Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Holiness in the Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible, the root *qds “to be holy” refers exclusively to the state of being set apart because of associations with the sacred (i.e., connected to deity). There are also implications for maintaining that sacred status by keeping free from sin. God’s holiness requires him to dissociate from sin.

The concept of holiness in relation to God has two levels. One is the inviolable sacredness of God himself. This is the ultimate association with God as infinitely set apart and unique, worthy of worship and status as God. This is seen in the divine name common in Isaiah “The Holy One of Israel.” The second is the earthly acknowledgement of God’s worth and uniqueness and status as God. A few examples may help make this more clear. Many passages talk about having a proper respect and fear of God.

Leviticus 10:3 Then Moses said to Aaron, "It is what the LORD spoke, saying, 'By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.'" So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.

Ezekiel 36:23 "I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD," declares the Lord GOD, "when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight.

Leviticus 22:32 "You shall not profane My holy name, but I will be sanctified among the sons of Israel; I am the LORD who sanctifies you,

Some of the examples bring in the idea of “profaneness” or “uncleanness.” It is sometimes helpful (linguistically) to attempt to define a term according to its opposite. In Ezek. 36:23 and Lev. 22:32, “profane” means treat as common or not acknowledge the sacredness or violate the sacredness by not respecting and honoring it. The concept of holiness is often contrasted with the state of being “common” as in not-sacred or “unclean” as in not fit for sacred uses.

Another aspect of holiness is seen in God’s desire to have a specific place for his presence that is considered sacred.

Exodus 25:8 "Let them construct a sanctuary [miqdash] for Me, that I may dwell among them.

Deuteronomy 26:15 'Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers.'

2 Chronicles 29:5 Then he said to them, "Listen to me, O Levites. Consecrate yourselves now, and consecrate the house of the LORD, the God of your fathers, and carry the uncleanness out from the holy place. [i.e. the Temple]

The Hebrew Bible turns to focus on human holiness in Leviticus 17-26. This section of the book is called “The Holiness Code” because it uses the word *qds so much. Leviticus 19 is an important section. It starts out with:

Leviticus 19:2 "Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, 'You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

The chapter goes on to outline specific commandments of God that are placed in the context of what it means to fulfill this command to be holy because God is holy. In effect, it’s saying here’s what one should do to be holy – obey God in these things.

The sense in which people are commanded to pursue holiness is in setting themselves apart from sin. The Bible also points out how God has set apart a chosen people to be holy.

Leviticus 11:44-45 44 'For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. 45 'For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.'"

Joshua 24:19 19 Then Joshua said to the people, "You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins.

Leviticus 20:26 'Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.

Exodus 19:6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel."

An important theme in the book of Ezekiel focuses on how Israel sinned and failed to keep themselves set apart from the sins they were warned about in Leviticus. So it would seem that the primary emphasis of holiness in the Hebrew Bible is on the earthly aspect of human acknowledgement or awareness of God as holy coupled with proper behavior that should derive from that awareness of God’s holiness. Perhaps this understanding of holiness can bring us a little closer to understanding the refrain repeated again and again in the book of Ezekiel – “and they shall know that I am the LORD.” It is as if God were saying, “I’ll make them see. Surely after this, they will acknowledge my holiness.”

Ezekiel 5:13 "Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself. And they shall know that I am the Lord—that I have spoken in my jealousy— when I spend my fury upon them.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps Ezekiel's repetition of "they shall know that I am the LORD" derives the substance of its implications from the explicit juxtaposition of "I am the LORD" and "You shall be holy" in the Holiness Code.

    Knohl argues that the HC was a corrective against the rest of P, which pictures only the priests as being called to personal, consistent holiness. The Holiness Code very explicitly expands the sphere of the holy beyond the temple to the entire community.