The Daniel fast.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 January 2019

Every January, the people in my church go on a diet. Most years for three weeks; this year we’re formally doing it for one, but some folks may choose to go longer. We cut back on the carbohydrates, sugar, meat, and oils; lots of fruits and vegetables. Considering all the binging we did between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it makes sense to practice a little more moderation, doesn’t it?

What on earth does this practice have to do with prayer? Well y’see, the people don’t call it a diet. They call it a “Daniel fast.”

It’s an Evangelical practice which has taken off in the past 20 years. It’s loosely based on a few lines from Daniel 10. At the beginning of the year, Daniel went three weeks—that’d be 21 days—depriving himself.

Daniel 10.2-3 KWL
2 In those days I, Daniel, went into mourning three weeks. 3 I ate none of the bread I coveted.
Meat and wine didn’t enter my mouth. I didn’t oil my hair for all of three weeks.

So that’s how the Daniel fast works. At the beginning of the year, we likewise go three weeks depriving ourselves. He went without bread, meat, wine, and oil; so do we. True, by ‏ס֣וֹךְ ‏לֹא־‏סָ֑כְתִּי {sokh lo-sakhtí}, “I oiled myself no oil,” Daniel was referring to how the ancients cleaned their hair. (Perfumed oil conditions it, and keeps bugs away.) But look at your average Daniel fast diet, and you’ll notice Evangelicals are taking no chances. Nothing fried, no oils, no butter, nothing tasty.

Though the lists aren’t consistent across Christendom. The list below permits quality oils. Including grapeseed… even though Daniel went without wine during his three weeks. Not entirely sure how they came up with their list.

This list permits oils… but no solid fats. ’Cause Daniel denied himself Crisco, y’know. The Daniel Fast

In fact you look at these menus, and you’ve gotta wonder how any of it was extrapolated from Daniel’s experience. I mean, it generally sounds like Daniel was denying himself nice food. And yet there are such things as cookbooks for how to make “Daniel fast” desserts. No I’m not kidding. Cookbooks which say, right on the cover, they’re full of delicious recipes—so even though Daniel kept away from enjoyable food, who says you have to do without?

This is a fast, right?

No. It’s a diet.

Last year I was gonna tweet, “I’m gonna do the Reverse Daniel Fast: Nothing but meat, pastries, and wine.” Then I realized that’s the typical American diet. Got less funny.

See, the reason Christians crank out Daniel fast cookbooks—even as they’re emphasizing all the spiritual benefits of such a fast—is because they’re actually looking at its material benefits. Namely that people on a Daniel fast are eating healthy for once. Notice all the stuff on the “no” list: That’s all the stuff we ordinarily should eat less, or sparingly. Meat and dairy and processed foods shouldn’t be two-thirds of our diet!

This is commonsense. Not bible. Like I said, the Daniel fast menus, even if your church prints ’em out and distributes ’em widely, aren’t bible. Aren’t found in the bible. Not anywhere. Go look. You might find a list of forbidden foods here and there. Namely plants which weren’t planted properly or harvested too soon. Or animals or plants which aren’t ritually clean, or kosher. But a diet low in trans fatty acids? Bible never spells one out. Never really needed to, since most of those fats are manmade, and found in processed foods invented well after the scriptures were written.

Commonsense sounds reasonable. Sounds wise. Sounds like something God would come up with, ’cause he’s infinitely wise. So of course Christians are gonna assume the Daniel fast is all God’s idea. And even when we discover it’s not… well, it’s not gonna hurt to eat this way for 21 days, right? Anyone can diet for 21 days. Especially since there are cookbooks which show you how to make delicious Daniel-fast desserts. (Hope you’re not allergic to peanut butter.)

Here’s the important question though: Why’re you dieting?

  • To seek visions of the future like Daniel did? Well okay. But is fasting the reason Daniel received his visions? Does God give us any guarantee that once we give up sugar for three weeks, we’ll get to see green glowing angels Da 10.6 who give us a rundown of the End Times?
  • To seek a much smaller vision than that?—some basic direction for the near future, for the coming year? That’s fine too. Still gotta ask the question, though: Is a diet a necessary part of this prayer request? Of any prayer request? A karmic balance?—“If I deprive myself of fats and sugars you owe me a vision” deal? You know God isn’t beholden to any of our bargains with him.
  • To knock off some of that winter weight? That is actually a valid reason to go on a diet. But if we expect or claim any extra-special spiritual benefits for a practice which is really only for our health… at best that’s foolish, and at worst hypocrisy.
  • To contribute moral support and sympathy to the rest of your church, ’cause they’re on the Daniel fast too? That’s okay. Hopefully they’re also doing it for righteous reasons.
  • To make the statement, “God is more important than these items on the ‘No’ side of the menu”? That’s also okay. Self-deprivation is a valid way to exercise our self-control. I would suggest though: If you wanna make better statements, give up tougher things. If going without meat or dairy isn’t all that difficult for you, it’s no statement. Don’t just go without sugar; go without sugar substitutes too. Don’t just go without coffee; go without all hot beverages. Don’t just go without pastries; go without bread too. I’m talking real tests of self-deprivation. Real fasts.

I should also point out the reason Christians push the Daniel fast is because there’s money in it. You can make a small career of it: Travel to various churches and Christian TV and radio shows. Speak on the value of Daniel fasts and make some nice honorariums. Get known as the Daniel fast guru. Sell books and cookbooks.

Or you could forego the career, and simply do a Daniel fast every January instead of joining a gym. Drop 10 pounds the inexpensive way. Plus you get to feel spiritual about your diet.

Wait, what was Daniel doing again?

The reason for Daniel’s “fast,” if we can call it that (’cause Daniel didn’t), wasn’t to lose weight nor “pray in the new year.” It’s because Daniel was in mourning.

He didn’t specifically say why he went into mourning. But it's really easy to deduce when we read the next verse:

Daniel 10.4 KWL
On the 24th day of the first month, I was on the bank of the great river Khiddeqél.

Or as the Persians called it, Tígra; or as we call it, the Tigris. It’s about 80 kilometers from Babylon, so Daniel was a ways away from home at the time. For business or on a vacation?—no clue. But I digress.

This verse nails down the date as 24 Nisan in the ancient Hebrew calendar. (That’d be 24 Nisanu in Babylonian; 23 April in ours.) It’s 10 days after Passover. Daniel’d been mourning and fasting since the beginning of his own new year. Because at the beginning of his year, it was time to go to temple and celebrate Passover. Only there was no more temple. No more Jerusalem. The Babylonians had burnt down the temple and razed the city in 587BC, and for the past 31 years Daniel had been exiled from his homeland.

So he was in mourning. Didn’t eat meat and wine, like he’d usually have on Passover. Didn’t eat the bread he coveted—the unleavened Passover matzos. How could he celebrate Passover without a temple?

True, Daniel had a really comfortable exile (the various whims of King Nabu-kudurri-usur 2 notwithstanding). He was a government official, a respected magi who could interpret dreams, who could obviously afford to take trips to the Tigris. But the conquest of the neo-Babylonian Empire by Cyrus of Persia, followed by the restoration of Jerusalem, was still 17 years in the future. Daniel knew this restoration would eventually come, ’cause the LORD told Jeremiah it would. But he still didn’t know when or how. So he mourned.

This is why the LORD was giving him all his freaky visions: To give hope ’cause Daniel felt hopeless.

Yep, we Christians aren’t all that familiar with this context. Assuming we even care about it. Usually we don’t. As usual, our first question is, “How does this help me out any?”—and revert back to our churches’ goals for these 21-day fasts. We’re looking for God’s direction in the new year. And hey, if we can also shed a little holiday fat, it’s a win-win.

We’re not in exile. (Well, most of us aren’t.) Nor in mourning. Generally we’re optimistically looking forward to the new year: We expect it to be better than the last one. Maybe it’ll be the year Jesus returns! But the purpose of our Daniel fasting is to “seek God first in the new year”—to ask God to make our plans, wishes, and prosperity to come true. To bless our year.

Might be a request for a full-on apocalyptic vision of all the future events he’ll take us through, or the steps he wants us to take. Might be guidance or direction; what’s he want our churches, or us personally, to do for him? What’ll grant us the best of all possible futures?

Some Christians want God to grant us a word. By which I don’t mean a full prophetic message: I mean one literal word. A single word which sums up the coming year for us. “A year of blessing,” or “a year of hope,” or “a year of transformation,” or “a year of peace.”

Certainly not “a year of famine.” Which, y’know, would be a useful warning. As it was to Joseph ben Israel, as it not only helped vault him into power, but helped him prepare ancient Egypt and save them from starvation. But all those folks who want a word for the year, don’t really want practical prophecies. Give us happy thoughts. Good feelings. Sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and lattés.

That other time Daniel went on a diet.

Since not every Christian is familiar with Daniel 10—but they are taught the Daniel 1 story in Sunday school—they often assume the Daniel fast comes from that part of the book. Shall I recap? Nah; I’ll just translate it.

Daniel 1.8-16 KWL
8 Daniel fixed in his mind: He’d not be defiled by the king’s meat, nor his banquet wine.
He begged the head eunuch that he not be thus defiled.
9 God gave Daniel grace and sympathy in the head eunuch’s presence.
10 The head eunuch told Daniel, “I fear my master, the king.
He determined your foods, your banquet wines which you consume.
What if he sees your faces look sad in a crowd of joyful children?
You would endanger my head with the king.”
11 Daniel told the guard whom the head eunuch set over Daniel, Khananyáh, Mišael, and Azariah,
12 “Please test us your slaves ten days.
Give us beans to eat and water to drink.
13 See our faces—how we look, and how the children who eat the king’s meat look.
Based on what you see, deal with your slaves.”
14 The guard heard their message, and tested them ten days.
15 At the end of ten days, he saw they looked good—
fatter in flesh than all the children who ate the king’s meat.
16 The guard was taking away their meat and banquet wine,
giving them beans.

The word I translated “beans,” ‏זֵּרֹעִ֛ים {zerahím}, technically means “things which are sown.” like seeds, which is what modern Hebrew means by it. The NIV went for “vegetables,” and the KJV went with “pulse,” an old-timey word for beans. You can’t really sow vegetables, so I figure the KJV’s translators probably had the right idea.

Anyway, that’s a lot of the basis for the vegetarian diet in the Daniel fast. People figure if that’s what Daniel ate when he was a kid, and the end result was wisdom and understanding 10 times better than everyone else, Da 1.20 maybe we’ll get similar results if we lay off the meat for a bit.

But here’s the thing: The reason Daniel objected to the king’s food wasn’t because meat and wine are bad. It’s because the meat and wine of the neo-Babylonian king, taken from Nabu-kudurri-usur’s own table, was ritually unclean. The banquet wine had been ritually offered to pagan gods: For Hebrews that’s a no-no. Dt 32.38 The meat came from all sorts of animals—some kosher, like goats and cattle, and some treyf, like pigs and horses. Plus gentiles didn’t always drain the blood from their animals after killing them, and eating blood is also a no-no Lv 3.17 —and that’s a command for everybody, not just Hebrews. Ge 9.4 So nothing the king offered the Hebrew children was, to their minds, edible.

Compare the neo-Babylonian diet with your typical American diet. Any of that stuff threaten to defile us any longer? Well, we don’t first offer our wines to pagan gods… unless you count the gods we make of our palates and stomach. We’re pretty good about draining the blood from our meats, although there are occasional exceptions. And since ritual cleanliness is moot once the Holy Spirit took up permanent occupancy within us… yeah, we’re probably good. Daniel’s quandary isn’t ours.

So, any reason we should apply this story to our Daniel fasts? None whatsoever.

Context makes a big difference, huh?