While fasting is instinctively practiced in the animal kingdom any time animals are injured, the earliest accounts of humans fasting come from the Bible. This article will talk about fasting in the Bible, citing specific examples and how to do a biblical fast (if that’s your thing).
One minor disclaimer before we get started: this article is not preaching, not saying God is great or that if you fast you’re automatically somehow supporting organized religion. It’s about fasting in a biblical context, that’s all.
So open your mind, let the information in, take what seems useful to you and feel free to discard the rest.
What is Biblical fasting?
Throughout history, major religions have practiced abstaining from food for specified periods of time in order to become more spiritual. Growing up in a Jewish house, I can tell you that we have several holidays where it’s customary to go without food the entire day.
Yom Kippur for example, is the Jewish holiday where you are supposed to ask for forgiveness for all the bad things you did over the year. You’re supposed to fast during this time, perhaps implying that the increased hunger and deprivation of food will make you more acutely aware of your repentance.
In fact, it seems that Biblical fasting is designed to do just that: make you more aware of things that you take for granted. Anyone who has fasted for more than 24 hours knows this is true. As time goes on, you start to get extremely hungry and will eat literally anything you can get your hands on.
It’s strange to think about how few people can go for so long without eating, an regardless of what you think of organized religion, it’s interesting to note that they managed to create customs that serve a practical purpose, such as fasting.
Unless you are a religious person, you probably don’t practice Biblical fasting. Most people today aren’t religious in the literal definition of the word and don’t practice anything religious at all. They are probably overweight or have some kind of health condition that guides them towards the benefits of fasting.
That said, I do believe that even for people who fast regularly, taking designated days and fasting for the purpose of something OTHER than weight loss has value as well.
Yes, weight loss and health are great. But the clarity of thought gained from fasting are very valuable as well. We’ll talk about that in a later section though, for now let’s get back to Biblical fasting.
Examples of fasting in the Bible
There are several examples of fasting in the Bible. Let’s go over a few right now.
- In Luke 4:1,2, Jesus chose to fast in order to admit to his reliance on God for strength. According to this verse, he did this before he set out to start doing his Jesus thing.
- Nehemiah 1:4 – One of the prophets, Nehemiah, fasted in order to gain permission to build the walls of Jerusalem
- King David fasted often, once in Psalms 35:13 and then again in 2 Samuel for wrongdoing and in order to resolve a healing crisis, respectively.
- After hearing about Haman’s evil plan to kill all of the Jews, Mordechai and the Jewish people chose to fast.
In all of these examples, we can see a pattern: people chose to fast because they had some important stuff to get done and wanted to show some respect to God before doing so.
If we want to look at these examples through a lens of practicality, we could make the argument that they were aware that the clarity of thought gained through fasting would help them with their upcoming important task.
While this is purely speculation on my part (since I wasn’t actually there and can’t confirm), it lines up with my personal experience of fasting. While I didn’t do any Biblical fasting per se, I have done several 48s and 72 in the past few months and have noticed my work capacity increase while being deprived of food.
More specifically, when I had just moved to Thailand in December, I found it easier to spend 6-7 hours a day editing videos while fasted. The lack of energy required by my digestive system was apparently channeled to my brain.
On days where I wasn’t fasting, I was doing OMAD (One Meal A Day) and without the missing insulin spike at night, I needed less sleep. I was going to bed later and waking up earlier, and the crazy part was that I felt MORE refreshed in the morning.
Sure, maybe a little hungry, but with an extra 5-6 hours a day to get work done, it was worth it. Not to mention the actual health benefits…
When you fast, you have SO much more time it’s not even funny. All of the time that you would have had to spend buying food, preparing it, eating it, recovering from a meal, the extra sleep… all of that time can be spent on something more important.
Could it be that ancient civilizations realized the practical benefits of this and wrapped it in a religious doctrine in order to compel people to do something that requires willpower and discipline? Obviously we can’t be sure, but I think the answer is yes.
Fasting in the Bible isn’t about being cool
As mentioned in the last section, fasting in the Bible has nothing to do with weight loss or improving your physical appearance.
If we examine certain verses, we can see evidence of this as well.
For example, in Matthew 6:18, it says: “The critical issue is not whether people know you are fasting but whether you want them to know so that you can bask in their admiration.”
This is a common theme in Judaism as well when it comes to giving tzedaka (donations). In Judaism, you’re supposed to give 10% of your salary to people who need it. This could be homeless people, your favorite charity, or someone close to you. But it’s a hard rule that is expected to be followed and one of those rules that separates the men from the boys.
Anyway, the idea is that you’re supposed to give the money quietly and not make a big deal about it. The reason for this is that the purpose for giving the donation isn’t to show people how generous you are, even though the temptation for that exists.
After all, we are human beings and we want recognition for our good deeds. However the logic behind this is that if you give a donation in exchange for validation from other people, then you’re not really doing it in the spirit of giving and it ruins the value of the act.
Fasting in the Bible could be seen the same way. Granted, back then they probably didn’t have an obesity epidemic where 50% of their population was extremely overweight, so it’s kind of hard to compare.
This point is a reflection of the difference in lifestyle that people today live vs people in the past used to live. These days, it’s very common for people to be overweight. Plus with the advent of social media and our general “look at me” culture, it’s common for people to willingly share their entire lives on the internet.
Plus, there are a few crazy people out there who actually put themselves out there and make videos about fasting. So naturally they are going to talk about their own experiences as well.
Another example of this is in Luke 18: 12-14. “There once were two men. One said, ‘I fast twice a week.’ The other said, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ Only one went down to his house justified.”
The implication here follows the same point as above: fasting in the Bible is not about scoring points.
These days, it seems like it’s all about scoring points. We all want recognition for our achievements, but more importantly than that, we are more likely to follow through on a commitment if we make our intentions public.
This is exemplified in the ethos of Snake Diet creator Cole Robinson, who requires his trainees to post before and after pics in his Snake Diet Motivation Facebook group as a pre-requisite for his private coaching (free by the way).
The fact is that many people who are overweight are unfortunately also lazy and unmotivated to lose the weight. By posting their commitment publicly in front of hundreds of thousands of people (something that was impossible in biblical times), it’s more likely that they’ll stick to their commitment.
Proper motivations for fasting in the Bible
After making dozens of fasting and Snake Diet videos on YouTube over the past six months, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some interesting people through interactions in the comment sections of the videos.
One of them taught me something interesting about how the fasting in the Bible has influenced their upbringing.
This particular subscriber left me a comment saying how grateful she was that she had grown up with fasting as a normal part of her life. I didn’t think she was Jewish or Muslim, and to my knowledge Protestants and Catholics don’t have any special holidays where they practice fasting.
I asked her to tell me more, and she told me that Mormons will spend one day per month fasting and give the money that they would have spent on food to the poor.
A quick look at fasting from a Mormon perspective
Regardless of what you think of the Church of Latter Day Saints, you have to admit that this is an excellent idea. Not only do you gain the health benefits of fasting one day per month, but you also build the habit of fasting regularly into your life and the lives of your children.
Furthermore, giving the money that you would have spent on food to the poor is an inherently selfless act that, when participated in by the entire community, fosters a sense of togetherness that is directed toward a worthy cause.
And yes, I realize that the Book of Mormon isn’t the Bible.
Fasting in the Bible – how it’s done
As a Jew, I can only speak for Jews – but as far as I know, during a fast no food or water is allowed. Exceptions are made for children and the elderly if they don’t want to participate, but everyone else is expected to fast.
Of course, you don’t HAVE to fast if you don’t want to. But the general understanding is that if fasting in the Bible was a thing, then it should still be a thing in the modern world.
In Judaism, fasts begin at sundown and end on sundown the next day. No food or water is to be consumed during this time.
A brief look at fasting during Ramadan
I also know a little bit about fasting during Ramadan from my time in Australia. I operated a kiosk in a place called Bankstown which is known for its large Arab and Muslim community.
Without realizing it, I chose to open my shop a month before Ramadan was supposed to start. The once-friendly people who always seemed to have time to banter with me were now grumpy and short-tempered. To make matters worse, many of them had large families with 4-5 kids running around being little monsters, further stressing the parents out.
Anyway, the way it works during Ramadan is that you are supposed to stay food and water free from sunrise to sunrise the next day.
During my time there, I learned that some people would wake up before the sun rose and eat breakfast as apparently that’s allowed. Granted this was mostly then men who did this and rarely the women, I think because men often had to wake up early to get to work.
The difference with Ramadan is that they live like this for an entire month. Again, regardless of what you think of Muslims, you have to admit that switching to dry fasting for an entire month when you’re used to multiple meals per day is DEFINITELY going to give you some increased appreciation for food and water.
Final thoughts about fasting in the Bible
As I’ve said many times in this article, regardless of what you think of organized religion, you have to admit that some of the practices that they instituted serve practical applications in the modern world.
Yes, it’s probably likely that there is no supreme being watching down on us and pulling the strings. But once you’re able to look past that and see religion as a set of rules that helped people live happy lives, you gain a new appreciation for certain aspects of it that you may want to integrate into your life.
What do you think about fasting in the Bible? Let me know in a comment!