Thursday, July 25, 2013


Fasting: Appealing for God’s Mercy and Justice

by Ed Nelson

In Genesis Rabbah XXXIII:3 a story is told about the Jewish people fasting during a severe drought:

In the days of R. Tanhuma [fourth century], Israel had need of a fast [for the severe drought] so they went to him and requested: “Master, proclaim a fast.”

He proclaimed a fast, for one day, then a second day, and then a third, yet no rain fell.

Thereupon he ascended [the pulpit] and preached to them, saying: “My

sons! Be filled with compassion for each other, and then the Holy One,

blessed be He, will be filled with compassion for you.”

Now while they were distributing relief to the poor they saw a man give

money to his divorced wife … He summoned them and asked him, “Why

did you give money to your divorced wife?”

“I saw her in great distress,” replied he, “and was filled with compassion

for her.” … Immediately the rain descended and the world enjoyed


In this story of the famous Rabbi Tanhuma, the purpose of fasting is treated according to its fundamental biblical purpose—to bring about God’s favor to change unjust circumstances in an evil world.

A severe drought had seized the land. Water supplies and crops were failing. Everyone needed relief. In desperation, the Jewish people sought out Rabbi Tanhuma to proclaim a fast among the Jews on behalf of the people and the land. They fasted that God would have mercy upon them, overcome the injustice against man and the land, and send rain.

The fast was proclaimed, but abstinence of food and prayers did not work to their favor. No rain fell. God did not answer their cry based on their fasting and prayers. The people were puzzled, but the rabbi understood from the Bible the reason God did not answer them.

The rabbi explained that their fasting and prayer over the three day period, even it were extended longer, was to no avail. He knew that fasting as a form of rigorous abstinence did not move the heart of God.

What, then, was the problem the rabbi saw? The answer has to do with justice and injustice. He knew the heart of the people. They sought God through fasting for relief from the drought for themselves and their families—their own interests. They were concerned about self-preservation. Unlike God, they were without compassion for others who needed help as much as they did or more.

Self-affliction was not what God desired. Humility was not enough. A change of attitude and behavior in keeping with Yahweh’s holy Name was essential (cf. Exodus 34:6-7)—compassion, graciousness, slowness to anger, abounding lovingkindness, faithfulness and forgiveness of others was in order.

The rabbi arose to his pulpit to appeal to the people to act with compassion for each other so that God may have compassion on them according to his Name. This quid pro quo type of relationship with God was not guaranteed, for God could do as He pleased in his mercy and justice. But without acts of compassion towards others in the same character as God’s compassionate Name, he warned that the drought may not end anytime soon.

Jesus (Yeshua) taught something similar about forgiveness of others: “And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). God acts towards us according to the way we act towards others, a kind of unguaranteed quid pro quo according to his Name.

What moved God’s heart and inclined his favor to end the drought were the acts of righteousness done for others in spite of one’s own needs. This was highlighted in the loving and caring acts of a man towards his divorced wife who was in great distress. He acted beyond his bitterness and overcame it with his generous care.

This story of Rabbi Tanhuma and the severe drought is less a story about fasting food and more about the right kind of fast God desires— our doing acts of compassion for others in a world of evil and injustice.

In some sense, Yahweh meets our needs as we help satisfy the needs of others through deeds of compassion and lovingkindness. Another way to express this concept is that Yahweh acts in gratitude in accordance with our attitude towards Him, ourselves and others.

The next question is whether this is the biblical, Hebraic view of fasting. Is it?

Hebrew Word Study on Fasting

Before we explore the content and context of the Scriptures, we do well to consider the Hebrew words associated with fasting.

The Hebrew verb that means “to fast” is the word tzum. In the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the Greek word for the Hebrew word tzum is nesteúo.

The Greek word nesteúo generally means “to be hungry; to abstain or go without food.” In paganism, fasting as abstinence from food was part of the initiation into the mystery cults. It was held that it increased the power of prayer to the gods. (cf. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament).

Definitions in common use today explain that tzom and its Greek counterpart means “to abstain from food.” Such is the English dictionary definition. Is this correct? What about the view of the ancient Greek world? Is it correct? Or is abstaining from food merely a common association with fasting where it actually means something else? In the ancient biblical Hebrew world we shall see that it is the latter.

The Hebrew noun that means “a fast” or “fasting” is spelled the same way as the verb, but is pronounced differently. It is the word tzom.

The answer to what the original meaning of the words tzum or tzom meant is easily derived from the three pictographic Hebrew letters that formed the word from earliest times. By identifying the original meanings of each these three letters— tzade-vav-mem—we are able to see how these three letters combined together to form the words for fasting (tzum, tzom) much more clearly.

• Hebrew letter tzade – originally, “a man lying down”; derivations - “on one’s side, to lie down (as with a loss of appetite from worry, grief, stomach ache or sickness), to lie down in adversity, trouble”

• Hebrew letter vav – originally, “a nail, a peg”; derivations – “peg, fasten, hook, attachment, gripping; as connectives, and, but, for”

• Hebrew letter mem – originally, “ripples of water”; derivations – “water, turbulent, mighty, blood, juice, stirred feelings deep within, from”

When these three letters combine, they tell a pictographic story in the formation of the words tzum and tzom. The picture is that of a person lying down in despair with a loss of appetite for food or entertainment in a state of mourning or grief with deep stirring compassion in the pit of the stomach over injustices done to others, or with deep regrets that grip and stir feelings deep within the abdomen for having committed acts of injustice toward others that deserve reparation.

The idea of fasting, as we shall learn from it biblical, Hebraic usage according to its pictographic word image, is a movement from despairing, to caring, sharing and, finally, repairing.

What Fasting Is and Is Not

Fasting is not about dieting or choosing to abstain from food or certain foods. Nor is fasting about “giving up” something that brings enjoyment or pleasure. These actions may have their own merit for weight loss or personal discipline, but they do not classify as biblical fasting.

Popular today is the so-called “Daniel fast” whereby only vegetables and fruits are eaten for a 21 day period. If this type of fast is based on Daniel 1, then it concerns the request made by Daniel and three other Hebrew young men exiled to the royal court in Babylon. They chose to have a select diet apart from the food of the king’s table had to do with avoiding defiled food offered to the king as if he were a deity. They desired to avoid this appearance.

Further, it is likely the king’s meat was pork and the vegetables were seasoned by pork grease. The plain meaning of the text is that the Hebrew young men desired food that complied with the healthy dietary laws of the Torah.

If “the Daniel fast” is taken from Daniel 10:2-3 as its basis, then it is a result of mourning over injustice in keeping with the biblical Hebraic view of fasting. In this instance, “Daniel mourned for three weeks” without appetite, eating no desirable bread, meat or wine (whether beverage or raisin cakes). He even failed to apply lotions to his face and body during this time.

Never in the text is their preferred kosher diet referred to as a fast (tzom).

The grief, mourning, sorrow and regret that is a vital aspect of the biblical, Hebraic concept of fasting causes a loss of appetite. The stomach is gripped by remorse, alarm or conscience so that eating is an unpleasant desire. The heart is gripped such that there is a loss of desire to be entertained.

Technically, the word for fasting is not about giving up food or entertainment. Rather, due to remorse, regret or fear, the idea is that of lying down due to a sickening feeling, pushing away what pleases from consumption because there is no appetite for it anymore under the prevailing conditions of either deserved justice or for injustices done to others.

A good example is found in Daniel 6:17-20. King Nebuchadnezzar fasts during the night. He lay sleeplessly on his bed with loss of appetite for food or entertainment over the fate of Daniel being cast into the lion’s den.

A stone was brought and laid over the mouth of the den. And the

sealed it with his own signet ring and with the signet rings of his nobles,

so that nothing would be changed in regard to Daniel. Then the king

went off to his palace and spent the night fasting, and no entertainment

was brought before him. And his sleep fled from him.

Then the king arose at dawn, at the break of day, and went in haste to the

lions’ den. When he had come near the den to Daniel, he cried out with a

troubled voice. The king spoke and said to Daniel, “Daniel, servant of

the living God, has your God, whom you constantly serve, been able to

deliver you from the lions?”

Using the conventional meaning of fasting as used mostly today, i.e., the personal choice to abstain from food for a certain time to seek God, then it would appear that the king didn’t fast at all. But the biblical narrative says he “spent the night fasting”—the hours between dinner and breakfast! True, he didn’t take for himself a meal or entertainment during the night as may have been his custom, but hardly would most people consider missing a night-time snack a fast.

What it means, instead, is that in accordance with the meaning of the word “to fast”—tzum—the king had no appetite for food or entertainment. In a rash decision ending in an irreversible decree, Nebuchadnezzar was left with no legal choice but to sentence Daniel to death for not bowing at his image. In this state of agony, he lost all desire for anything he may eat, see, hear or do to supplant his grieving, mournful mood. He was sickened at his stomach over what he had done.

Daniel’s chance of survival was nil except for God’s intervention—which happened.

Fasting is about Acts of Compassion, Intervention and Correction of Injustice

This story illustrates well the meaning of the Hebrew word tzum rendered into English as the verb “to fast”. As we see, it is not about a choice to diet a certain way, as healthy as this may be, or to abstain from food altogether.

Rather, it describes a deep sense of regret, remorse and, sometimes, fear due to injustice done to oneself and others. A loss of appetite or desire to enjoy life occurs. In these instances where fasting occurs we find acts of repentance for sin, both personal and national, mourning over substantial losses, and/or casting oneself prostrate before a superior for mercy where justice calls for severe discipline, imprisonment or death.

When we get to the root meaning of the word fasting, we find it is directly connected to averting deserved justice for one’s own sins or for a people group by an appeal for mercy. Or it is done to call upon God in prayer and act benevolently to avert the consequences of injustice done to others by oppressive rulers, authorities, powers or natural events.

With this ancient word meaning in focus, a person, therefore, may fast food or give up any sense of pleasure without truly fasting. Abstinence and fasting, therefore, are not identical in meaning or purpose.

True fasting seeks Yahweh to overcome injustice through his mighty acts of compassion and lovingkindness when we have done acts of compassion and lovingkindness for those directly affected by the injustice. Anything less is for naught. The fast, in this light, is the human act to give oneself to right injustice for others—to care for the widow and orphan, the poor and needy, the wronged and the hurt, the sick and the grieving.

Fasting and Prayer are Connected Actions

The verbal association of fasting and prayer is plain throughout the Bible. The question occurs as to why. Why are the two directly connected?
The answer is that both prayer and fasting have to do with correcting injustice.

By reviewing the root meaning of the Hebrew word for prayer—tefillah—we better understand the nature and purpose of prayer as understood by the Hebrew people who practiced daily prayer at the temple.

A related word to prayer is the Hebrew word tefillin [Greek, “phylacteries”]—a set of small, black leather boxes attached with black leather straps containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Bible. They are still worn by devout Orthodox Jews during weekday prayers (cf. Exodus 13:9, 16; Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:18).

Important for understanding the nature and essence of prayer is its root meaning. The root word for prayer comes from palal (“to intervene,” “to interpose,” “to intercede,” “to make a favorable judgment), spelled in Hebrew letters as peh-lamed-lamed.

The Hebrew word for prayer—tefillah-–is formed from the verb palal by adding the letter tav as a prefix (the Hebrew letter with the “t” sound). The letter tav placed before any Hebrew verb converts the verb into a noun describing an object or thing. Note that in Hebrew pronunciation the softer “f” sound comes from the same Hebrew letter peh as does the harder “p” sound.

The word tefillah shows us that prayer is a verb-based noun. It is a spoken act before God our Father asking Him to intervene in justice for some purpose or cause where injustice occurs, as in persecution, oppression, mistreatment, abuse, injury, weakness or illness.

Such prayer, properly done, requires a two-fold judgment in our own decision-making.

• First, we are required to judge our own thoughts, words, motives and actions against the standard of truth given in the Torah by angels and the whole Word of God given by the Holy Spirit. • Second, it requires the decision to personally depend upon God to act mercifully and favorably in correcting or avenging the injustice. What is the standard in the Torah and the whole of the Word of God by which prayer is made? Is it not to offer prayer in the Name of Yahweh?

Prayer is rooted and grounded in the revelation of God’s Name to Israel. His Name declares his will and ways according to the attributes of his Name. Specifically, when we pray, our prayers should be rooted in the rule of God, in his kingship, and shaped properly by judging our attitudes and will against the holy attributes of his Name as explained in Exodus 34:6-7 of the Torah:

Yahweh, Yahweh, El, compassionate [rachum] and gracious

[chanun], slow to anger [‘erek apaim], and abounding in

lovingkindness [chesed] and faithfulness [emeth] who

keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives [nasa]

iniquity, transgression and sin. Yet He will by no means leave the

guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and

on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.

When you study prayer through the Bible, especially in the Prophets, Psalms and prayers of the New Testament, you frequently see that this description of Yahweh’s Name in Exodus 34:6-7 is the basis for all prayer, whether thanksgiving, intercession or praise.

The same holds true for fasting. The nature and character of Yahweh as described in the attributes of his Name, the basis for prayer, is also the basis for fasting.

Our fasting, like prayer, is based on our acceptance of Yahweh’s rule and his attributes revealed in his Name. We fast and pray as imitators of God—out of compassion, graciousness, slowness to anger, abounding lovingkindness and faithfulness, out of forgiveness for iniquity, transgressions and sin, realizing that injustice shall not prevail forever.

Whereas prayer first judges ourselves before we ask for Yahweh’s mercy, intervention and justice in a matter, fasting does the same. Fasting, like prayer, has a two-fold application:

• First, fasting, when understood according to its biblical, Hebraic understanding, describes the personal and corporate weight and depth of our heart-felt feelings of regret, remorse, repentance and compassion, even to the loss of appetite, for mercy and justice for the oppressed, enslaved, hurting and needy

• Second, fasting conveys the gripping conviction that something must be done on our part, if at all possible in spite of our weakness, to remedy the injustice by alleviating the oppression, removing the abusive situation, lifting up the fallen, providing essential care and healing the brokenness by striving for freedom, restoration and restitution

In this light, fasting seeks restoration and restitution for wrongs done to someone or a body of people. It recognizes that God is just in all his ways, even when we are put upon to intervene and remedy an injustice.

Here are a few examples in the Bible:

• 1 Samuel 7:6 They gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before Yahweh, and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against Yahweh.” And Samuel judged the sons of Israel at Mizpah.

• Nehemiah 9:1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them. 2 The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the Torah of Yahweh their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped Yahweh their God.

• Esther 4:1 When Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city and wailed loudly and bitterly. 2 He went as far as the king's gate, for no one was to enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth. 3 In each and every province where the command and decree of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing; and many lay on sackcloth and ashes. 4 Then Esther's maidens and her eunuchs came and told her, and the queen writhed in great anguish. And she sent garments to clothe Mordecai that he might remove his sackcloth from him, but he did not accept them. First Occasion of Fasting Mentioned in Bible

When studying a biblical concept such as fasting, the usual beginning point is to find its first Hebraic usage in the Bible. Then review the last biblical usages observing any subtle or major changes in meanings over the centuries.

The first occasion that the word for fast or fasting surfaces in the Bible is in Judges 20:26. This does not mean it was the first occasion fasting occurred among the Hebrew people, but it does show the first time it became important enough to mention in Scripture.

What precipitated the first recorded instance of fasting was a national calamity that befell all Israel. In an effort to bring justice to a group of rapists in the Benjaminite city of Gibeah who murdered the concubine of an Ephraimite, the warriors of the tribe of Benjamin obstructed justice. They refused to turn over the criminals to Israel’s leaders.

A three-day civil war broke out. The first two days the armies of Israel suffered losses of 40,000 men at the hands of about 25,000 Benjaminite warriors. The Benjaminites suffered only a minor number of losses. The attempt to bring about justice resulted in more injustices against Israel.

Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel

and wept. Thus they remained there before Yahweh and fasted

[tzum] that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings

and peace offerings before Yahweh.

The pain, suffering and grief of the tribes of Israel seemed unbearable in their effort to bring about justice for the horrible crime committed. They wept, losing all appetite for food or entertainment. All joy was gone. While their confidence was broken, meanwhile, the confidence of the Benjaminite warriors increased. Justice seemed impossible to attain. They questioned whether they should continue the battle or retreat in defeat.

Yahweh, somehow by means of the Ark of the Covenant still present in Israel’s midst, instructed Israel to rise up a third day against Benjamin, promising victory this time. He had heard their cry for justice. A new military strategy was employed for the next day resulting in a fatal, catastrophic battle that left the Benjaminites with only 600 men left. The tribe was nearly annihilated.

This first instance of fasting happening outside the Torah may be a surprise. The question surely is raised about the institution of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) as the first reference to fasting in the Bible.

Traditionally, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is identified as the only fast day Yahweh assigned to Israel’s calendar. A careful examination of the Torah text in Leviticus 23:26-32 is quite interesting.

Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “On exactly the tenth day of this

seventh month is the day of atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for

you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to

Yahweh. 28 You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a day of

atonement to make atonement on your behalf before Yahweh your God.

29 If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day,

he shall be cut off from his people. 30 As for any person who does any

work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people.

31 You shall do no work at all. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout

your generations in all your dwelling places.

32 It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your

souls. On the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening

you shall keep your sabbath.”

In this passage, fasting is not mentioned at all, nor abstinence from food or drink. What is required is to treat the day as a Sabbath of complete rest, to humble oneself before Yahweh and to present an offering of fire to Him.

Where fasting is assumed to be inferred in the text is in the requirement to humble oneself before Yahweh. The text, however, does not say how the Israelites were to humble themselves.

In time the Hebrew people connected humility before Yahweh with depriving oneself of food, drink or some other pleasure. Food was the primary way to abstain from pleasure. Such an exercise was to enter into discomfort and a form of self-denial, so they thought, for the sake of pleasing God. Their view of God was that He wanted to exact something from them, to deprive them of something they enjoyed in order to achieve the status of humility.

The practice of fasting as interpreted as “giving up” food for a specific time became the commonly accepted practice for demonstrating humility and spiritual integrity worthy of gaining merit from Yahweh.

With this kind of thinking, no wonder the people of Israel were upset with Yahweh when He did not give merit to their fasting food as the means of showing their humility.

They asked: “Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3).

Yahweh answered them, pointing out their misunderstanding of what true humility was, of what a true fast was about:

“Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself

[by abstinence]? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading

out sackcloth and ashes as a bed [for self-denial of pleasure]? Will you

call this a fast, even an acceptable day to Yahweh?” (Isaiah 58:5)

Humbling oneself by fasting food, Isaiah showed, was not what Yahweh desired nor called a true fast. He wanted something quite different and, for the Hebrew people at the time, unsuspecting.

Humbling oneself by fasting food, Isaiah showed, was not what Yahweh desired nor called a true fast. He wanted something quite different and, for the Hebrew people at the time, unsuspecting.

The people in Isaiah’s time miscalculated Yahweh’s expectation for his call for them to humble themselves before Him. Instead, He wanted them to treat one another as He cared for them—with compassion, graciousness, slowness to anger, abounding lovingkindness and faithfulness, forgiving one another. Instead of joining hands to help each other, they pointed accusatory fingers and wagged their tongues in anger. They mistreated one another, took advantage of others’ weaknesses, and failed to care for the widows, orphans, needy and hurting.

With this in mind, let us look at the last references to fasting in the Bible.

The Last Occasions of Fasting Mentioned in the Bible

The last references to fasting in the Bible is the Book of Acts. The first of the three references made by the writer Luke is found in Acts 13:1-3.

Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there,

prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and

Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the

tetrarch, and Saul. While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting,

the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to

which I have called them.” Then, when they had fasted and prayed and

laid their hands on them, they sent them away. (Acts 13:1-3)

In this Scripture the prophets and teachers were ministering to the Lord and fasting. During this event, the Holy Spirit spoke to them, perhaps through prophecy, to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work they were called, namely, to be apostles. The phrase “ministering to the Lord” was another way of referring to prayer.

Apostles are an extension of fasting and praying for justice. Observe that they prayed and fasted, it seems, without intentions to set apart Barnabas and Saul as apostles. In the list of names, Barnabas is first and Saul is last. They actively sought God’s guidance in the difficult expansion of the gospel of Messiah Jesus (Yeshua) throughout the dispersion of Jewish people among Gentiles.

The Holy Spirit answered their prayers and satisfied the purpose of their fasting by giving instructions to the prophets and teachers to separate from among them Barnabas and Saul to send them forth to expand the gospel message throughout the dispersion.

We have established that prayer and fasting are directly connected for the purpose of overcoming injustices done against the weak, the poor, the needy and the hurting. With the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul, justice again is in focus. They are to put action to the prayers, to act upon the true fast by bringing justice to the Jewish people scattered in the dispersion. the message of Messiah Jesus (Yeshua) by proclaiming and teaching the fullness of the gospel to Jews throughout the dispersion, including Gentiles who show interest.

In modern times, the meaning, role and purpose of an apostle is far different from what it was in biblical times. Today, the term apostle is often reinterpreted as the head of a church or a church movement, or of someone of significant rank in the church. This simply was not the case in biblical times if we interpret the meaning, role and purpose of an apostle according to its biblical concept.

Our English word “apostle” is derived from the Greek word apostolos which literally means, “sent out one.” It was the selected word by Jewish writers in the Greek language to translate the ancient Hebrew word shaliach. When Jewish writers wrote in Greek, especially those concerned with Hebraic tradition, they selected words that closely reflected the Semitic words they meant in their minds. Such is the relationship between the Hebrew word shaliach and the Greek word apostolos. Behind the Greek word is the Hebrew meaning of our word “apostle.”

What does the word shaliach (apostle) mean? It comes from the Hebrew verb shalach which means “to send.”

An example of the use of the verb is found in Psalm 78:49: “He sent [shalach] upon them his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility—a band of destroying angels.” In this case, the band of angels were sent [shalach] by God, the highest legal authority, to represent Him by executing justice on his behalf. Each angel served heaven’s court as a shaliach acting beyond their normal domain in heaven to represent and execute God’s decision to punish wrongdoers on earth. Bear in mind that the meaning for the word “angel” is messenger. This band of angels were messengers of the court of heaven in their apostleship to exercise justice on earth regarding a group of rebellious people. Thus, these heavenly messengers were heaven sent to earth as apostles to execute heaven’s sentence for sin.

The core meaning of an apostle is found in this description of the band of angels as apostles. An apostle, or shaliach, is one concerned with doing justice on behalf of the Judge who sent them. While this is not what most people read into the work of an apostle, nevertheless, biblically it is what is at the heart of the work of an apostle, including the ones sent by our Lord Yeshua (Jesus) who gave apostles as a gift to his church (cf. Ephesians 4:11).

Hence, the noun shaliach means “one who is sent.” More specifically, as literary and historical evidence shows, the word meant “someone designated by juridical authorities to be sent by them to serve their cause, represent their decisions and execute them, usually as an extension beyond their immediate jurisdiction.”

Justice is at the heart of an apostle’s purpose. In Hebrew, it is always helpful to see what other words are derived from the same root verb. By making this observation, we see that the root verb shaliach not only produces the word for apostle (shaliach), it also produces the noun shelach. By changing the first vowel sound “ah” to “eh” in the verb shalach, we are introduced to shelach, another Hebrew word valuable to our understanding the intent of what an apostle does.

The noun shelach gives us the biblical word used for “missile,” “weapon” or “sword.” A missile or weapon, like a sword, was used to execute justice in the hands of a soldier sent by a juridical authority. When the word is translated as a synonym for “war,” the idea of a “just war” is implied. A just war is one in which a high court has ruled that war is necessary to execute justice upon a criminal people.

Elders are an extension of prayer and fasting. The second reference to fasting is quite similar to the first occasion when two apostles were appointed. It concerned the appointing of elders for the congregations. Whereas apostles did not remain behind to shepherd established churches, the other elders did.

When they had appointed elders for them in every assembly, having

prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they

had believed. (Acts 14:23)

Congregations need elders to guide them safely through changing times. This was the just thing to do.

Day of Atonement: Yom Kippur. The third reference in the Book of Acts is the final reference to fasting in the Bible. None of the letters of the apostles refer to fasting. The reference is to the appointed time of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in the early autumn season.

When considerable time had passed and the voyage was now dangerous,

since even the fast was already over, Paul began to admonish them, and

said to them, “Men, I perceive that the voyage will certainly be with

damage and great loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our

lives.” (Acts 27:9-10)

The Teaching at the End of the First Century: The Didache

In the Didache (“The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles”), a document circulated among the assemblies beginning about the last decade of the first century for another hundred years, fasting was a common subject:

1:3 And of these [two] commandments, the teaching is as follows. Bless

those who curse you and pray for your enemies. And fast for those who

persecute you. For what merit is it if you love them that love you? Do not

even the Gentiles do the same? But you must love them that hate you and

you will not have an enemy.

7:4 And before the immersion, let him who immerses, and he who is

immersed, fast previously, and any others who may be able. And you

shall command him who is immersed to fast one or two days before.

8:1 And as for your fasts, let them not be with the hypocrites [a reference

to a type of Pharisee known as “hypocrites”; cf. Luke 18:12

regarding the biweekly fast], for they fast on the second and fifth days of

the week, but you fast on the fourth and sixth days.

In these references the idea of justice remains intact, from fasting for those who persecute you for your faith, to fasting in anticipation of the serious nature of water baptism, to not fasting with those who fast for show.


Fasting, like prayer, is about overcoming injustice. It is a progressive movement with these four elements: despairing, caring, sharing and repairing. The objective is for us to conform to Yahweh’s attributes (cf. Exodus 34:6-7) so that we imitate Him in the way we treat people and deal with evil and injustice in the world

Listen to what Yahweh said to Israel about the true fast:

“Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to

undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break

every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the

homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and

not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth. And your righteousness will go before you. The glory of Yahweh will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and Yahweh will answer. You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking

wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire

of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will

become like midday. And Yahweh will continually guide you, and

satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones.

And you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose

waters do not fail.

Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins. You will raise up

the age-old foundations. And you will be called the repairer of the

breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell.” (Isaiah 58:6-12)

True fasting is simple. It is the outflow of the two greatest commandments given to us by Yahweh: love God and love others as yourself. With his divine help and fullness of his Spirit, we will not complicate it anymore

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