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Fasting in the Old Testament
The very first commandment of God was, in a sense, to fast; “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gn 2:16). Pope Benedict quotes from Saint Basil as saying; “fasting was ordained in Paradise”. (Thus we see a certain connection between fasting/indulgence and redemption/original sin. In other words, just as Adam sinned by breaking a fast, so too do we, in a sense, make reparation for his sin by fasting before Holy Communion). Fasting was also regularly practiced by the prophets of the Old Testament as a means to gain favor with God and atone for sin. Upon a close examination of Scripture, we find many key moments in the history of Israel began with a simple formula of prayer and fasting (commentary in blue);
Esther 4:16 "Go, assemble all the Jews…and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king." At this moment in history, Jerusalem was on the brink of total annihilation. Yet Esther the queen was able to successfully win the king’s favor and save Jerusalem from extinction. And all this was initiated by three days of fasting.
Nehemiah 1:4 “When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” Nehemiah laments over the destruction of Jerusalem, and by his fasting and supplication, he obtains favor with God to rebuild the walls of the eternal city. This is a major turning point in the history of Jerusalem.
Exodus 34:28 "So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments." One of the greatest moments in the history of Israel is preceded by a forty day fast.
Joel 2:12 “Yet even now, declares the LORD, return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning…Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation…” Again we see this pattern of fasting being associated with a new beginning; a renewal of Israel.
Tobit 12:8 "Prayer is good with fasting and alms, more than to store up treasures of gold."
Daniel 9:3 “So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” Through his fasting and supplication, Daniel received a vision in which the Archangel Gabriel revealed the end of the punishment of Israel--yet another pivotal moment.
1 Kings 21:27 “It came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days." After selling himself to evil and worshipping idols, Ahab repents and gains pardon from the Lord through tears and fasting.
1 Samuel 7:6 “They gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day” Through prayer and fasting, the Lord delivered Israel from the threat of the Philistines, who had oppressed them for so many years.
Judges 20:26 “Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel and wept; thus they remained there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.” It wasn't until Israel fasted and gave offerings when their defeats changed to victories. Weeping alone was not enough.
Judith 4:11 "Know ye that the Lord will hear your prayers, if you continue with perseverance in fastings and prayers in the sight of the Lord." Again we see that prayer must be joined with fasting in order to have greater merit in the eyes of God.
2 Chronicles 20:3 “Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” Once Judah had turned to God through fasting and supplication, God defeated its enemies.
Ezra 8:21 “Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.…So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty.” After God had abandoned Israel after many years of sin and idolatry, Ezra obtained pardon and favor from God through fasting and supplication.
Jonah 3:5 "Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. [...] Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water." God relented of His anger, and spared the city of Nineveh after it fasted and repented of its wicked ways.
"you shall not eat of..." The precept not to eat of something is the most common prescription of the Old Testament, and occurs more than eighty times throughout Scripture.