Christ’s fast in the desert is an answer to Israel’s history

Jesus is tempted by the devil during his 40-day fast in the desert in this work of Barthélemy Parrocel. Each step in the temptation of Jesus mirrors a moment in Israel’s own exodus.

When God became man and dwelt among us, everything He did was revelatory and packed with meaning. But sometimes it is not always clear why Jesus did the things he did. For example, why did Jesus go into the desert for 40 days fasting, praying, and being tested by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13)? A few Old Testament texts might shed light as to why.

The two most prominent persons in the Old Testament and in the Jewish faith are Moses and Elijah. Moses led the exodus (Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt), and it was through Moses that God gave his law or Torah to his people. Meanwhile, Elijah is perhaps one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets; Sirach 48:4 says that none of the prophets can equal his glory. And if you recall, it was Moses and Elijah who had the honor of appearing with Jesus at the Transfiguration to talk with him about “the exodus” that he was to undergo (Luke 9:31).

What do Moses and Elijah have to do with Christ’s fasting in the desert? Surprisingly, there is a tie-in: Both Old Testament figures also fasted for 40 days. After traveling through the desert, Moses and the people came to Mount Horeb:

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write down these words, for in accordance with them I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’ So Moses stayed there with the LORD for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Exodus 34:27-28).

Elijah also made a 40-day fast when he fled for his life into the desert. An angel appeared to him and gave bread and water to sustain him on his journey. 1 Kings 19:8 says, “He got up, ate and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb” (1 Kings 19:8).

When we look at both figures through the wider lens of the exodus, we see several parallels. In the exodus, Moses and the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt by passing through the water of the Red Sea and fleeing into the desert. In the desert, the Israelites murmured against Moses because they had nothing to eat or drink, so God sent them bread (manna) and water (from a rock). An angel provided Elijah with food and God provided the manna, which is called “the food of angels” (Wisdom 16:20). Moses, Elijah, and the Israelites walk through the desert to Mount Horeb (sometimes called Sinai). Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days. Israel was in the desert for 40 years.

Looking at Christ’s life as outlined in Matthew’s Gospel, we see an interesting pattern. After King Herod died, the holy family, who were hiding in Egypt, return, thus fulfilling the Scripture “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15, Hosea 11:1). But what’s interesting is that Hosea wasn’t speaking directly about the messiah; he was speaking about the exodus.

The Israelites passed through water after leaving Egypt, and Jesus passes through water at his baptism (Matthew 3). Next, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert and fasts for 40 days, just as Israel was led by God into the desert and remained there for 40 years.

Unlike Israel, who tested God by their disobedience, the devil tests Jesus’ obedience. Three times he approaches our Lord and Jesus responds with three quotes from the book of Deuteronomy. Each quote is important. The first quote is a reply to Israel’s complaint about hunger (Deuteronomy 8:3). The second is a response to the complaint about being thirtsy (Deuteronomy 6:16, Exodus 17:1) and the last (Deuteronomy 6:12 or 10:20) recounts the whole episode of the exodus. In other words, where Israel failed during the time of testing in the desert, Jesus succeeds by recounting the words that Israel should have said.

Jesus’ life seems to be repeating or recapitulating Israel’s experience in the exodus. This Lent, let’s join Jesus in being faithful during our trials.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at