Why do people fast in the Hebrew Bible?
Securing enough food was a regular challenge in ancient times, so fasting—voluntarily going without food (or drink)—was a very striking practice. Therefore, rather than a means toward healthy living as in some modern diets, fasting in the Hebrew Bible is a concrete response indicating that something is wrong. As the opposite of joy, which can literally mean the enjoyment of food and drink (cf. Deut 14:22-27
), sorrow was the basic tenor of a fast (cf. Zech 7:1-3
; Zech 8:18-19
At its most basic, people fast as an expression of mourning, such as at the death of King Saul (1Sam 31:13
) or a spouse (Jdt 8:4-6
). Sorrow saps the normal desire to eat.
Fasting could also be an attempt to enlist God’s help, for example, when someone close is sick (a friend: Ps 35:13
). Sometimes this links to penance
, as with David’s fast for his sick child (2Sam 12
) or the Ninevites in response to Jonah’s message (Jonah 3
). In this satire even the animals fast and cry out to God in order to avoid punishment.
Moses’s supernatural fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28
; Deut 9
) is given several meanings. In Deut 9:18-19
Moses reminds the Israelites that he went without food and drink for forty days, which led to God listening to Moses.
However, in Deut 9:9
, Moses’s first forty-day fasting appears more as preparation to receive the law from God. In other texts as well, people fast as an act of purification
or preparation before seeking divine
guidance (Judg 20:26
) or as a part of a ritual
seeking divine favor. In Esth 4
, Mordecai first, then the Jewish community, and finally Queen Esther fast in reaction to the decree for their destruction. Here the initial fasting connects to mourning (Esth 4:3
), but the queen calls for a three-day fast from food and water by the Jews of Susa to enlist God’s favor. In 1Sam 7:6
, after the prophet Samuel directs the Israelites to serve God alone, they perform a ritual with water, fast, and confess their sin against God, all in order to seek God’s help in defeating the Philistines.
Overlapping with modern hunger strikes, Daniel and his associates (Dan 1
) reject King Nebuchadnezzar’s royal fare, demonstrating their continued allegiance to Israel’s God, even though they have undergone exile
to the foreign land of Babylon.
While fasting could also function as a communal physical reminder of a traumatic event as it did for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Zech 7:1-10
), the only regular event including fasting was on the Day of Atonement
(Yom Kippur), found in Lev 16
; Lev 23
; and Num 29
; Num 30
. These texts do not use the typical term for fasting, but instead speak more generally of “humiliating oneself.”
Isaiah 58’s discussion of the practice of fasting is the longest in the Hebrew Bible, focusing on misuse. It explains why the audience’s fasts have not led to healing (Isa 58:3
), following a common prophetic critique: righteous action must accompany ritual practice. This text links the specific cultic practice of fasting with the just act of sharing bread with the hungry (Isa 58:7
). Denying oneself food while remaining involved in unjust acts will not result in favor (Isa 58:3-4, 6
). Instead, the person who satisfies the famished (Isa 58:10
) will become like a watered garden (Isa 58:11