Sunday, March 11, 2018

On the Mount (21)

It’s going out of style now, but in times past a man proposing marriage would get down on one knee in front of his intended and ask for her hand.

As anyone who has ever googled “Marriage proposals gone wrong” can attest, that sort of thing can be risky business. The man usually makes the sacrifice of purchasing an expensive ring, then goes about proclaiming his love, most often in public, making himself visibly (not to mention emotionally) vulnerable and taking the chance that his request may be denied and his efforts come to nothing.

Sacrifice and humiliation. Interesting combination. But if you want something badly enough, maybe a little humiliation is no big deal.

Old Testament fasting was a little bit like that.

Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

The word “fast” in Hebrew is tsuwm, meaning to abstain from food. Like circumcision, the concept of fasting almost surely did not originate in God’s covenant with Israel. I can’t say that with certainty, but most religions practice it. Further, when human beings are distressed, overwhelmed, fearful, needy or depressed, many of us just naturally stop eating. We don’t require someone to tell us to do it; if we have something more important going on, many of us actually forget our food.

There are no specific commands to fast in scripture. Not a one. The closest we find is this commandment given to Moses concerning the Day of Atonement:
“And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict [`anah] yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever.”
The Day of Atonement was the only day out of all the seven special days described in Leviticus 23 that required self-affliction of any sort.

Fasting and Not-So-Furious

Interestingly, the word for “fast” does not appear in Leviticus or Numbers. The Hebrew for “afflict” means literally to “humble” or “submit” oneself; to make oneself vulnerable much like a man going down on one knee.

It is not immediately obvious from the passage precisely how this self-affliction was to be displayed. No specific abstinence from food or drink is instructed.

Much later, Ezra would connect the two concepts in a single verse:
“I proclaimed a fast [tsuwm] there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble [`anah] ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods.”
On that basis, some translators have felt it necessary to add a marginal note in the Pentateuch accounts suggesting that “afflict” may mean “fast”. In the end, we simply don’t know.

All the same, even without an unambiguous command to put the calories to one side, the Old Testament is full of fasting. If you want something badly enough, be it forgiveness, victory in battle, relief from grief, or just the ear of God, it seems a little humiliation is no big deal.

Bigger Than Mere Ritual

Unfortunately, like many religious rituals, fasting doesn’t always work. In the book of Isaiah, Israel complains that all their efforts are producing no response from God:
Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
God’s reply is this:
“Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
God cannot be approached mechanically. His interest is not liturgy, ritual or suffering for suffering’s sake, but justice and mercy, a lesson many religious people still struggle to internalize.

Spiritual Seriousness

Still, Israelite went right on fasting anyway. Sometimes it even seemed to work out for them. When the tribes of Israel went up to battle against the tribe of Benjamin in order to repay them for the outrage of Judges 19, the much larger Israelite force lost 40,000 men over two days to the superior armies of Benjamin. It was only once they fasted and offered burnt offerings that God heard them and gave them victory.

Israel fasted before battle with the Philistines. The men of Jabesh-Gilead fasted seven days for Saul and his sons, as did David and his men. Nehemiah fasted upon hearing news of the condition of the remnant of Jews in Jerusalem. Esther fasted before going in to the presence of the king on behalf of the Jews who were about to be killed by Haman’s genocide edict.

Various motives emerge from these Old Testament narratives, sometimes in combinations: David and the men of Jabesh-Gilead were mourning. Esther was beseeching. Israel was repenting and beseeching. Nehemiah was mourning and beseeching.

Fasting seems to serve as visible evidence men and women are spiritually serious. When that outward act reflects a genuine inward attitude, God tends to pay attention.


You thought I was never going to get there, didn’t you? Couldn’t be helped; I wanted to set the table a bit. All this Old Testament baggage would have been in the heads of the Lord’s audience at the Sermon on the Mount when he told them this:
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. 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 others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Some people read that “when you fast” line as a command. I don’t think that’s the case. If it is, it’s arguably the first time. I think the Lord was simply recognizing a natural human tendency and acknowledging that since the practice was part of Jewish life, it was bound to occur now and then. Sometimes it was quite appropriate.

Had fasting been compulsory under the Law of Moses, the Lord’s disciples would surely have observed it. They did not. The Lord Jesus responded to the queries of John’s disciples on that subject by asking, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” The disciples’ circumstances were, at that time, inconsistent with a display of mourning. But the Lord goes on to explain that the “bridegroom” would one day be taken away from his disciples, and then they would surely fast.

It wasn’t a command for them to fast, merely an observation that they would.

Between You and God

At any rate, the point the Lord Jesus stresses in the Sermon is not whether one ought to fast or not fast, but rather that that anyone who does fast should keep it between himself and his God. Fasting is not a matter to be flaunted in public. The followers of Jesus were not to virtue-signal or engage in displays of public angst for the purpose of gaining public approval or sympathy.

What about fasting today, you ask? Well, God still reveals himself when people are spiritually serious. We find a couple of anecdotal references to fasting in the Church Age. One is Cornelius, whose fasting and praying prompted the revelation through Peter that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” That was a fairly important matter.

Then there were the teachers and prophets in Antioch who fasted and worshiped. The consequence? The Holy Spirit spoke to them and directed them to send out Paul and Barnabas on the very first missionary journey in history. Also a fairly important matter.

Which brings up the obvious question: Should you and I be fasting today? Well, this is history, isn’t it. It’s not instructional. The Christian is not under law.

On the other hand, there is also no good reason not to fast, so long as you remember God is not some kind of cosmic genie-in-a-bottle to be conjured by displays of self-abnegation, but rather a loving Father who knows the hearts of his children and responds to their genuine needs and desires, not merely a lot of religious noisemaking.

Just whatever you do, don’t tell me about it.

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