Root: בריא / חלב / שמן
Sounds like: shah’man; kheh’lev; ba’ree
Fat is a complicated word. It is necessary for human existence, and yet it appears to be steeped in negative connotations. Fat discrimination has been an issue for decades, but historically being fat was not always considered an undesirable state of being. How did we culturally get to the conclusion that fat was bad? And what does the Bible have to say about fat?
We will take a look at three Hebrew words translated as “fat”:
- Shaman, which was connected with the word oil (shemen)
- Khelev, which was primarily associated with fat offerings in the Tabernacle/Temple setting
- Bari, which meant rounded and plump, and was connected to the Hebrew word for creation (bara), which literally could mean a great abundance. In the beginning God created [bara]…
Shaman: Oily Fat
Shaman was fat connected with oil (shemen). It was often associated with sleekness, greasiness, and thickening.
Moses’ song in Deuteronomy 32 was a statement of the Israelites worldview. It reflected how they saw themselves in relation to other nations. More striking, it was how they understood foreign pantheons and where YHWH stood in relation to those outside forces. According to Moses’ song, Jeshurun (a poetic form of Jerusalem) had begun to follow foreign gods and, as a result, they became like shaman:
“But Jeshurun became fat (oily) [wai-yi-sh’man] and kicked— you have become fat [shaman’ta], thick, and obstinate— then he abandoned God who made him, and rejected the Rock of his salvation.
They made Him jealous with strange gods; with abominations they provoked Him to anger. They sacrificed to demons, who were not God, to gods whom they have not known, new gods who came lately, whom your fathers did not know.
You forgot the Rock who fathered you, and forgot the God who gave you birth. YHWH saw this, and spurned them because of the provocation by His sons and daughters.
Then He said, ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end will be; for they are a perverse generation, sons in whom there is no faithfulness.’”
The prophet Isaiah also used the word shaman to describe the hearts of those who had rejected God. When oil goes cold it becomes thick. It loses its sleekness and becomes heavy and dull, much like the hearts of the Hebrew people:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
And He said, “Go, and tell this people:
‘Keep on listening, but do not understand; and keep on looking, but do not gain knowledge.’
Make the hearts of this people insensitive [fat/thick/dull: ha-sh’men], their ears heavy, and their eyes blind, so that they will not see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.”
Yeshua (Jesus) quoted Isaiah’s words in Matthew 13:14-15 and Paul quoted them in Acts 28:26-28. Insensitive hearts lasted long after Isaiah’s day. It is still a problem today. People, since the beginning, have been blind and unhearing to the Creator’s call, and their hearts have been metaphorically coated in fat so that they do not seek or ever try to understand YHWH. They needed healing, but they relied on their own abundance to save them.
Likewise, Jeremiah used shaman to describe the wicked of YHWH’s people, who celebrated their own wealth at the expense of others:
“For wicked people are found among My people, they watch like fowlers lying in wait; they set a trap, they catch people.
Like a cage full of birds, so their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich.
They are fat [sham’nu], they are sleek, they also excel in deeds of wickedness; they do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan, so that they may be successful; and they do not defend the rights of the poor.
‘Shall I not punish them for these things?’ declares YHWH, ‘Or shall I not avenge Myself on a nation such as this?’
An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; and My people love it this way! But what will you do when the end comes?”
Foreign nations certainly fit the bill of fat, dominating powers who used their wealth to crush others. But in all these examples, it was God’s chosen nation of Israel who had disobeyed God and became metaphorically fat (greasy, slow-moving and dull), and obstinate to the will of God. In essence Jeremiah was reporting that the the elite of the Hebrew people had become fat-cats, exploiting the poor and orphaned for their own elevation.
But shaman wasn’t always used as a negative metaphor. Seventy years after Babylon attacked, destroyed, and exiled the Hebrew people out of Jerusalem, a chosen few were able to return to the sacred city. Nehemiah was one of those people, and he recognized the great abundance God had given them throughout the ages:
“You made their sons as numerous as the stars of heaven, and You brought them into the land which You had told their fathers to enter and possess.
So their sons entered and took possession of the land. And You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and You handed them over to them, with their kings and the peoples of the land, to do with them as they desired.
They captured fortified cities and a fertile land. They took possession of houses full of every good thing, carved out cisterns, vineyards, olive groves, fruit trees in abundance.
So they ate, were filled and put on fat [wai-ya-sh’minu], and lived luxuriously in Your great goodness.”
Fat was good. It meant that life was prosperous, and God’s provisions allowed His people to eat well and add fat to their bodies. But again, they took what was abundantly good, filled themselves beyond their measure, and then promptly turned their back on YHWH, their Provider.
“But they became rebellious and revolted against You, and threw Your Law behind their backs and killed Your prophets who had admonished them, in order to bring them back to You. And they committed great blasphemies.”
Khelev: Fat for Offering
Khelev fat showed up primarily in the setting of Tabernacle/Temple sacrifices. [The word for suet, peder, was also used in this context]. The very first recorded offering to YHWH (which, by the way, God never asked for), came from Cain and Abel:
Now Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a cultivator of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to YHWH from the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought an offering, from the firstborn of his flock and from their fat [u-meh-khel’vehen] portions.
As the story goes, YHWH accepted Abel’s offering of fat portions but rejected Cain’s offering. It is interesting to note that YHWH did not ask for a sacrifice and Cain’s fall was not about the sacrifice he provided; it was about the state of his heart. Cain took it upon himself to offer up the curse he was given as a human:
Cursed is the ground because of you; with hard labour you shall eat from it all the days of your life.
YHWH would happily accept fruit from the ground in later sacrifices, but Cain’s heart was the issue, not the offering. He trusted in the curse more than he trusted in YHWH.
Levitical laws focused strongly on the sacrificial system, where fat played a significant part:
From it [a goat] he shall present his offering as an offering by fire to YHWH, the fat [et ha-khelev] that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails, and the two kidneys with the fat [w-et ha-khelev] that is on them, which is on the loins, and the lobe of the liver, which he shall remove with the kidneys. The priest shall offer them up in smoke on the altar as food, an offering by fire as a soothing aroma; all fat is YHWH’s [kal khelev YHWH]. It is a permanent statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places: you shall not eat any [above mentioned] fat [kal khele] or any blood.’”
All fat was YHWH’s, just as everything was YHWH’s. Some fat was exclusively YHWH’s and some was to be shared with the sacrificers. The Bible tells us that other fat offerings could be consumed by the priests (Leviticus 7:22-34), but the fat around kidneys, entrails and liver were not to be eaten. These specific areas of fat were focused around the things that siphoned impurities and it may be for that reason that humans were instructed to avoid consuming those particular fat deposits.
For centuries the Hebrew sacrificial system was maintained. But by Isaiah’s time the sacrificial system had become bastardized. The priests offered it, not with sincerity, but with drudgery and a dull sense of duty and tradition. There was no life or love in the offerings they presented. YHWH found it burdensome:
[YHWH:] “You have not brought to Me the sheep of your burnt offerings, nor have you honoured Me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings, nor wearied you with incense!
You have not bought Me sweet cane with money, nor have you satisfied Me with the fat [w-khelev] of your sacrifices; rather, you have burdened Me with your sins, you have wearied Me with your wrongdoings.
I, I alone, am the one who wipes out your wrongdoings for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
The priests had lost their love for YHWH and their hearts became insensitive to the duties they were assigned. The writer of the 119th Psalm used khelev, much like the prophet’s used the word shaman, to highlight an insensitive heart:
The arrogant have forged a lie against me; with all my heart I will observe Your precepts.
Their heart is covered with fat [ka-khelev], but I delight in Your law.
Being encased in fat slowed the senses, in this case making them insensitive to YHWH’s laws.
David also used khelev in his poetry to describe his enemies:
[David:] They [the enemy] have enclosed me in their own fat [fat sacrifices: khel’bamoh], with their mouths they speak proudly. They have now surrounded us in our steps; they set their eyes to cast us down to the ground.
He is like a lion that is eager to tear, and as a young lion lurking in secret places.
Arise, YHWH, confront him, make him bow down; save my soul from the wicked with Your sword, from people by Your hand, YHWH, from people of the world, whose portion is in this life, and whose belly You fill with Your treasure; they are satisfied with children, and leave their abundance to their babies.
As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake.
David, pursued by his enemies, felt like he was enclosed in their fat, like a sacrifice. He called on YHWH to save him… the same God who was the giver of life and who filled His people’s bellies with the good fat of abundant treasure.
Bari: Round and Plump
Bari (fat) was reflected as round and plump, a bi-product of abundance. When the Pharaoh of Egypt dreamt of cows and wheat he described the good ones as “fat”; the cows and wheat that were not good were described as “thin and ugly”:
Now it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh had a dream, and behold, he was standing by the Nile. And behold, from the Nile seven cows came up, fine-looking and fat [u-v’rioht]; and they grazed in the marsh grass. Then behold, seven other cows came up after them from the Nile, ugly and thin, and they stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. Then the ugly and thin cows ate the seven fine-looking and fat [w-ha-b’rioht] cows. Then Pharaoh awoke. But he fell asleep and dreamed a second time; and behold, seven ears of grain came up on a single stalk, plump [b’rioht] and good. Then behold, seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them. 7And the thin ears swallowed the seven plump [ha-b’rioht] and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream…
Joseph was called in to interpret the dream and he announced that the seven good and fat cows represented seven good years of abundance. The abundance would then be followed by seven years of famine:
Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt; and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt, and the famine will ravage the land. So the abundance will be unknown in the land because of that subsequent famine; for it will be very severe.
Fat, as a result of God-given abundance, was good and desirable. Thin, as a result of famine, was ugly and undesirable. Today society has reversed this configuration. There is an expectation to remain thin when surrounded by abundance; and for those who are poor are judged for being fat (“when they clearly ought to be thin, considering their circumstances”). Body shaming, including fat judgement, carries no weight in the Bible (pardon the pun).
We’re only privy to the description of one person in the Bible as fat (bari): Eglon, king of Moab. Even Eglon’s name shared a root with the Hebrew word for round and circular (agol), and calf or heifer (egel and eglah).
Eglon’s description as fat reflected his wealth and privilege. He was surrounded by abundance and he used it to dominate over the Hebrew people. But YHWH raised up a deliverer to save the Hebrew people from the oppression they experienced from the Moabites:
And he [Eglon, king of the Moabites] gathered to himself the sons of and Amalek; and he went and defeated Israel, and they took possession of the city of the palm trees. And the sons of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab for eighteen years.
But when the sons of Israel cried out to YHWH, YHWH raised up a deliverer for them, Ehud the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. And the sons of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab.
Now Ehud made himself a sword which had two edges, a cubit in length, and he strapped it on his right thigh under his cloak. Then he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat [bari] man. And it came about, when he had finished presenting the tribute, that Ehud sent away the people who had carried the tribute. But he himself turned back from the idols which were at Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.”
And the king said, “Silence!” And all who were attending him left him.
Then Ehud came to him while he was sitting in his cool roof chamber alone. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he [Eglon] got up from his seat.
Then Ehud reached out with his left hand and took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. The hilt of the sword also went in after the blade, and the fat [ha-khelev] closed over the blade because he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the refuse came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and shut the doors of the roof chamber behind him, and locked them.
When he had left, the king’s servants came and looked, and behold, the doors of the roof chamber were locked; and they said, “Undoubtedly he is relieving himself in the cool room.” So they waited until it would have been shameful to wait longer; but behold, he did not open the doors of the roof chamber. So they took the key and opened them, and behold, their master had fallen to the floor dead.
Two words for fat were used in this passage. King Eglon was described as bari (plump, round, fat). Also, the sword went into Eglon’s belly and the khelev (body fat, sacrificed fat) closed over the blade and the sword stayed where it had been thrust.
This story paints a vivid, descriptive, picture. There was no fat shaming; fat was used merely as a description of a king who was steeped in abundance, wealth, power and privilege. The shame of Eglon was not his size; his shame was using his power to dominate and control YHWH’s devoted children.
Fat and Prosperous
Being Fat and Prosperous was a common motif in Hebrew literature. The Psalmist Asaph was envious of his fat and prosperous enemies:
God certainly is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart!
But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pains in their death, and their belly is fat [u-bari].
They are not in trouble like other people, nor are they tormented together with the rest of mankind. Therefore arrogance is their necklace; the garment of violence covers them.
Their eye bulges from fatness [meh-khelev]; the imaginations of their heart overflow. They mock and wickedly speak of oppression; they speak from on high. They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue parades through the earth.
Therefore his people return here, and abundant waters are drunk by them. They say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?”
Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth.
Asaph ached to be fat like his enemies. They lived the life of ease and did not struggle the way the Hebrew people had struggled. A full belly was not a pained belly, which made being fat desirable.
Yeshua’s (Jesus’) ministry turned the tables on the concept of good and fat. He came to present the Kingdom, but His Kingdom was very different from human kingdoms. In Yeshua’s Kingdom those who lived on abundance (the fat and well-fed) would become hungry, and those who were hungry would become rich:
And He raised His eyes toward His disciples and began saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when the people hate you, and when they exclude you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and jump for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For their fathers used to treat the prophets the same way. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed [filled up/fat)] now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all the people speak well of you; for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way.”
Yeshua raised up the humble and poor and He preached that those who gained status and power from wealth and abundance would not remain fat and rich.
Ezekiel prophesied against the rich and fat leaders of Israel. They were like bad shepherds who exploited the sheep, eating their fat and wearing their wool, without caring for them in return:
Ezekiel 34:1-6, 10
Then the word of YHWH came to me, saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘This is what the Lord YHWH says: “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should the shepherds not feed the flock? You eat the fat [et ha-khelev] and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat [ha-b’riah] sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you searched for the lost; but with force and with violence you have dominated them. They scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every animal of the field and scattered. My flock strayed through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them…
…‘This is what the Lord YHWH says: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them stop tending sheep. So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will save My sheep from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”’”
YHWH promised to save His sheep, His people, from those who dominated over them and fed off their fat. These shepherds did not strengthen them when they were sick; they did not heal them when they were diseased. When they were scattered and lost, the shepherds did not seek them and bring them back. Instead they let them be devoured. YHWH would not let this happen to His flock. He would step in and be the Shepherd needed to lead His people.
Yeshua fulfilled the prophecy of Ezekiel as the one who would save YHWH’s sheep:
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters the flock. He flees because he is a hired hand and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own, and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice; and they will become one flock, with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it back. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it back. This commandment I received from My Father.”
Yeshua was the new and Shepherd who put extra care on the weakest of His sheep. The so-called “fat cats” (those whose power and dominance ate off the weakness of others, and became fat as a result) would not last. Their abundance would be lost; their fat would dissolve, and they would become the hungry and unsatisfied:
It will be as when a hungry person dreams— and behold, he is eating; but when he awakens, his hunger is not satisfied.
Or as when a thirsty person dreams— and behold, he is drinking, but when he awakens, behold, he is faint and his thirst is not quenched.
So will the multitude of all the nations be, who wage war against Mount Zion.
The negativity that our society projects onto people of greater size can get no leverage from the Biblical text. Even the concept of gluttony (which many wrongly assume is a key factor to the accumulation of fat) has no connection to fat in the Bible. There were many warnings to avoid gluttony, but gluttony and fat were never paired together Biblically:
Listen, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way. Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, or with gluttonous eaters of meat; for the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe one with rags.
The warning of gluttony wasn’t about becoming fat, it was about losing livelihood to poverty and apathy.
Biblically, good health, physically, mentally, and spiritually, involved fat… partaking in God’s good treasures with sincere hearts.
Filling our mouths isn’t the issue, but as Yeshua put it, it’s what comes out of our mouths that pollutes us and makes us unattractive:
[Jesus to the Pharisees and scribes:] “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy about you, by saying:
‘These people honour Me with their lips but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, “Hear and understand! It is not what enters the mouth that defiles the person, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles the person.”
The body-shaming judgement and vitriol that spews out of the human mouth is disgraceful; and many who profess to be God followers are no better at controlling their tongues than anyone else.
Physically, size does not matter to God in the slightest. Fat or thin, YHWH loves His people. He does not care about the outside appearance, He cares about the sincerity of our hearts:
1 Samuel 16:7
But YHWH said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God does not see as man sees, since man looks at the outward appearance, but YHWH looks at the heart.”
So eat and enjoy YHWH’s healthy and abundant treasures that He provided for us to consume! Our physical well-being depends on it.
Spiritually, however, we ought to be consuming the Word of YHWH. Ezekiel prophesied that we ought to “Eat this book”, for when we consume the words of YHWH we breathe out the words of YHWH.
[Ezekiel:] And He said to me, “Son of man, feed your stomach and fill your body with this scroll which I am giving you.” Then I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.
Then He said to me, “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them.”
Like the fat offerings in the Tanakh (Old Testament) our life sacrifices to YHWH ought to be abundant (fat-filled) goodness… giving of our kind words, our time, our treasures, and our energies to those in need; being God’s image bearers to a broken planet.
How many people in this world suffer under the burden of fat shaming and/or negative body projections? God grieves when people are torn down and trampled on; YHWH is about lifting people up and bringing them closer to the Kingdom. Let’s take off the glasses of judgement and become advocates for all of God’s children, no matter what the size.
Next week: Revisiting DEDICATION