sin of unlawful intermarriage (Ezra 10:6). He confessed the sins of Israel and prayed for wisdom as to how to handle the moral crisis.
In none of the above situations was the abstinence from food and drink to fulfill a religious duty.
Instruction on Fasting
God directed Israelites to "afflict their souls" (Heb. anah) themselves on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:2-31; 23:26-32). Jewish interpretation is that the "afflicting" or "humbling" equals "fasting," as it is interpreted in Isaiah 58:3. The Torah instruction does not use the term for "fast," because simply abstaining from food as a religious duty is not the point. In fact, the verb tsūm and its derivative noun tsōm, 'fasting,' do not occur in the books of Moses at all. In Hebrew thought to afflict one's soul included some form of self-denial, or it could simply mean to bow down to the instruction of God for this day. In context the humbling at least meant to treat the day as a Sabbath, refraining from all work. Given the seriousness of the occasion God more likely intended the humbling to emphasize reflecting on one's shortcomings and need for atonement.
An interesting fact is that in all the narratives of a community or individuals fasting, none of those times was directed by God. Nevertheless, God does have some important things to say about fasting in the prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel and Zechariah. Common to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah is God's criticism of fasting practices. In Isaiah 58:3-10 God rebukes Israel's religious leadership for reducing fasting to a "form of godliness" and expecting God to bless them for their religiosity. Instead God gives a new meaning to fasting when He defines it as sharing one's food and clothing with those in need and ending oppression of workers. In Jeremiah 14:10-12 the same sinful condition exists and God directs Jeremiah to inform the leadership that He would no longer accept their fasting due to their sinful ways. In Zechariah 7:5-11 the theme of Isaiah 58 and Jeremiah 14 is repeated.
Two passages have a positive message about fasting. In Joel's prophecy, which predated the major prophets by at least two centuries, Joel warns of locust invasion and crop failures (Joel 1:4-12) and calls for fasting and heart-felt repentance (Joel 1:13-14; 2:12-15). God offers assurance that He would surely answer and bring deliverance (Joel 2:18-19). In Zechariah 8:18-19 God promises that the day would come that the mourning fasts scheduled for the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months would become days of joy and gladness, implying a cessation of fasting on those days.
Fasting in First Century Judaism
By the time of the first century fasting was a regular religious practice in Jewish culture. Community fasts typically occurred in memory of sad events in the history of Israel. The general guidelines for observing a fast may be found in the Talmud Tractate Ta'anith. Jewish leaders could call community fasts in the case of a national emergency, such as the failure of seasonal rains to appear (Ta'anith 10a). Private fasting still occurred to arouse God's mercy for personal needs.
After the exile specific fast-days were established (Zech 8:19; cf. 7:3-5). In each case a religious ritual would be held in lieu of eating.
• 17 Tammuz (July): In Jewish tradition Moses smashed the tablets on this day (Ex 32:19); the regular daily sacrifice ceased by decree of Antiochus Epiphanes; and the Romans broke through the walls into the city (Taan. 28b).
• 9 Av (August): destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians. This is the second most important fast on the Jewish calendar.
• 3 Tishri (October): Gedaliah, governor of Judah appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, and his associates were assassinated in Mizpah (2Kgs 25:25).
• 10 Tishri (October): Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27). This is the most important fast day of the year.
• 10 Ṭevet (January): the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonians began (2Kgs 25:1; Jer 52:4).
• 13 Adar (March): Purim, in remembrance of victory over Haman, instituted by Queen Esther (Esth 9:31).
Much later in the course of time many other fasts were added in memory of certain troubles that befell Israel. These were not regarded as obligatory, and they found little acceptance among the people. See the complete list of fast days in the Jewish Encyclopedia.
Rabbinic leaders generally did not encourage private fasting apart from the scheduled national fasts. In fact, fasting was expressly forbidden on some days during the year. A first century document called Megillat Ta'anith (Scroll of Fasts) gives specific guidance on certain calendar observances. The scroll enumerates 35 eventful days on which the Jewish nation either performed glorious deeds or witnessed joyful events. These days were celebrated as feast-days. Public mourning was forbidden on 14 of them, and public fasting on all.
In addition, rabbis positively forbade fasting in the case of a scholar, who through his fasting would be disturbed in his study; or of a teacher, who would thereby be prevented from doing his work faithfully (Ta'anith 11b). A rabbinic saying illustrates this sentiment: "The young scholar who would afflict himself by fasting let a dog devour his meal." In no case should one boast of his fasts to others, and even though he is asked he should try to evade the question, except when he has fasted in repentance of his sins; in this case acknowledgment may lead others to repentance.
Rules for Fasting
Pharisees engaged in fasting as a personal discipline at least two times per week, which in the time of Yeshua fell on the second day (Monday) and fifth day (Thursday) of the week. Fasting was not allowed on the seventh day, since it was the Sabbath, or the sixth day as it was the day of preparation for the Sabbath and not on the fourth day since weddings normally occurred on that day. Monday and Thursday were market days and when court hearings were held so there would be a greater audience for gaining attention to the fasting.
The command to fast on ordinary days applied only to food and drink; all other acts, such as washing the body or anointing, were permitted. It was forbidden, however, to indulge in any unnecessary pleasures on these days: one should meditate on the significance of the fast and examine oneself for shortcomings. Even those who were permitted to eat, as pregnant or nursing women, were advised to take only as much food as is necessary, so that all may participate in the common sorrow.
For Yom Kippur rabbinic law interpreted "humbling one's soul" as not only fasting from food and drink, but refraining from bathing, anointing oneself, wearing sandals made of leather and engaging in conjugal relations. They also would avoid all pleasures that would detract from genuine repentance.
All Jewish fasts began at sunrise and ended with the appearance of the first stars of the evening, except those of the Day of Atonement and the 9th of Av, which last "from even till even."
There was no special ritual for the ordinary fast-days. The lesson from Exodus would be read which treats of the thirteen qualities of mercy and of God's forgiveness at the supplication of the pious (Ex 32:11-14, 34:1-10).
The giving of alms on a fast-day, especially the distribution of food necessary for the evening meal (Sanhedrin 35a), was much encouraged, in accordance with the rabbinic saying that "the reward of the fast-day is in the amount of charity distributed" (Berakoth 6b).
No fast is permitted on Sabbaths or sacred holidays. The only fixed fast-day that may be celebrated on a Sabbath is the Day of Atonement. All other fast days, if they fall on a Sabbath, are postponed until the following day. Private or public occasional fasts can not be held on any of the holidays, on a new moon, on any of the minor festivals, during the month of Nisan, on the week-days of the festivals. On a Sabbath it is forbidden to go without food until midday, except when one is accustomed to eat late in the day and would injure himself by changing his custom.
Fasting in the Besekh
Narratives of Fasting
Specific mentions of persons fasting are actually few in the Besekh and their experiences highlight the differences in the purpose for fasting.
· Anna engaged in regular fasting and prayer as part of her service and worship in the temple (Luke 2:37).
· Yeshua fasted 40 days and nights in preparation for his ministry (Matt 4:2).
· Disciples of Yochanan the Immerser and Pharisees are described as engaging in regular fasting (Mark 2:18), although it is not said that Yochanan himself engaged in fasting.
· A certain Pharisee described his fasting practice as twice a week (Luke 18:12).
· Sha'ul abstained from food and drink for three days and nights after his encounter with Yeshua, probably in penitential prayer, focusing on God and seeking direction (Acts 9:9-12).
· The congregation at Antioch fasted in the context of the Spirit calling Sha'ul (Paul) and Barnabas to missionary service (Acts 13:2-3).
· Paul and Barnabas prayed and fasted over the appointment of elders for new congregations (Acts 14:23).
Yeshua's Sermon on Fasting
"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." (Matt 6:16-18 NASB)
In the Sermon on the Mount Yeshua rebuked certain "hypocrites" for drawing attention to their fasting. Yeshua's instruction actually reflects the best of Pharisee ethics. Apparently Yeshua's disciples did not practice fasting in the same manner or frequency as the Pharisees and the disciples of Yochanan. However, Yeshua did acknowledge that when he was taken from them his disciples would fast (Matt 9:14-15), no doubt because of mourning. Given the cultural importance of fasting and the misuse of the practice by certain "hypocrites," Yeshua provided important guidance, both in criticism and in correction.
What to Avoid
· Gloomy face. Grk. skuthropos refers to a sullen or sad countenance. Isaiah criticized a similar practice of "bowing one's head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed" (Isa 58:5). In other words, making a show of humility or penitence, a form of godliness without any heart intention is abhorrent to the Lord.
· Neglect of faces. Grk aphanizō means to render unsightly or unrecognizable, to disfigure, that is, with ashes and by leaving the hair and beard unattended or by coloring the face to look pale as though fasting. Yeshua did not prohibit the ancient practice of sackcloth and ashes (e.g., Esth 4:1; Jer 6:26; Dan 9:3; Jon 3:6; Matt 11:21), but deception in fasting.
What to Do
Yeshua countered the criticism with simple guidelines. He did not command anyone to fast, but the "whenever" of Matthew 6:16 may allude, at least for his Jewish disciples, the regular fasts shared by the Jewish people, or their freedom in determining when to fast.
· Anoint. Put oil on your head. In contrast Daniel refrained from anointing himself when he fasted (Dan 10:3).
· Wash. Don't smear gunk on your face to symbolize suffering. Maintain hygiene. The commands to anoint and wash oneself puts the focus on "afflicting one's soul" rather than the body as the standard of the Torah regulation (Lev 16:29; 23:27).
· Avoid notice. Do not draw attention to your fasting. The disciple's practice is to be secret, between him and his Master.
· Be cheerful and not sad.
· Don't expect everyone else to do what you do (Mark 2:18-20).
While fasting is not mentioned at all in the apostolic letters, Paul offered instruction that could relate to fasting. Conjugal relations should only be interrupted for the purpose of prayer by mutual agreement (1Cor 7:3-5; Num 30:13). He also exhorted disciples not to let others act as a judge over them regarding food or drink, which would include fasting (Col 2:16).
Reward for fasting
Yeshua promised that there are rewards to be gained from fasting when done in accordance with his guidance (Matt 6:18). The Greek word misthos refers to the rewards that come naturally from toil or any kind of endeavor; also of wages paid for work. In the LXX misthos stands for Heb. sakar, which means hire, wages or reward, depending on the context. A reward from the Father really means a gift because the heavenly bounty far exceeds any service that may be performed by His people. And, since there is no "wage agreement" between the servant of the Lord and his Master, then the servant cannot determine the nature of the reward.
Such a promise might lead to the mistaken conclusion that merely abstaining from food for a period of time or keeping fasts in calendar compliance will bring God's reward. Rather, blessing results from what is inserted in the place of eating, namely a humble heart and fervent intercession. This principle is illustrated by fasts of Bible characters listed above. How did God respond to their humility? They received the object of their prayers. Conversely, no blessing can be expected if the fasting is accompanied with sinful living or injustice or violates Yeshua's simple guidelines.
Fasting for Occult Deliverance
Some would say that fasting is essential for deliverance from occult bondage, based on the account of Yeshua's healing the epileptic boy in Matthew 17. When the disciples asked why they could not cast out the demon, Yeshua replied, "But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting (Matt 17:21; also Mark 9:29). The earliest manuscripts do not have "and fasting" in Matthew, but the MS evidence is stronger for the Mark passage, though still debatable. Modern Bible versions do not include the phrase.
The Talmud does speak of a hypothetical situation of someone fasting for the recovery of a sick person (Ta'anith 10b). However, in a situation involving demonic oppression there remains the question of how fasting (and for what length of time) would aid deliverance. Would you fast a day, a week, two weeks, a month while the victim continues to suffer from demonic oppression and causes harm to himself or others? There is no record in the histories of Yeshua taking time out to pray, let alone fast, before healing people, including in this instance. His response was always immediate, not delayed.
In Rabbinic Judaism the recitation of the Shema and of Psalm 3 and 91 was considered a powerful agent against evil spirits, but there's no indication this is what Yeshua meant by prayer. Yeshua likely used "prayer" in its usual sense of petitioning God for His sovereign intervention and "fasting" in the Hebraic sense of humbling oneself before God. Power over the enemy is derived from unswerving trust in God's ability alone and speaking that power with authority as the disciples had once accomplished (Mark 6:7, 13; Luke 10:17). Apparently, the disciples' egos had become inflated and they tried to deliver the boy in their own power.
For disciples of Yeshua the frequency, type and length of fasting is a matter of personal decision-making. It must be remembered that it was the Pharisees who converted fasting from a normal human response to a crisis or urgent need into a weekly discipline in order to be considered righteous (Matt 6:1, 16). Yet, nowhere in all of Scripture did God ever say that in order to be righteous one had to fast. The apostles understood this fact and taught that righteousness lay in trusting God and obeying His commandments.
Asceticism was a common phenomenon among Jews in the first century, which as a minimum would include self-denial and fasting, but many groups chose to make lifestyle choices that involved limiting diet to vegetables (Rom 14:2) and refraining from marriage (1Tim 4:3). (See the article Asceticism, Jewish Virtual Library). Ascetic groups are not mentioned by name, but three may be identified. First, there were Jews who took the vow of the Nazirite (Num 6:13-14; Acts 18:18; 21:23-24; cf. Nedarim 10a), which meant letting one's hair grow without cutting and refraining from grapes and products derived from grapes.
Second, Philo reported that a Jewish ascetic group in Egypt, the Therapeutae, were vegetarians, but this diet resulted from their commitment to temperance and simplicity in all things as the best expression of living by Torah and pursuing spiritual virtues (On the Contemplative Life, 4:34-39). Third, the Essenes are the most well known community of Jewish ascetics in the first century. Ancient sources describe them as a tightly knit group of men, possibly celibate, who practiced communal ownership of property. Josephus identified the Essenes as one of the principal Jewish parties and noted that the lifestyle of the Essenes was stringent (Wars II, 8:2-13).
The apostle Paul regarded asceticism as a danger to discipleship, as reflected in his letter to the congregation in Colossae.
"16 Therefore let not anyone judge you in eating and in drinking, or in the matter of an appointed festival or new moon or sabbaths: 17 which are a foreshadowing of the future and the body of Messiah. 18 Let no one rob you of your prize by a voluntary humility and worship of the angels, describing things he has seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast the Head, from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increasing with the increase of God. 20 If you died with Messiah from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to ordinances, 21 Handle not, nor taste, nor touch 22 (all which things are to perish with the using), after the precepts and doctrines of men? 23 Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in self-imposed worship, and humility, and severity to the body; but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh." (Col 2:16-23 BR)
Paul also cautioned Timothy, "For bodily discipline is of little benefit, but godliness is beneficial for everything" (1Tim 4:8 BR). The expression "bodily discipline" was used for extreme ascetic practices. This ancient (and current) philosophy contends the discipline of the body is one of life's chief concerns and special physical exercises (like yoga) as necessary for spiritual advancement (HELPS Word Studies).
Beginning in the second century the church fathers exhorted Christians to fast on Wednesday and Friday so as not to fast on the same days as the Jews (Didache 8). Fasting became part of an overall trend to emphasize abstinence from all enjoyments of life, including marriage, as an act of devotion to God. Eventually such abstinence became not merely a discipline but essential to holiness. Christian asceticism believes that mortification of the flesh will perfect the soul for a higher state of bliss for which one is destined in the next life.
Many modern Christians also mistakenly think they are doing something meaningful for the planet, whether the environment or the poor in Africa, if they reduce their lifestyle to "simplicity," as if it were a higher level of spiritual obedience. The fad of frequent fasting by some believers today has the character of an unhealthy addiction, sometimes resulting in significant weight loss and loss of good health. The Jewish Sages considered the one who repeatedly afflicts his body a sinner (Ta'anith 11a; Nedarim 10a).
Another current fad among some believers is of returning to the supposed vegetarian diet of primeval earth, it too without biblical foundation and a clear rebellion against God's instruction in Genesis 9:3. Asceticism in the form of severe diet restriction, no doubt fueled by Stoic philosophy, had its influence on first century disciples, which Paul addressed in Romans 14:1-3. From the Jewish point of view, since God created everything for our enjoyment, nothing is profane. This view is expressed in the rabbinic saying: "Man will have to give account in the future for every lawful enjoyment offered to him which he has ungratefully refused" (TJ, Kidd. 4:12, 66d).
Paul received a revelation of a future danger to the body of Messiah that predicted changed philosophy and practices that have endured to the present day. Paul's admonition should not be ignored.
"But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer." (1Tim 4:1-5 NASB)
Forms of Fasting
Based on the experiences of Bible personalities fasting has two basic forms.
Fasting as Intercession. As already mentioned a food fast is only a spiritual exercise if some spiritual activity replaces the time of eating. "Prayer and fasting" is in reality "prayer and more prayer," especially persistent intercession (Ezra 8:21-23; Neh 1:4; Eph 6:18; 1Th 5:17). From a biblical perspective prayerless-fasting is a contradiction in terms.
Fasting as Waiting Worship. As a time related activity waiting before the Lord is an important spiritual discipline (Ex 34:28; Ps 27:14; Acts 1:4; 2:1). Andrew Murray said, "It is in the adoring worship of God, the waiting on Him and for Him, the deep silence of soul that yields itself for God to reveal Himself, that the capacity for knowing and trusting God will be developed" (Lesson Thirteen, With Christ in the School of Prayer).
For the disciple who wishes to fast Scripture provides helpful guidance by way of example and instruction. Fasting in the sense of humbling oneself before God as a dependent child and praying earnestly can be a valuable spiritual discipline, especially in these days of spiritual warfare. Here are a few final tips on fasting.
1. There is no biblical warrant for believing that the lengthy fasts of Bible characters are intended to be a standard for normative behavior.
2. Don't treat fasting as a magic way to get what you want from God. You cannot manipulate God.
3. If there are health issues, consult a physician before engaging in a food fast.
4. The practice of fasting should be conducted in accordance with the instruction of Yeshua and the apostles.
Copyright © 2011-2021 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.