Holiness in the Old Testament, part 1

As we saw last time, the concept of holiness is quite different than is normally thought of.  Moral righteousness or purity is one aspect of holiness, not its definition.  It is the surface of the ocean, the part that “touches” us, but not the essence of its depth.

 Holiness, we said, is at it essence the idea of being separate, or cut off, from something, and that something is the universe itself, physical creation as a whole.  To say that God is “holy” is to say that He transcends, stands over and apart from, the physical universe.  He is not an object in it, but He, and He alone, has a quite different relationship to the universe than we do.  The universe can be said to exist to us as cause to effect, or as the arena where we live and move.  But the universe exists before God as effect to cause; he is not in the arena, but stands over it and outside of it. 

Holiness, then, is primarily a relationship word.  God is holy in relation to the universe.  This is not to say it is not fundamental.  In many ways it is the most fundamental thing we can say about God.  But it is not His essence (see the chapter on holiness and love).  We call a geographic point in the artic the North Pole because it exists as unique place in relation to all other places on the globe.  In the same way, holiness expresses the state of relationship primarily, and describes a state of being only in light of that relationship. 

The first two occurrences of the word holy in the Old Testament establish are quite interesting in this regard.  The first refers to a holy time, the second to a holy place.  How can these things be holy?

Let’s look first at the holy time.  We are told in Genesis 2:3 that God, “blessed the seventh day and made it holy”.  The next phrase, “because he rested (or ceased) from all his work that he had done in creation”, could modify either the fact that God blessed the seventh day, or that he called it holy, or, most likely, both.  So if we began reading our Bible in Genesis, and had no pre-conceived ideas of what is meant by holiness, we would understand it as some sort of “special quality” which attached to certain times. 

How is this related to the idea of Holiness as separateness?  In this way: all other days were “ordinary” days, but the seventh day was a day “set apart” from those other days.  In this day, activities would change.  Things done on the other days would not be done on this day, and things done on this day would not be done on the “ordinary” days.  We will look later at what this means for modern day Christians, but for now it is enough to understand that at holy day meant a day set apart from the rest, which is so marked by a change in human activities. (By the way, this idea of the specialness of a day being marked by special activities is carried over in our culture in the notion of holidays, that is, “holy days”).

The next time we see the word holiness in the Scriptures is in Exodus 3, in the encounter between Moses and God at the burning bush.  As Moses approaches the bush, he is warned to do two things: first “do not come near”.  Second, to “take off your sandals”.  Why? “For the place you are standing is holy ground”.  

How can a spot of dirt and stone be holy?  It is clear from the context and the rest of the Pentateuch: A place is holy ground, not because of any intrinsic qualities it has, but because God’s presence and activity is there in a special way.  It is no longer ordinary ground; it is used redemptively by the Holy One, and so becomes holy, even as it remains physically unchanged. 

In both passages, holiness here is understood as a quality that God gives, or declares, about something in the physical universe because the one who stands outside that universe is using it.  It is this instrumental sense of holiness that tends to dominate the meaning of holiness in the Pentateuch, especially in Leviticus.  Not only the Sabbath but special feasts times before God are declared to be holy days.  Not only does the ground become holy, but the whole mountain, and then, the “Holy Land”.  Inanimate objects used for God’s purposes, especially in relation to the redemptive plan of God, are called holy.  This includes such things as the vestments worn by the priests, the various parts of the tabernacle, and the sacrifices brought to God.

Two key passages in Leviticus illumine what God is trying to teach regarding holiness.  The first of these is in chapter 10, which begins with the death of two of Aaron’s sons for bringing “unauthorized fire” (literally, “strange fire”) mixed with incense before the Lord.  God’s words after this in verse 8 (“Drink no wine or strong drink…when you go into the tent of meeting”), indicate that the sin of Nabad and Abihu was two-fold: they came into God’s presence drunk, and with incense offering God had not authorized.  In other words they approached God in moral laxity and in worship of their own making. 

Fire came out “from the Lord” (from the Ark of the Covenant?), and destroyed both men.  After the corpses were removed from the camp, God gives this instruction to Aaron (and through him, to the whole priesthood): “You are to distinguish between the holy and the unholy, between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people or Israel all the statues that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses”. 

So one of the purposes of the priesthood, and the Mosaic law, was to make distinctions between what is holy and what is unholy.  This phrase is qualified by the next, “between the unclean and the clean”.  The concept of clean and unclean occurs in Leviticus nearly as often as the word holiness, and often the meanings overlap.  For an offering to be clean meant it was acceptable to God for an offering.  It that sense it was eligible to be a holy offering.  For an animal to be clean meant that Israel, as God’s holy people, could use that animal for food.  For a person to be clean meant they were not defiled by certain things (leprosy, menstrual blood, touching a dead body) and were therefore acceptable to come before God in the assembly before the Tabernacle. 

Notice that in all these things the idea of moral purity is simply not in play.  These were all physical characteristics, not moral.  A heifer is not more righteous than a lobster, but it, unlike the lobster, is clean, and can therefore be used as food by a holy people or offered as a sacrifice to a holy God.  A woman is not less righteous when she is menstruating than a week later when she is not. 

“Cleanness” then, in the Pentateuch, exists as a physical expression of the root idea of holiness: separating.  Some animals and conditions are simply set apart for God’s purposes, and some are not.

The other key passage in Leviticus is in chapter 11, verses 44: “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves, and be holy, for I am holy.” This verse is repeated (in Greek) in I Peter 1:16, and seems to be behind the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:48 (“Therefore you must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect”).

The idea that we should imitate God’s holiness is a sobering, but understandable thought.  What is surprising, then, is the way this is conveyed in Leviticus 11.  It is defined in terms of clean and unclean animals and insects, that is, which the Israelites could eat and which they were forbidden to eat.  The entire chapter is devoted to making dietary distinctions.  What is fascinating is that there appears to be no system or criteria for why some foods are allowed and others forbidden.  Even the distinctions between animals that chew the cud and those that do not, and those which have cloven hoof and those that do not seem rather arbitrary to us.  Why these distinctions?  Why are beef and bass okay, but not pork and shrimp?  We are given no reason.  Presumably it is not important for us to know.

The point I am trying to get across is that God defines holiness for his people in verse 44 in two senses.  First, the motive for holiness is because He is holy.  But the practice of holiness involves obeying his dietary commands about clean and unclean animals.  These two don’t seem to go together.  God has no body, thus no diet.  How then does making dietary distinctions somehow imitate His holiness?

In this way: by making continual distinctions in something as everyday and pervasive as food, Israel was practicing and learning that God’s holiness was about separation.  Their greatest need spiritually was always to remember the kind of God they served.  He was separate, different, of another realm.  This is partly why making an image of God was so offensive: it reduced Yahweh to an item in the universe.  It erased the most fundamental thing about God: his absolute separateness from, and transcendence of, this universe.


  1. Douglas J. Pugh says:

    I enjoyed your study on the Holiness of God. Please put me on your mailing list.

  2. What an inspirational study on the Holiness of God! Kindly put me on your mailing list.

  3. sydney abrahams says:

    this is one of the good write-ups on holiness i have read. God bless you.
    i am born again, i am born of God. i came from God. i relate to him as a child of God.
    therefore by that father and son relationship alone, i am holy even before i do or don’t do anything.