If you’ve never fasted before, going without food can seem pretty strange. For many of us, fasting refers to what we have to do before we have a blood test or other medical procedure. Did you know that fasting is actually in the Bible? So what is biblical fasting and why do we do it?
Over the next few days, these posts will provide an introduction to fasting. They will answer questions about why we fast and how we can fast. They will take you to various books in the Bible where you can see why and how people fasted in response to God. So let’s get started…
Fasting in the Old Testament
Some people believe that fasting is simply and Old Testament concept. This is not true. Jesus fasted and the early church fasted, but we’ll look at that later. In order to better understand fasting today, it is helpful to look at fasting in the Old Testament. These early books of the Bible show us the beginning of the story and the law that Jesus came to fulfill.
There is only one official group fast in the Old Testament. This fast is called Yom Kippur, also called the Day of Atonement. Since its establishment (Leviticus 16), the Day of Atonement has been the highest Jewish holiday and focuses on purity and repentance. Jewish people spend a full day fasting, praying, and repenting. Here is a good video which explains the book of Leviticus, Jewish Law, and the Day of Atonement. I’d encourage you to watch it because it is the background for the rest of the posts on fasting.
There are other records of individuals fasting in the Old Testament. One popular story is the story of Daniel (Daniel 9-10). Daniel was captive in Babylon and was being pressured to live like a Babylonian. He would not eat the meat that God had said was unclean. Instead Daniel ate only vegetables and the Babylonians were amazed that he was not getting weak or sick. Today, some people call this a Daniel Fast – giving up rich foods, often meat and sweets.
Another story is the story of Esther. She was going to stand before the King of Persia and ask him to spare her people who were facing genocide. Going before the King could mean death for her, so all of the Jews in Susa ate no food and drank no water for three days asking God to intervene and deliver them (Esther 4).
There are many more stories of fasting in the Old Testament. Moses, for example, fasted 40 days when receiving the 10 commandments from God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:28). Also throughout Isreal’s history, whenever the Jewish people turned away from serving God, the prophets called them back to the Lord by instructing the people to fast and repent of their sins (Ezra 8, Joel 2, etc).
So why did they fast?
In summary, there was one annual fast that all Jews observed, but the people also fasted in many different ways when they needed protection, deliverance and forgiveness. They turned their hearts to God and had to be fully dependent on Him, and not on their own strength.
Next time we will look at fasting in the New Testament and what Jesus has to say about fasting.