Fasting as an All-Encompassing Reality: Internal, External, Man and the World

(St. Nilus the Faster)

In a world obsessed with fitness and health, a proper diet can be a sign of wealth and wellness. What wellness actually looks like has varied throughout the ages, such that many portraits of the beautiful would appear portly in the light of modern “standards”. More importantly, there is the matter of how our bodies relate to our spiritual condition. Prayers at Vespers use Psalms pointing out the providence of God giving us nourishment with the plants of the earth, bread, oil and wine. The Promised Land for Israel is a place where milk and honey flow and grapes are larger than anywhere else. At the same time, people who live in both physical and spiritual wellness are called by God to fast and sacrifice. To be deprived through fasting is a sign of humility and openness towards God. In being emptied, we can be filled. If we never fast, can we truly feast? These sorts of reflections are the fodder for many sermons, but could a study of the words translated into fasting shed more light on this subject? How do the etymological, lexical, and textual uses of fasting emphasize what fasting brings about? As we shall see in this study, fasting is not a matter of fulfilling legal obligations, placating God or arousing His mercy. Instead, the entire world is oriented towards God in fasting, which is seen in the accounts of Jonah and Judith in ways which may not be familiar but are powerful images of how salvation comes to the world.

The words used for fasting in the Old and New Testaments invoke the same ultimate truth all the while having distinct emphases. The Gesenius dictionary for the Old Testament Strong’s entry for H6684/H6685 emphasizes that the Hebrew word for fasting is linked etymologically to the mouth and it being closed. On the other hand, the Aramaic word listed with Strong’s notation as H2908 is based on the word meaning twist, referring to the stomach’s twisting in hunger. Both of these words are centered around the person who is fasting. They cannot eat if they have closed their mouths, and if they have not eaten, the inevitable twisting and turning of hunger pangs comes upon the person who is fasting. In contrast, the various Greek words used for fasting (Strong’s notation G3521-3, G777) are all linked etymologically to the absence or negation of food, as Thayer’s lexicon informs us (1). Considering these meanings, we find a fascinating contrast between the Hebrew and Greek worlds. If we compare the words in Hebrew and Aramaic to the Shema of Deuteronomy, this may shed light on the Hebraic focus. We hear in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” (Deut 6:4-5) The Shema is a central prayer in the Jewish Tradition, and as these words are uttered, we speak to ourselves and our neighbor. We ask ourselves to hear deep within and love God to the fullest. The Jewish worldview thus has a strong sense of internal focus and prayer, as seen with the Shema and from a basic sense of the words for fasting that are used in Hebrew and Aramaic.

If we consider basic perspective of the Greeks, much of the greatness of its philosophical and religious tradition matches the etymological focus of the words used for fasting. As said above, these words focus upon the absence and/or lack of food. Philosophically, Greek writers focused on understanding the actions of the gods and the cosmos in general, dwelling upon basic questions that are largely external. For instance, there is the question of change. Zeno’s paradox questioned whether the world changed ever in a true sense because motion cannot truly happen. If an arrow travels towards its target, that trajectory can be comprised of an infinite number of “halfway points” towards the target. But since we can continue dividing numbers by two, does the arrow ever actually arrive at its destination? Or is there an infinitesimally small distance to the target that keeps it from truly arriving? Conversely, Heraclitus considered the cosmos as constantly changing. Reflecting upon the constant flow of water down a river, he posited that change was the one constant in the cosmos. One can see that with this viewpoint, the thoughts about fasting that would resonate most with a Greek mind would relate upon the food which is external to me, and how I relate (or do not relate) to it.

As we consider these distinct views of fasting from a basic sense of etymology and worldview, we can go further and consider how fasting is used in the Scriptures. We can consider foundational texts such as Matthew 6:16-18 to understand from a Biblical context that fasting is ultimately about being humble before God, and that it is something wholesome and important for spirituality (2), but for the purposes of this word study I want to focus on something that was previously unfamiliar and equally intriguing as the more familiar passages. As I read the various passages about fasting, clear messages about its link to prayer emerged. For example, we see it linked to prayer in passages such as Jer. 14:12, Neh. 1:4, Ezr. 8:21, 23, Esther 4:16, and that prayer is especially penitential in 1 Sam. 7:6, Joel 1:14, 2:12ff, Neh. 9:1ff, Jon. 3:8. Because the Blue Letter Bible does not link to Deuterocanonical texts, I read through these other books in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles to look for critical passages on fasting that may be complementary to the more familiar books shared between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox. In so doing, I found a fascinating account in the Book of Judith. Repenting over their sin and asking for mercy from God to save the people from the attack of the Assyrians, we read this in Judith 4:9-11: “All the men of Israel cried to God with great fervor and humbled themselves. They, along with their wives, and children, and domestic animals, every resident alien, hired worker, and purchased slave, girded themselves with sackcloth. And all the Israelite men, women, and children who lived in Jerusalem fell prostrate in front of the temple and sprinkled ashes on their heads, spreading out their sackcloth before the Lord. The altar, too, they draped in sackcloth; and with one accord they cried out fervently to the God of Israel not to allow their children to be seized, their wives to be taken captive, the cities of their inheritance to be ruined, or the sanctuary to be profaned and mocked for the nations to gloat over. The Lord heard their cry and saw their distress. The people continued fasting for many days throughout Judea and before the sanctuary of the Lord Almighty in Jerusalem.”

This passage links fasting to prayer, both in terms of crying out to God with their voices and also with regard to their bodily cries. Wearing sackcloth and ashes on their bodies and upon the altar, they fasted whether they were faithful residents or aliens, adults or children, and this process even included animals. Even animals and the altar “repented” by wearing sackcloth, which creates such a vivid image of the fact that everything was subsumed into repentance through this event.

The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary states that Judith fasted for the sake of humility. Noting the cultural ramifications of this fasting, the authors state: “Humility is not considered a positive virtue in Greek thought; it is understood as a negative idea of humiliation or shame in the continuum of honor and same. In Hebrew thought, there is a positive tradition of God watching over the humble…” The context of this humility includes the striking observation that in Judith, “it is not only the men and women who are draped in sackcloth, but also the children, resident aliens, slaves and cattle! Is this a symbol of the completeness of Israel’s penitence, or is it intended to be as humorous to the ancient reader as it is to the modern.” (3).

We see quite clearly that this may appear humorous to our modern minds, but I would argue that the image seen in this passage is a completeness of repentance, a fullness of fasting. This is not a humility that is base or shameful, it is a positive appreciation of God’s providential care for the whole world. And as such, the whole world repents.

Returning to our lexical analysis of fasting provided by the Blue Letter Bible, there is a very similar passage to Judith 4 that can be seen in the prophecy of Jonah. Despite having read this book many times, I had overlooked something about fasting that had been there all along. There we read a similar account that is possibly even more surprising than what we see in Judith in Jonah 3:4-10: “Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish. When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” (Emphasis added)

There is much in common about the fasts in Judith and Jonah, but one thing made more explicitly clear is the fact that the animals did not only participate through wearing sackcloth, they clearly are fasting alongside the humans. This fast is so total that they do not eat or even drink water, leading them to pray in their own way as they called out for food.In the JPS Bible commentary, we read that the fasting described in Jonah seems almost too austere to be true. The authors state, “The repetition of ‘man and beast’ is associated with the obligation to don sackcloth; since this seems somewhat ludicrous with regard to animals, some propose deleting the words as an accidental transfer from the previous verse. There is no textual evidence to back up this conjectural emendation, however. What is more, the repetition of ‘man and beast’ has a literary logic, emphasizing that the king of Nineveh attaches great importance to the animals’ participation in the effort to be saved.” (4)

Not only may this passage seem humorous as mentioned in the Judith commentary, the idea of animals fasting is called seemingly ludicrous by the JPS commentary. If not a textual emendation, is this a valid practice to have animals fast in addition to humans, whether they be Israelites or not? Should this be part of our next fast? This issue is taken up in the commentary’s section on the previous page, where the phrase “man and beast” is considered. We read two sources of Jewish tradition that look at this event in different ways. First, in terms of opposing the practice of including animals in the fast, we read: “The inclusion of animals in the acts of mortification is quite extraordinary. The sages saw it as a grave misdeed-causing pain to animals in order to arouse divine mercy for their owners: ‘Rabbi Shimon ben Levi said: The repentance of the Ninevites was fraudulent. What did they do? Rabbi Honeh in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta: They put calves inside and their mothers outside; foals inside and their mothers outside; and these bellowed from here, and those from there. They said: ‘If you do not have mercy on us, we will not have mercy on them.’ (J. Ta’anit 2,1 [65b]). ” (4)

Here the passage from Jonah is portrayed not only as fraudulent, but it is arguably sadistic. The image of the separation of young cattle and horses evokes sympathy and a question of whether this was indeed a simple ploy to arouse God’s mercy on the Ninevites. Whether a textual addition or not, does this activity make sense in terms of what fasting should be? Or is it better to focus on the penitent and his/her personal devotion to fasting? One could ask these questions and feel justification in condemning this practice of having animals fast. However, there is support for the Ninevites, and the practice of Judith and her people. The commentary continues: “According to the peshat, however, their action seems reasonable and even appropriate and justified, since it is anchored in the Scriptural view that human beings doomed the animals and birds to destruction by the Flood (Gen. 6:5-7); what is more, the deliverance of the human race from that decree involved the animals as well, and the end of that fatal cataclysm depended on divine mercy for both at the same time. ‘God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark’ (Gen. 8:1). By the same token, we find that when the earth withers, both man and beast are affected (Hos. 4:3), that its conquest by the Babylonians means that ‘I even give him the wild beasts to serve him’ (Jer. 27:6), and that deliverance is not complete if it does not comprehend the animals as well: ‘man and beast You deliver, O Lord (Ps.36:7). When Nineveh is overturned, man and beast will perish together. Accordingly the story expresses no reservations about compelling animals to participate in the fast (by not pasturing and watering them; cf. Judith 4:9-11) so that they will call on God in their hunger and thirst (for the notion that the bellowing of animals is a sort of prayer, compare: ‘The very beasts of the field cry out to you; for the watercourses are dried up’ [Joel 1:20]; ‘who provides food for the raven when his young cry out to God and wander about without food?’ [Job 38:41]).” (4)

It is very clear that in this second approach to understanding this phenomenon, animals are viewed not as merely external objects, part of the cosmos to be manipulated and forced into hunger. They are fellow voyagers on the path to the salvation of the world. Again, in Hebrew thought and etymology, fasting is an internal reality of my own emptiness, whereas in Greek terms, fasting is an external reality of the food that I have not consumed. The fullest truth, it seems from this passage, is when fasting represents a totality of repentance and humility, opening both the internality of our hearts and the externality of the world itself to God. This is what is largely brought forth by the passages which agree with the peshat. We have a totality of the world’s condemnation through sin, and not simply humanity’s own culpability. And at the same time, we have a redemption that comes from man’s leadership and turning all people and all creation back towards God. And for that, God holds His hand away from punishment towards mercy.

Looking to the Church Fathers, we can see that this point of including animals and the world in general was appreciated by St. John Chrysostom. He did not question the canonicity of these passages, but instead had a vision of beauty to share by reflecting upon this reality about fasting. In his homilies on Genesis, he says this about fasting: “Recall that Daniel, passionate man though he was, spent many days fasting. He received as recompense an awesome vision so that he tamed the fury of the lions and turned them into the mildest of sheep, not by changing their nature but by diverting their purpose without loss of their ferocity. The Ninevites too made use of the remedy of fasting and won from the Lord a reprieve. Animals as well as human beings were included in the fast, so that all living things would abstain from evil practices. This total response won the favor of the Lord of all.” (5)

At this juncture let us reconsider the basic meanings of the words used in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek for fasting. It appears that there is a Hebrew perspective and Greek perspective, one which would support fasting on the part of the penitent person, and the other focused upon the world’s reorientation towards balance and harmony. In this case the peshat and St. John Chrysostom share a mindset that encompasses both the Hebrews and the Greeks with regard to fasting, as the importance of the faithful person’s internal fasting in the Hebrew mindset is no less or more important than that of all people, and even animals and the altar who represent the external world (the Greek mindset) in their repentance. Thus, the Biblical perspective is informed by the Hebrew and Hellenistic worlds, appropriates both, and is big enough to affirm both. Fasting is an experience that transcends the person who is repenting, and can affect the whole world.

There is much that can be gleaned from this expanded view of fasting. Many times, the faithful see the progress in the liturgical year with its unique fasts, feasts, songs, vestments, icons and the like, and the way in which the world is oriented to repentance and salvation is not so clear. Being more informed about why our own temples have unique sackcloth (or colors, for that matter) can put our life of peace and repentance into better context. Also, there is the matter of the degree to which we try to sanctify our world. We may not raise cattle and horses, but we have our “secular” world of work and the family. Does that remain completely untouched by fasting, or is our repentance integrated into our work, and not just our diet and liturgical lives? Are we overly lax with our children because they are too young to truly repent? To what extent does this totality manifested by the books of Judith and Jonah not exemplified by our life of fasting and asceticism?

Conversely, we could “externalize” and become akin to fundamentalists who impose their religion upon others. To what extent does the example set forth by Judith and Jonah need to be tempered by the distinct way of life that Christianity manifests, as compared to the nations of Israel and Nineveh? Many issues of tact, not being judgmental (returning to Matthew 6 and the call for somewhat secret fasting), and the like present interesting questions about the vision of making fasting holistic and yet not Pharisaical come to mind, which go beyond the scope of this study. A brief suggestion for further discussion would be that when the world is sanctified by us, that it comes from within us as people helping and loving the world to reorient it towards harmony and love, not by drawing the lines in the sand to get others to join us.

In closing, fasting discussions so often revolve around what can be eaten, how much, when and the like. However, taking the full literary and linguistic context of this word in the Biblical context, a grand picture emerges where fasting is a broad approach to committing ourselves, one another and our whole lives to Christ our God. As such, it is critical for our openness to God and the salvation of the world. By seeing its relevance in our own lives and in the world that is “outside” us, we become more and more like our God who is everywhere present and filling all things.

Works Cited

1. Concordance and lexicon information obtained from, all Biblical citations are from the New American Bible translation

2. Brown, Raymond E, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. G. Chapman, 1990. Print. Matt. 6:16-18 p645

3. Klein, Ralph W, Mount St Scholastica, Allen, Leslie, Willis, Lawrence, and Kaczmarczyk, Nancy. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume III, Kings-Judith. 1999. Print. Pages 1113-1114

4. Simon, Uriel. JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah. 1999 Pages 31-32

5. Ferreiro, Alberto, ed. The Twelve Prophets: The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. 2003. Page 143

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