The Character of God:  Holiness

Old Testament, Hebrew qadosh

Leviticus 11:26-45
Leviticus 19:1-19
Psalm 99:1-9
Isaiah 43:1-15
Isaiah 55:1-13

Other Aspects of God's Character

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Leviticus 11:26-45 (2/14/2011)

The Hebrew word that is almost always translated as “holy” (and vice versa) is qadosh, which means “separate” or “set apart.”  This past week I read a commentary on Thessalonians by Lyle O. Bristol, who pointed out that not only is God holy, but also people or things can be holy when they are separated for divine use.  More alarmingly, he said the Hebrew word can be applied to people dedicated to the service of other gods, e.g., male or female temple prostitutes.  My Hebrew-English lexicon shows that one form of the word, the verb qadash, is translated with some synonym of “be sanctified” or “be holy” 170 times, but once as “be defiled.”  Dr. Bristol suggested the word “consecrated,” saying, “By the very act of consecration both persons and things were separated from the ordinary ways and uses of life.”  “Consecrated” seems to me a little more neutral than “holy” – I can disapprove of the worship of other gods while admitting that their places of worship are consecrated to them. 

This week and next week as we look at the idea of God’s holiness, let’s try to temporarily put aside our modern idea of holiness as goodness or righteousness – also attributes of God, but not this particular one.  Our first reading is one we saw fairly recently when we were talking about clean and unclean (i.e., suitably for ritual use or not).  At the end of the requirements to be clean, God says, “Be set apart, for I am set apart.  Be separate, for I am separate.”
Leviticus 19:1-19 (2/15/2011)

The March 2011 National Geographic says that the next perfect pet may be a fox.  Scientists in Russia have developed a strain of silver foxes that wag their tails, rush to humans to be petted, and like to kiss faces.  In each generation, the scientists separated the more aggressive fox kits from the friendlier kits.  Now, 50 years later, they have a whole tribe of foxes with personalities like golden retrievers. 

We saw yesterday that qadosh, holy, really means set apart or separate.  One of the great themes of the Old Testament is separation.  Abraham was invited to separate from his family in Ur.  Lot was separated from Abraham.  Esau was separated from Jacob.  The sons of Jacob were separated from the Egyptians in Goshen.  When they returned to Palestine, God commanded the tribes of Israel to remain separate from the Canaanite nations.  Why?

When I was a kid, sometimes I would question my father’s decisions by saying (or whining), “Why?”  The usual answer was, “Because I’m Daddy.”  That was a good and sufficient reason, and normally the end of the discussion.  In the early parts of the Bible, God’s own separateness, or holiness, is presented as a good and sufficient reason for following the rule that we must be separate, or holy.  I doubt that it’s an accident that separation and a version of the ten commandments are presented together.  If we follow these commandments, we will be a separate people.
Psalm 99:1-9 (2/16/2011)

Note the structure of today’s psalm.  One to three parallel couplets are followed by choruses in verses 3, 5, and 9 that contains the word qadosh, holy or separate. 

Back in the old days, we worker bees used to say things like, “That’s way above my pay grade,” or “He’s a lot higher in the food chain than I am.”  We were separated from the decision-makers by intermediate layers of management, secretaries, and offices with anterooms.  We envisioned them as being “higher” than we were.

So the progression of these three choruses is interesting.  In vs. 3, we’re going to praise God, who is separate.  In vs. 5, we are going to worship at God’s footstool, because he is above us.  God is even more separate.  In vs. 9, we’re going to worship at God’s holy mountain, who is way above us and more separate still.  If we are going to be holy, as God is holy, we need to grow in our degree of separation from lowly habits.
Isaiah 43:1-15 (2/17/2011)

So far this week we’ve seen that the holy God expects his people to be ritually clean when they approach him, to follow certain rules of morality and ethics, and to recognize that he is superior to them.  We’ve seen that these are all associated with the idea of holiness. 

Today we see another idea:  “You are my people, and I am your God.  You can’t get away, and I’m not going anywhere.”  God summons his own people from wherever they are, and they are called to be witnesses to God’s saving acts.  Meantime, people who worship other so-called gods are invited to bring forth their own witnesses – in fact, let them bring forth their gods to show what they have done or to have them predict the future. 

Just as God is God alone, so God’s people must also be separated from everyone else.  God says, “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior.  I am the LORD, your qadosh Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.”  God’s holiness is bound up with his uniqueness.
Isaiah 55:1-13 (2/18/2011)

I have to admit that this week’s scriptures haven’t given me a super-clear idea of what “holy” means.  I think this is because it means something so different from what I thought it did, i.e., worthy of worship, sacred, or perfect in goodness and righteousness.* 

Instead, I’m getting the impression that holiness is bound up with separateness – our separateness from the world and its unbelievers; God’s separateness from evil; and God’s uniqueness, which separates him from everything.  Maybe I’m getting a bias, but it seems to me that several verses from today’s reading support that impression: * See – you think I know where we’re going before we get there, but I don’t always.  I went through and selected a bunch of scriptures that had the word “holy,” and only now, along with you, am I reading them closely.


Other Aspects of God's Character
Glory, Old Testament, New Testament
Holiness, Old Testament, New Testament
Longsuffering, Old Testament, New Testament
Steadfast Love, Old Testament, which is Mercy in the New Testament
Graciousness, Old Testament, which is Grace in the New Testament
Jealousy, Old Testament
Intolerance of Sin, Old Testament, New Testament

Copyright 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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