Feasting and fasting


As with many near eastern cultures, in the Bible, throwing a feast was a way of extending welcome and hospitality to strangers. Feasting provides the setting for some significant events. 
In addition to this common cultural practice, there were appointed certain calendar dates as special celebrations, important for remembering Jewish history and thanking God for his provision. 

The seven feasts of the Lord

Leviticus details seven ‘feasts of the Lord’ to be observed yearly by the Israelites Leviticus 23:4-44. Six of them were celebratory:
  • At Passover a symbolic shared meal commemorates the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt (the Exodus)
  • The seven days following Passover are the Feast of Unleavened Bread, remembering the haste of the Israelites’ departure (no time to wait for bread to rise!)
  • The Feast of First-fruits marks the start of the harvest; early crops are offered to God in gratitude and recognition of his provision
  • Fifty days into the harvest, the Feast of Weeks (also known by its Greek term Pentecost) is celebrated – another occasion for offering and gratitude
  • The Feast of Trumpets is a special day of rest, proclaimed with trumpet blasts. It takes place on the first day of the seventh month, seen as the end of the agricultural year
  • The Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) begins fifteen days after the Feast of Trumpets and lasts for a week. Jewish families live in specially constructed huts or booths to remember the temporary mobile dwellings of the Israelites in the wilderness.

Passover table, image available through Creative CommonsOther Old Testament feasts

Feasting is not always positive:

Fasting in the Old Testament

Fasting is the practice of foregoing food and other bodily indulgences for the sake of spiritual benefit, such as having space to focus on God. One of the ‘Seven Feasts’ mentioned in Leviticus was unlike the other celebrations. Taking place ten days after the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement is a day for fasting, repentance and sacrifice for sins.
Fasting is often associated with repentance after sin, or a desire to be ‘cleansed’ in order to meet with God:
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?
                                                                                  Isaiah 58:6-7 ESVUK    
However, for some fasting became a ritual which they utilised to show off how ‘holy’ they were. Isaiah denounced the hypocrisy of those who made an outward show of fasting without an active commitment to social justice:

Jesus’ ministry

Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil Matthew 4:1-3. By contrast, his first miracle took place at a wedding feast, when he turned water into wine when supplies ran low John 2:2-11.
Jesus’ disciples were infamous for feasting ‘with tax collectors and sinners’ Luke 5:29-30 and for fasting less than the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees Luke 5:33. However, Jesus did also advocate fasting, as long as it was practised as a private act of devotion and not a public display Matthew 6:16-18.
Parable of the great banquetJesus also used feasts as teaching illustrations. In the Parable of the Great Banquet Matthew 22:1-10 he compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a lavish wedding feast scorned by the invited guests. The servants of the king were sent out to gather in others until the hall is full.
Just hours before Jesus is arrested he shared a passover meal (the Last Supper) with his disciples Matthew 26:17-20. During this time together he instructed them to share bread and wine in remembrance of him Matthew 26:26-29. Christians call this the Lord's Supper, and have continued the practice ever since (also known as Holy Communion, or the Eucharist).

The early church

Fasting was among the spiritual disciplines practised by the early church. It often preceded the commissioning of new works of service Acts 13:2-3 or the appointing of new leaders Acts 14:23.
In 1 Corinthians 7:5 Paul suggested the possibility of different types of fasting, in this case a temporary sexual abstinence between a husband and wife in order to focus on prayer.


  • In Homer’s epic The Odyssey (c.800BC), Odysseus’ Ithacan home is overrun with men pursuing his wife Penelope in his long absence. He returns in disguise and, with the help of his son, slaughters them all at a feast
  • The Ghost of Christmas Past transports Scrooge back to a joyful festive feast hosted by Scrooge’s old employer Fezziwig in DickensA Christmas Carol (1843). He also observes the relish with which the Cratchits consume their far more humble feast
  • The short story A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka (1922) is about a man who devotes his life to public ‘performances’ of fasting
  • In [3F. Scott Fitzgerald3]’s The Great Gatsby (1925) the mysterious title character hosts famously lavish parties
  • The Earth envoy protagonist of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) experiences the feast culture of his host planet as well as weeks of hungry hardship when he is forced into exile
  • [3C.S. Lewis3]’ science fiction/horror That Hideous Strength ends with a gory scene in which the leaders of the malevolent research organisation N.I.C.E. are killed at a banquet after all the animals are released from their laboratories.


In a letter 1530 letter to Jerome Weller, Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) advocated company, drink and merriment as a means to ‘spite’ the devil.

Related topics

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.