He Was Hungry

The first temptation that our Lord undergoes in the desert is one that is directly occasioned by his fasting. It is the hunger of the fast that opens him up to temptation:

And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and after that he was hungry. And coming up to him the tempter said: If you are the son of God, speak and make these stones become loaves of bread. But he an­swered, saying: It is written: not by bread alone shall man live, but in every word that issues through the mouth of God.

Matthew 4:2-4

A comment on James Chastek’s blog a while back noted the following about the effects of fasting for several weeks on water only:

Fasting of this type is characterized by phases involving the presence, absence and then return of hunger, with the final hunger being quite different both subjectively and in its objectively imperative nature from the initial hunger phase, which is like what most people think of, and experience as, hunger.

When one embarks on an extended water fast, one transitions into it with feelings of pangs in the stomach, cravings for food, lassitude. This can last for several days up to a week. After a while, the real fast begins: hunger pangs disappear, energy levels may rise, the body begins living on its fat stores, the tongue may become coated, the breath foul, and sometimes skin eruptions appear as toxic deposits are excreted through it as a byproduct of metabolism. The key here, which often surprises people, is the absence of hunger.

Then–and here’s the relevance to Jesus and the forty days–after several weeks, hunger returns. But it is radically different than the initial hunger, which is the hunger you and I think of as hunger. The tongue becomes clear, the breath freshens, the skin ceases to break out. The body has used up its fat stores, and now signals its need for nutriments with the return of hunger. But this hunger is different: it is not experienced as hunger pangs, but as a deep need throughout the body, a kind of cellular craving for food. It is not exactly unpleasant (at first: after any delay in eating, it becomes agony), but it is imperative, and it must be honored. Because now the faster is in genuine starvation. “And he was hungry.”

A typical time from onset of food elimination to return of imperative hunger: oddly, about forty days is not unusual. Some can go quite a bit longer, some quite a bit less. But a typical adult man with typical stores of fat can go about five or six weeks. But when that time is up…you MUST eat. Your body craves food desperately. You must eat, or you will begin to die.


This account is bolstered by what we read of cities under siege in ancient accounts. There comes a time when the inhabitants of a starving city seem to lose the use of reason—everything else becomes secondary in comparison to hunger. Parents even eat their own children. Even that most natural of all loves is clouded over by this craving in every cell of the body. Such cannibalism is a drastic illustration of Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs;” if you physiological needs are not met, one will not worry about higher goals. Or, as Bertolt Brecht put it more pithily: First comes grub, then morality.

But in rejecting the temptation, Christ rejects the whole idea of ranking what is more necessary above what is more good:

Do not then worry and say: What shall we eat? Or: What shall we drink? Or: What shall we wear? For all this the Gentiles study. Your father in heaven knows that you need all these things. But seek out first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things shall be given to you.

Matthew 6:31-33

8 thoughts on “He Was Hungry

  1. Pater, you may want to link to a Wayback Machine archival link as the fasting post on James Chastek’s blog appears to have been removed.

    If you don’t mind my asking, what is the strictest fast you have ever observed?

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  2. Pater, why was it wrong for Jesus to turn stones into bread? A common answer is that it would be wrong for Jesus to work a wonder for His own good and not that of others. I have never found this convincing. After all when Jesus must pay the temple tax he does so with a coin found in the mouth of a fish.

    I wonder if this test by Satan was not to directly cause Jesus to sin but rather to expose His powers and in so doing to render Him harmless to Satan. Why would Satan care what His powers were? Because at His baptism He was identified by a voice from heaven as the beloved Son a mysterious identification which must have made Satan fearful. Hence Satan prefaces two of his tests with “If you are the son of God…”

    Satan may have been wondering if this man was his prophesied nemesis, the seed of Eve who would crush his head. What would the turning of stones into bread reveal about this beloved Son? I submit that the prophesied seed of Eve would also be a son of Adam, subject to the curse of Adam. What is that curse – a curse of death and corruption and work and the earning of one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow …. Is that what Satan seeks to expose – Whether this beloved son is or is not subject to the curse of earning his bread by the sweat of his brow? If this beloved son can change stones into bread, then he is not subject to the curse of Adam. if the beloved son is not subject to the curse of Adam then he cannot be the prophesied seed of Eve who will crush the devil’s head. Thus if Jesus does this wonder then He is not subject to the curse of Adam.

    Jesus foils Satan by refusing to do this wonder. He consents then to be subject to the curse on Adam and to earn His bread by the sweat of His brow. He chooses solidarity with fallen man and makes Himself the Son of Man, I.e., the son of Adam…

    In short, it seems that the test of turning stones into bread is a temptation to step outside the Adamic curse which if succumbed to would render this beloved Son someone other than the prophesied seed of Eve who would vanquish Satan.

    If there is any merit to reading the narrative against the curses put in place after the Fall, Jesus’ rejoinder from Deuteronomy that “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God” can be read as a prophecy of the remedy for the Adamic curse of death and corruption, which is the Bread of Life with which Jesus will feed his disciples. The first words of Jesus in His public life are a prophecy of the Eucharist, the remedy for the Adamic curse, the action of the Man God to break that curse of death, corruption and hunger.

    Is this a plausible effort to make sense of this duel in the desert as Frank Sheed called it? I believe the other two temptations can be read against the other two curses following the fall, the curse on Eve and the curse on the seed of Eve whose heel will be struck by Satan. Adios, Andy Zepeda

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    • That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought of reading the temptations in the light of the curses on Adam and Eve. The temptations are usually read as paralleling the testing of Israel in the desert. Christ, as the New Israel in His own person, has to suffer hunger as Israel suffered, but without complaint, and therefore without manna, etc. It is also sometimes read as being about the nature of His mission, so that the bread temptation would then mean that He was being tempted to identify his mission with bringing temporal goods, temporal prosperity.

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      • Pater, There are many ways to read the story of the temptations of Christ. Many seem unsatisfactory to me although they meet St. Augustine’s test -do they further charity? But an adequate interpretation would try to explain why this specific temptation rather than another, why this particular formulation of the test by Satan, and why did Jesus choose each particular passage of Deuteronomy to respond. To often we try to interpret the Scripture in a way that provides a moral teaching or example. I think that doesn’t work and is not true to the text as the story of our salvation through the Man-God.

        It is noteworthy that Jesus uses only Deuteronomy for his rejoinders. Deuteronomy begins: “These are the words of Moses spoken from across the Jordan”. Jesus begins his public life where Moses ends his. Jesus signals that He is the new Moses. 9interesting that it across the Jordan where Jesus proclaims His new teaching on marriage.

        Many scholars contend that the Church’s teaching on Original Sin is not found in the Gospels. I have always thought that was silly but it is especially wrong if the Temptations are instances where Jesus elects to be subject to the three curses in Genesis. It is easy to overlook that the three curses all affect mankind. The curse on Adam is obvious. The curse on Eve seems directed only tonwomen since the pangs of childbirth affect only women. But there is another part of that curse that is universally applicable: Eve is cursed to be subject to her husband and loses her equal status. This is universal I think because it foreshadows all forms of domination and subjugation: master – slave; parent -child; ruler – subject; teacher – student; all unequal relationships. If the curse on Adam can be typified as the carnal curse, the curse on Eve could be labeled the social or societal curse. Even the woman-specific part of that curse – the pangs of childbirth – is a curse on the fundamental process of society – building.

        There is the curse on Satan too which man does not escape either. While Satan is to have his head crushed, he will strike at the heel of the seed of the woman. I submit that is meant universally and is a curse on all of us. Where in the preternatural state, Adam and Eve were not subject to bodily corruption and enjoyed equality, they were also protected from the reach of the devils which makes Eve’s succumbing even more tragic. I think you might call our vulnerability to the devil as a kind of a cosmic curse because we are now exposed to harm from the fallen angels who had no place in Eden.

        In any event, the three temptations seen to correspond to these three curses. The temptation of turning stone to bread relates to the carnal curse. The temptation to have all the power and glory of this world is about the societal curse – domination and subjugation. The temptation to leap off the parapet of the temple and have angels catch Jesus’ feet is a temptation to avoid the fate of the curse that has the devil strike man’s heel. (C. S. Lewis seems to be onto this since his salvific character Ransom was injured at his heel in That Hideous Strength.)

        Jesus foils Satan in each instance by identifying Himself as a man subject to all three curses. Of course, given His Mother’s Immaculate Conception, He is not subject to these three curses. But he freely makes Himself so. He allows death, corruption, hunger, tiredness to be His lot. He allows Himself to be subject to His parents, to the Romans, to the Jewish authorities. He allows Himself to be vulnerable to the Devil. Thus, the Devil, the flesh and the world are the sources of all temptations. Thus the divine condescension where Jesus makes Himself the Son of Man subject to all the dooms and banes man suffers even though He is without sin.

        It is interesting that the Greek Fathers call the Temptations the “little passion”.
        There is much more in this story than meets the eye. I suspect that there is much more to understand by reading it against the Israelites’ trials and testing. There is much to be fascinated by in the double and triple meanings of Jesus’ rejoinders to Satan, and the prophetic meaning of each rejoinder. Is not the rejoinder: “Thou shall adore the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve” prophetic of Heaven where there shall be no marriage but all shall be equal before God? Also fascinating is Satan’s choice of Psalm 91. There are other mysteries: why is the order of the temptations different in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts?

        Adios, Andy

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  3. ¨He was hungry.¨ For me this means that Jesus was fully human, or rather that Jesus shows us the meaning of what being fully human means. He shows the terminus ad quem of the Divine Kenosis. Man is not merely a contingent being in an accidental sense, but he is THE contingent being and the contingency that gives sense and measure to all contingency. Man is that essential hunger that only is stilled by the Bread of Life, and by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

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