Whenever an all-church fast is called, pastors commonly give people a range of fasting options to engender wider participation.  On the one extreme, total abstention from food and drink (except water) is called for.  On the other extreme is what is often called “the Daniel fast.”  This is usually defined as eating only vegetables and drinking liquids.

The basis for the Daniel fast is found in Daniel 1:8-16.  We read that Daniel ate only vegetables, and drank only water (vs. 10, 16).  A reading of the text, however, does not warrant categorizing this as a fast.

Daniel was among the captives taken from Jerusalem to Babylon.  The king of Babylon, Belteshazzar, had Daniel put into a three year training program so that he might serve in the king’s court.  As part of the program, the king provided the initiates with his edible delicacies, including his wine.  Daniel objected to eating and drinking these things because these foods were ritually unclean according to Jewish dietary laws (v. 8).  Instead of eating and drinking the king’s ritually unclean delicacies, Daniel chose to limit his diet to vegetables and water.

Daniel’s overseer was hesitant to comply with Daniel’s request, for fear that Daniel’s vegetable diet would make him appear malnutritioned in comparison to the other initiates, and displease the king.  Daniel, however, was able to persuade the overseer to provide him his special diet for ten days to determine whether it would, in fact, affect Daniel’s appearance.  After the ten days had expired, Daniel’s appearance was healthier than the initiates who ate the king’s delicacies!  As a result, the overseer allowed Daniel to continue with his diet of vegetables and water.

Three things stand out about this text.  First, it does not describe Daniel’s actions as a fast.

Secondly, Daniel’s abstention from the king’s meat and drink was morally motivated, not spiritually motivated.  He was not abstaining for reasons of spiritual growth, but because participation would have been immoral according to the Law of Moses.

Thirdly, Daniel had no intention of abstaining for a mere ten days, but indefinitely.  In fact, the text suggests that had the overseer not granted Daniel’s request, Daniel was willing to suffer the consequences for continuing to deny the king’s delicacies (v. 13).  The ten days served only as a trial period to prove to the overseer that Daniel could maintain a healthy appearance on a diet of vegetables and water.  It would be improper, then, to construe this as a fast.  Fasts are not indefinite.  This is more properly termed a “diet,” differing little from those in modern times who choose a life of vegetarianism for various reasons.

It seems difficult to escape the conclusion that there is no such thing as the Daniel fast.  And outside this passage, fasting is never described as the abstention from certain foods.  It is always described as the abstention from all food.  Does that mean God will not honor the sacrifice of someone who gives up certain foods for a period of time?  Not at all.  God will honor any sacrifices we make for him.  What it does mean is that there is no warrant for calling such a sacrifice a “fast.”  Furthermore, apart from those who cannot abstain from all food for health-related issues, surely we can do better than a “Daniel fast.”  I could go to Olive Garden, pig-out on the all-you-can-eat soup and salad, and technically be on “the Daniel fast.”  But surely this undermines the purpose of fasting: a time of personal discipline and dedication to spiritual matters.  If we are going to fast, and our health permits, let’s fast the Biblical way: total abstention from food.  That is a genuine sacrifice, and most of us can do it!