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by Wayne Blank
Fasting took various forms in Bible History. The solemn Day Of Atonement, the only God-commanded fast, was, and is, a total fast - no food or drink from sunset to sunset on the tenth day of the seventh month ("Yom Kippur") on the Hebrew calendar. The early Christian church, including the apostle Paul who wrote a very large part of the New Testament, continued to observe the Day of Atonement after Christ's sacrifice (e.g. Acts 27:9), as do many Christians right to the present day.
"And The Lord said to Moses, "On the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves [i.e. fast] and present an offering by fire to The Lord. And you shall do no work on this same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before The Lord your God. For whoever is not afflicted on this same day shall be cut off from his people. And whoever does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work: it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves; on the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath." (Leviticus 23:26-32 RSV)
Voluntary fasts also variously involved abstaining from certain types of food and drink for some period of time (e.g. Daniel in Daniel 10:2-3), or fasting only from sunrise to sunset. After the return from the Babylonian exile (see Why Babylon?), a number of fasts were also instituted by Jews to commemorate events of their specific history (e.g. Zechariah 7:1-7, 8:19). Fasts were also proclaimed, usually during times of repentance or impending disaster.
Religious fasts were often done as a sign of mourning for sin, such as in the Day of Atonement itself, or for example, King David's fast for the life of the child that was the result of adultery and murder in the incident with Bathsheba (i.e. 2 Samuel 12:16-17,20-23). Although David apparently made something of a show of it, Jesus Christ taught that fasting was to be done quietly, and without theatrics:
"And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18 RSV)
Fasting In Bible History
The Bible record of fasting is quite varied, in terms of purpose and method. It remained very much a part of the Christian experience. Examples:
"Then Samuel said, "Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to The Lord for you." So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before The Lord, and fasted on that day, and said there, "We have sinned against The Lord." (1 Samuel 7:5-6 RSV)
For anyone contemplating fasting, it should be kept in mind that it can be a very stressful and uncomfortable experience for some people (e.g. coffee drinkers often experience "splitting" headaches after going a day without caffeine). Also, it should not be done by anyone for whom it could cause any sort of health problems.
Fact Finder: Does "man live by bread alone"?