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Fasting in the Bible

In the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, pure fasting is always a heart-felt act, to express grief, ask God for help, or repent. Fasting is sometimes undertaken individually, and sometimes corporately - it doesn't seem to make much difference whether one person is doing it, or many. However, the extreme seriousness of the situation is a constant theme.

To express grief

Fasting in the Old Testament is a culturally meaningful expression of grief. For instance, when David learns of King Saul's death:

David and his men tore their clothes in sorrow when they heard the news. They mourned and wept and fasted all day for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the LORD's army and the nation of Israel, because they had died by the sword that day.

2 Samuel 1:11-12

Tearing clothes and fasting in grief were as natural then as us wearing dark clothes at a funeral today. Perhaps in 4000 years from now, people might wonder what wearing dark clothes at a funeral was all about - but for us it means something, we're showing respect and joining in the grief.

Repentance

It's a small step from expressing grief, to expressing repentance - sorrow for past acts, and a determination to change. In a sense, you're saying "This is serious God - as serious as a funeral. And I want to be serious with you about it".

When God, through the prophet Joel, calls Judah (the Southern kingdom) to repent, he says this:

That is why the LORD says,

"Turn to me now, while there is time.

Give me your hearts.

Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.

Don't tear your clothing in your grief,

but tear your hearts instead."

Return to the LORD your God,

for he is merciful and compassionate,

slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.

He is eager to relent and not punish.

Joel 2:12-13

To ask God for help

Again, seriousness underlines the times when fasting accompanies prayer. This is not the quick prayer which you pray to find a parking space - this is where God must, must, must come through - or the consequences will be dire.

Before Ezra leads the exiles to Jerusalem - a journey of 900 miles on foot through dangerous territory that would last about 4 months - they ask God for protection along the way:

And there by the Ahava Canal, I gave orders for all of us to fast and humble ourselves before our God. We prayed that he would give us a safe journey and protect us, our children, and our goods as we traveled. For I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to accompany us and protect us from enemies along the way. After all, we had told the king, "Our God's hand of protection is on all who worship him, but his fierce anger rages against those who abandon him." So we fasted and earnestly prayed that our God would take care of us, and he heard our prayer.

Ezra 8:21-23

Direction from God

In some ways, this could be considered part of asking God for help, but the form of that help is very specific - to give direct guidance for a course of action.

When Israel is attacking the tribe of Benjamin, in the first two clashes Israel lose 40,000 warriors - a tenth of their force.

Then all the Israelites went up to Bethel and wept in the presence of the LORD and fasted until evening. They also brought burnt offerings and peace offerings to the LORD. The Israelites went up seeking direction from the LORD. (In those days the Ark of the Covenant of God was in Bethel, and Phinehas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron was the priest.) The Israelites asked the LORD, "Should we fight against our relatives from Benjamin again, or should we stop?"

The LORD said, "Go! Tomorrow I will hand them over to you."

Judges 20:26-28

(Note that, in this context, it isn't clear exactly how God gave direction. It may have been through the priest essentially casting lots - hence the need to travel to Bethel, to where the Ark of the Covenant and the priest was. The New Testament situation of having the Holy Spirit able to direct us is quite different).

Empty religious performance

Finally, towards the end of the Old Testament, a new factor begins to emerge - fasting not as a heart-felt response to a serious situation, but as an empty religious performance. Some fasts had been built into the Jewish calendar, to give regular opportunities for being serious with God - but familiarity began to breed contempt. In addition, some people went beyond these regular fasts, but only for religious show.

God's response to this was always the same: Who asked you to fast as a religious performance? Are you really so foolish as to think that kind of fasting means anything to me? This is what I want to see - repentance and hearts changed, justice, and an end to exploitation.

Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.

Shout aloud! Don't be timid.

Tell my people Israel of their sins!

Yet they act so pious!

They come to the Temple every day

and seem delighted to learn all about me.

They act like a righteous nation

that would never abandon the laws of its God.

They ask me to take action on their behalf,

pretending they want to be near me.

'We have fasted before you!' they say.

'Why aren't you impressed?

We have been very hard on ourselves,

and you don't even notice it!'

"I will tell you why!" I respond.

"It's because you are fasting to please yourselves.

Even while you fast,

you keep oppressing your workers.

What good is fasting

when you keep on fighting and quarreling?

This kind of fasting

will never get you anywhere with me.

You humble yourselves

by going through the motions of penance,

bowing your heads

like reeds bending in the wind.

You dress in burlap

and cover yourselves with ashes.

Is this what you call fasting?

Do you really think this will please the LORD?

"No, this is the kind of fasting I want:

Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;

lighten the burden of those who work for you.

Let the oppressed go free,

and remove the chains that bind people.

Share your food with the hungry,

and give shelter to the homeless.

Give clothes to those who need them,

and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

Isaiah 58:1-7

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