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Fast, from the old Anglo-Saxon word meaning to abstain (steadfast, meaning "firm in fasting" is derived from the same word), is to deliberately go without food and drink for a period of time beyond what is normally experienced (breakfast means to "break the fast"). Fasting is found frequently through The Bible. The Old Testament Hebrew word, pronounced ts-oom, means to cover the mouth, while the New Testament Greek word, pronounced nace-ty-oo, means to abstain from food.

Holy Bible 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)

"In the fifth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, in the ninth month, all the people in and all the people who came from the cities of Judah to Jerusalem proclaimed a fast before The Lord" (Jeremiah 36:9 RSV)

"Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, "Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do." (Esther 4:15-16 RSV)

"And he was there with The Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments" (Exodus 34:28 RSV) (see Mount Sinai)

"And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of The Lord came to him, and he said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:8-9 RSV)

"And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, He was hungry. The devil said to Him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone.'" (Luke 4:1-4 RSV)

"And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the Temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day." (Luke 2:36-37 RSV)

"Then the disciples of John [see John The Baptist] came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." (Matthew 9:14-15 RSV)

"While they were worshiping The Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off." (Acts 13:2-3 RSV) (see Paul's First Missionary Journey)

"And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to The Lord in Whom they believed." (Acts 14:23 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"?
Deuteronomy 8:3, Luke 4:4

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