Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord.
Leviticus 23:27 (KJV)
Afflict your souls – There is only one day per year required by God to fast. And what’s interesting is it doesn’t even say “to fast”, but rather to “afflict your souls”. So where is the correlation made, and how did we end at the conclusion of fasting?
Why do we make the assumption of fasting on this day when the text clearly doesn’t say that. We do this because this Hebrew idiom has successfully transferred over into our understanding of what’s being commanded here. To afflict your souls is an idiom for fasting. Do you need the proof? Good.
But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.
The King James Version translates the exact word from Leviticus 23 as “afflict” to “humbled” in this Psalm. But they are both the same Hebrew word anah. This occurrence of anah with fasting can also be found in Ezra 8:21, and Isaiah 58:3.
So now that we’re armed with the proof, let’s explore further. Anah primarily means “to try to force submission”. The Rabbis believed that sin’s direct conduit was the flesh, so on the Day of Atonement when man is to seek atonement of his sin, he then denies any strength given to the flesh, the means by which sin enacts in the world. So by denying the flesh, they deny any opportunity for sin to prevail.
But what about fasting outside of the Day of Atonement? While anah is to afflict the body in ways to produce submission or humbleness, the word tsuwm (fasting) is about depriving the body of nourishment during great sorrow. It’s not meant to be a ritualistic event, although we read that it became one for many Pharisees as in Luke 18:12. Yeshua warned against this outward show of fasting (Matthew 6) and rather encouraged a more humble approach tying it back to the true intent.
Often times fasting was done in conjunction with repentance. We read about this from the prophets Joel, Jonah, and Daniel. Repentance was a key part in fasting because depriving the body of nourishment alone never caused God to turn to His people. The afflictions of the body were never enough. God always wanted the heart.
Are you one of them? When you fast, what do you think God looks upon – your outward affliction, or your inward renewal leading to obedience? A true fast indicated that people were intent on living righteously including the serving of the poor and needy (Isaiah 58). You see, true fasting goes hand-in-hand with true religion (James 1:27).