It is intriguing the sort of conversations one has when one is fasting. Earlier today I was chatting with some of my friends in my local congregation as we were all fasting for the Day of Atonement together, and the topic came up as to the connections between the three individuals who are recorded in scripture to have fasted for forty days: Moses, Elijah, and Jesus Christ. One of the people I was talking with, a serious minded young man who I got to know a lot better at a recent men’s weekend , but who had not known well before then because he goes to a different congregation commented on one of the connections between these three cases where people in the Bible fasted for forty days that I thought worthy of writing on. So, in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I would like to give praise for inspiration before we begin to talk about some of the connections between these three pillars of biblical practice and understanding.
Let us begin with one of the more intriguing scenes of the Bible, and one that has often been misunderstood, where all three of these people appear at the same time, referred to also in Mark 9:1-13, Luke 9:27-36, and 2 Peter 1:16-18. In Matthew 16:28-17:9, the scriptures say: “”Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom.” After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the son, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.””
Although some have falsely pointed to a view of “realized eschatology ” as a way of showing how it would have been possible for some of the people (like John) to have seen Jesus Christ return in His glory even if we do not yet visibly see Jesus Christ recognized as King of Kings and Lord of Lords over this rebellious and wandering planet, the passage itself shows that some of the disciples would see a visible foretaste of Jesus Christ’s return, an experience that appears to have stuck with Peter and John at least, given what we see in 2 Peter and Revelation. In this scene, we see a future picture of the resurrected Christ along with Moses and Elijah, which represent the Law and the Prophets, showing the harmony and agreement between Jesus Christ, Moses, and Elijah about the standards of God. The fundamental agreement and unity between these three people and their missions is not a matter that has often been appreciated, especially by those who claim to be Christians and deny the social justice of the prophets or the continuing validity of the law for Christians, as well as those who claim (falsely) to uphold the law and prophets but who deny Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. In recognizing the divine mission of all three  and the connection of all of their missions with obedience, justice, and liberty, we begin to recognize the organic unity of God’s word despite the diversity of the personalities of those who have been called and chosen by God throughout human history to practice and preach His ways to a wayward world.
Are there any other connections between Jesus Christ, Moses, and Elijah, though? Why would the Day of Atonement, a day of fasting, trigger a relevant conversation on the connection between these three vitally important biblical personages. Let us examine the passages that discuss the fasting of these three people and then let us see what connections exist between these biblical prophets other than a similar view of the Sabbath, God’s laws, and social justice. Then we can see the sort of biblical food an examination of the fasting of these three people can provide us, so that we might be able to dig deeper into the implications of scripture and ponder its applicability to our own life, so that we might not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.
Let us first look at what the Bible says about Moses’ forty-day fast in two places: Exodus 24:9-18 and Exodus 34:27-28. First, let us look at Exodus 24:9-18: “Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of ISrarel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank. Then the Eternal said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them.” So Moses arose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up to the mountain of God. And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Indeed, Aaron and Hur are with you. If any man has a difficulty, let him go to them.” Then Moses went up into the mountain, and a cloud covered the mountain. Now the glory of the Eternal rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the Eternal was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” Let us look now at Exodus 34:27-28: “Then the Eternal said to Moses, “Write these words, for according to the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” So he was there with the Eternal forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”
Let us now look at what the Bible says about Elijah’s forty-day fast, which is recorded in 1 Kings 19:1-10: “And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods to to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Eternal, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” Then as he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, “ARise and eat. Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. And the angel of the Eternal came back the second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.” So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God. And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the Eternal came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” So he said, “I have been very zealous for the Eternal God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
Let us now look at what the Bible says about the forty-day fast of Jesus Christ in Matthew 4:1-11 (which is also recorded in Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13, in a slightly different order in Luke): “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Eternal your God.'” Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Eternal Your God, and Him only you shall serve.'” Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.”
Let us comment on some of the similarities and differences between these accounts to see what kind of patterns we can determine. Let us note that all of these periods of fasting occur in relative solitude in the wilderness. Moses fasted while being alone with God on Mt. Sinai. Elijah fasted while alone in the wilderness on the way to Horeb (also known as Mt. Sinai), and Jesus Christ fasted alone in the wilderness in an unspecified location. Also, in all three cases, there is a miraculous meal associated with the fasting. For Moses, there is a meal with God (the preincarnate Jesus Christ, since no one has seen the Father at any time) shared with Aaron, his two eldest sons (who later met a bad end for drunkenness as priests and disrespecting their office) and seventy elders. For Elijah, there is bread and water given by the Angel of the Eternal (again, the preincarnate Christ) that help Elijah last for forty days and forty nights of travel, and for Jesus Christ there is a meal provided by angels after the forty days of fasting (the only time where the miraculous meal is recorded as occurring after the fast rather than before it).
Likewise, in two of the cases the people involved are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing where they are supposed to be doing it, while in the case of Elijah, he was not where he was supposed to be in Israel, and yet God was merciful anyway. In all three cases, interestingly enough, there is an element of temptation and covenant and judgment. In the case of Moses’ fast, there was the idolatry of the Golden calf and the failure of Israel’s leadership (when Moses and Joshua were absent) to resist the tendency of Israel towards sin. In the case of Elijah, the priests of Baal had just been judged but Israel had not repented of their own idolatry and evil and had persecuted God’s prophets. In the case of Jesus Christ, Satan made several attempts to tempt Jesus Christ (including the twisting of scripture) while Jesus Christ claimed His divinity in a subtle way (“You shall not tempt the Eternal your God,” claiming His identity as Yahweh) and rebuffed the attempt of Satan to claim worship by God in the flesh, putting Satan under judgment through successfully enduring temptations even at His weakest point.
Even though there have been some people who have attempted some variation of the forty day fast, those fasts of forty days and forty nights in scripture with neither food nor water have been done with divine guidance and divine intervention rather than human attempts at demonstrating faith. Furthermore, they have been done at pivotal times in the history of God’s involvement with mankind, including the inauguration of His covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai, His judgment of a wayward people that had rebelled against His ways for hundreds of years, and after the baptism of Jesus Christ, at the beginning of His ministry. Let us also note the presence of Jesus Christ in either preincarnate form or in the flesh in all three incidents. In short, fasting for forty days and forty nights is not something one should undertake as a publicity stunt, but rather something provided by God with miraculous help for important people in the plan of God for His purposes and His glory, and not for our own. Let us therefore not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from God, so that we may be fit servants of the Eternal God whom we serve in spirit and truth.
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