In the Bible, fatness is such a blessing, that it is especially hard to understand why wicked men are permitted to enjoy such a state. It requires a theodicy and faith in God. Thus: “For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies (Psalm 73:4-7, ESV).
With that in mind, let us look at the Biblical data on gluttony. The first reference to gluttony refers to it as evidence of a capital crime:
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, “This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21, ESV). Note that Jesus himself hints that his opponents, who call him a glutton for spending so much time eating with the “wrong people” are actually trying to get him executed as a rebellious son (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).
While a modern reader might think this means parents can simply have their child executed at will for being disobedient, I think the more informed reading is that this child has grown up as a career criminal. The point of the passage is that even his parents must witness against him. As a repeat offender he is liable to capital punishment and his parents must not choose blood over the community and the Law of God.
But why associate gluttony and alcoholism with such capital offenses? Before speculating, let us look at other data in the Bible: “Hear, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way. Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Proverbs 23:19-21, ESV). Proverbs 28:7 also mentions gluttony. “The one who keeps the law is a son with understanding,/ but a companion of gluttons shames his father.” This corresponds to the passage in Deuteronomy, but it doesn’t seem to do much to explain the content of the sin. The sin of joining the wrong kind of companions, however, is one of the first sins mentioned in the book of Proverbs. The son is to resist the lure of those who offer a life of plunder.
Gluttony is never associated with such fatness as we find mentioned in Psalm 74, but rather with poverty and a refusal to work—which is often accompanied by a life of crime necessitated by a lack of sufficient income by honest means. The evidence indicates that gluttony’s relationship to poverty is twofold. First, expensive food can leave the eater impoverished (“expensive” here would probably mean tavern fare). Second, people who stay up late eating and drinking tend to want to sleep late into the day, and thus miss opportunities to labor for wages. Thus, those who choose this lifestyle are likely to be tempted to join and gang and rob the people who do labor of their wages so that they can finance that lifestyle.
Gluttony, thus, is a form of foolish consumption that also has a negative feedback loop in that it encourages sloth. It ties into repeated themes in Proverbs, for example: “Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man;/ he who loves wine and oil will not be rich” (21.17).
One final reference is from Paul’s letter to Titus “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons’” (1.12). This gives us the content association of “lazy” with glutton. Rather than envision Paul haranguing Christians to go to the gymnasium more often, I think the most likely interpretation is that Paul addresses this later (3.8) when he expresses his concern “that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.” This corresponds to other expressions of Paul’s pastoral concern (for example, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” – 1 Thessalonians 3.10) and works well with the Proverbs passage.
I remember listening to the practical theologian Dave Ramsey speak of someone who, after tracking his spending for the first time, realized he and his wife were spending $1200 every month on restaurant dining (this would be in the nineties). The man, shocked at his own stupidity said he finally understood why they had nothing saved for retirement: “We were eating it.” According to the Bible, that was gluttony—and it would still be gluttony if both of them were buff exercise enthusiasts. (Ironically, paying for a gym membership on a credit card could actually be closer to gluttony than eating a Supersized Big Mac meal).
Before The Objections Come In
What I am saying seems to make the Bible irrelevant to a great deal of cultural noise about the dangers of obesity and the health/fitness industry. I think that much of that industry and the cultural noise is likely a bunch of silly nonsense that will someday be recalled by historians with the same feelings we get when we watch a historical drama on television and see a physician cut and bleed a sick patient.
Perhaps I’m over-reacting to some degree. It is hard to say with any certainty. But I am quite confident that we would be better off getting our ethical data, especially our standards for judging other people, from the Bible rather than from the current consensus.
For those who want to get an idea of how fragile and questionable the current “science” of health and fitness might be, I would suggest starting with The Diet Myth: Why America’s Obsessions with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health by Paul Campos (formerly The Obesity Myth). They can also look at The Fat Nutritionist. Liberating the Bible from that consensus—that can’t seem to deal accurately with statistics, control groups, or the assignment of cause and effect—is a feature, not a bug to this post.