One does not define God. Similarly, the idea of holiness is at once understandable and elusive. Nevertheless, there is not term equal to the fullness inherent in holiness. All of heaven's hosts, Israel, and the church ascribe praise to a holy God because that idea sets him apart from everything else ( Exod 15:11 ; Isa 6:3 ; Rev 4:8 ). Holiness is what God is. Holiness also comprises his plan for his people.
In Genesis we read that the seventh day is "holy" ( Gen 2:3 ). In the same book Tamar is referred to by the Hebrew term, qadesa [h'ved.q] ( Genesis 38:15 Genesis 38:21 ). The latter is highly instructive at this point. In Old Testament times what was holy belonged to the gods in an absolute way. Judah's misperception of Tamar was based on awareness of how people viewed the holy. If the gods were sexed and needed sex, then it is no shock that those who served in the temple should be set apart for similar activity.
In the first clear biblical usage of the term that introduces a human to the character of God as holy, there are both similarities to and differences from pagan attempts to define holiness. It is intriguing to ponder the possible theological and religious categories that may have prepared Moses to hear Yahweh's command to remove his shoes because the ground on which he stood was "holy" ( Exod 3:5 ). The universal description of the holy is that which is separated from the normal in a conceptual way. Yet through revelatory instruction Moses taught Israel that their conception of the holy affirmed an essential difference between themselves and deity. Pagan worshipers in that region could not have reflected on the nature of the holy with that sort of clarity. What was "other" than the normal for them was distinct in Israel as a personal "Other."
Moses recognized, as others would have, a difference that meant that the one addressing him had special rights to determine the sanctity of the place where he was present. It was the content of the term to come that was to set Israel apart. These ideas, apparent in the pagan religions, were incorporated and then transformed by the Israelites in light of the Holy One who revealed his nature by word and action. The concepts that replaced the typical understanding of the holy were to revolutionize the history of Israel and, consequently, the world.
Holiness in the Ancient Near East: Fear and Manipulation. Although the terms from the root qds, holy or holiness, used in the cultures surrounding Israel do not appear in the extant texts as often as one might expect, there remains enough textual evidence to conclude basic agreement on meaning. Recent scholarship in a variety of disciplines has confirmed that holiness pertains primarily to that which is recognized as divine. Rudolf Otto's ground-breaking work on this issue set a trajectory for much of the discussion of the phenomenon of the holy in this century. Apparently, when it comes to ancient Near Eastern views of holiness, similarities in general emphases are profound enough to outweigh the differences in deity names and the cultic practices instituted in relation to them.
Without the concept of a personal God to discern the meaning of existence, the pagan mind formulated a variety of interpretive tools to express reality. Awe, dread, unapproachability, vitality, and mystery are the most common atttributes indicated in texts that reveal how the ancients perceived the holy. The aspect of separation between the sacred and the profane can be seen in each of these. The inherent presupposition was that the holy elicited the irrational responses of humans. People knew their place in relation to the holy. When confronted with something other than themselves, the immediate response was fear mixed, as Otto indicates, with fascination.
Several notes of contrast with Israel's faith highlight what continually occurred in the absence of biblical revelation in minds that were confronted with the unknown. It is evident that the religions that intersected Israel's history found their predominant motivation in existence to be servile fear. Fear of the fickle actions of nature and spirit was projected onto the gods they made and worshiped as holy. Human worth was exhausted in the sole purpose of serving the basic need of the gods, in order to escape impending judgment. That dread of the holy was dealt with by a complex system of cultic appeasement that was, in essence, the attempt to manipulate the "gods, " which were personified spiritual and natural forces. Response to the "holy" resulted in the complex system of polytheistic pantheons of ancient cultures. They were similar in one regard: what was holy could never be trusted, only feared.
Though religion was recognized as the central issue of life, its connection to the holy reveals rigorous attempts to bring what was feared (e.g., dead crops, dry riverbeds, rainless clouds) into alignment with the wishes of the worshiper. Morality was connected to a notion of the holy only in the slightest of ways. At best, contractual social agreements were made and kept for the sole purpose of insuring personal safety and success. Both gods and humans had to be viewed with mistrust.
The holy was nothing more than, as Kaufmann expresses it, a metadivine, or a nontranscendent realm of "gods" vying for power. Therefore, culture could be nothing more than an expression of these realities. The holy, often perceived as "above, " was never completely distinct from the profane "below." It just bore more prowess and shrewdness. The powers, drives, and desires that ruled below were projected onto the above and labeled holy. The ethical implications resulting from this worldview were based solely on power and the attempt to coerce the holy ones to agree with one's agenda. Sacrifices were offered in hopes that a malevolent force could be outwitted by the satisfied power to whom the offerings were made. Consequently, those without status in those cultures suffered immeasurably. The weak, the young, women, the old, and outsiders were at the mercy of those able to enforce their will.
In an explanation of how holiness might be revealed to persons, a Mesopotamian understanding of the burning bush would focus on both the power behind the bush and the power inherent in the bush. Since each god had only a local habitation, the next step would be to see how Moses would be able to turn that awesome power to his own good. What one notes immediately, however, is that Moses does nothing but obey and tremble. He offers no offering or incantation. Even if one allows the similar idea of an essential difference between deity and humanity, this occurrence indicates both a contradictory conception of holiness from the typical and a radical transformation of the categories. At the same time this God issues a personal call to one he would talk with as a friend ( Exod 33:10-11 ). This denotes a crucial distinction for the Hebraic concept of holiness. Personal relationship based on faithfulness was a ludicrous idea outside Israel.
Holiness in the Old Testament: Relationship with the Transcendent. No one can explain the phenomena of Israel and the Holy One of Israel adequately without realizing the fundamental distinctive of Yahweh's transcendence. The pagan format of a "below-above" interpretation of reality, which scholars have called a "continuous" worldview, was challenged by the audacious claim of Israel to be created by and related to the only Holy One. Separation of the holy from the profane then had as its base the creatorial majesty of God, who creates out of no necessity other than a perfect, holy will ( Isa 41:20 ). That Being was self-sufficient in every respect ( 1 Sam 2:2 ). It is apparent that Moses understood this division of reality. He bowed in awe, because an Other had confronted him One who is not to be manipulated and who desires a relationship prior to any service. Israel's existence was marked indelibly by the nature of its deity, "I am holy" was the basis for their worldview, history, spirituality, and purpose ( Lev 11:44 ).
In the incident of the burning bush holiness as brilliance is evident symbolically in the fire, which is a recurrent theme throughout the history of Israel. Various manifestations of the brightness of the glory of God were constant reminders that the Holy One was in the midst of his people ( Exod 13:21 ; 15:11 ; 40:34 ; 1 Kings 8:10-11 ). More than simply a show of searing brilliance, however, the God of Israel appears in ways that indicate his desire to communicate his very nature to his own. It is here that Moses may have already had some intimation from prior history beyond that of surrounding cultures.
Though the word "holy" does not appear as often in Genesis, the outlines of desired relationship between a holy God and his chosen people are laid down there. The Holy One is the transcendent Creator, whose "is-ness" provides the sole source of all that exists. In light of his unapproachable majesty there is a corresponding dispositional fear. But it does not appear in destructive ways ( 15:12 ; 28:17 ). Rather, there is always a corresponding rational awareness of God's personal presence and purpose ( Genesis 28:15 Genesis 28:20 ). There are no laws or standards. Instead, God is looking for total trust and commitment to covenant that he binds his own existence to ( 15:17-18 ; 17:19 ). The rudiments of God's moral nature are revealed early on by his decision to delineate what pleases him as "good, " perhaps best interpreted as "the way it should be because Yahweh made it so" (used fifteen times in Gen. 1-3). Though the law is not present, internal standards of purity and righteousness surround the covenants Yahweh makes with his people ( Genesis 6:5 Genesis 6:9 ; 15:6 ; 17:1 ). Probably most instructive of all, as well as being a radical polemic of the irrational motivations behind pagan notions of holiness, is the fact that Yahweh is looking for those who are willing to "walk" with him rather than cower in fear alone ( Genesis 5:22 Genesis 5:24 ; Z9 1:1 6:9 ; 24:40 ; 48:15 ).
It is illuminating to note that once Yahweh communicates his fundamental nature to Moses, and consequently to a redeemed nation, that the usage of the terms related to holiness explodes. Of over 830 instances of term in all its forms in the Old Testament, nearly 350 occur in the Pentateuch after Genesis. We thus begin to see that the ultimate purpose of God is the production of a people who bear his holy name or character ( Exod 19:6 ; Lev 11:44 ).
When Yahweh appears to his own there is the requisite reminder of the essential difference between Creator and created. This discontinuity results in awesome wonder at his majesty and power ( Exodus 19:18 Exodus 19:19 Exodus 19:21 ; Isa 6:1 ). God's glorious nature, though radically distinct from creation, is nonetheless manifested ( Exod 19:18 ; Isa 1,4 ). The mystery that fascinates is present everywhere ( Exodus 19:9 Exodus 19:24 ; Isaiah 6:1 Isaiah 6:4 ). In order to relate to him, Israel must be clean, revealing the inherent purity Yahweh alone can impart ( Exod 19:10 ; Isa 6:5 ). This purity far exceeds mere cultic interpretation. It is the indication of the moral cleanness from which is to issue a lifestyle pleasing to Yahweh and that has at its base an other-orientation ( Exod 19:6 ; Isa 6:5-8 ). Every possible abuse of power finds its condemnation in what is holy. Those who live in fear because of weakness or uselessness are to experience thorough protection and provision based on the standards of righteousness that issue from God's holy reign ( Exod 20:12-17 ; Lev. 19 ; Psalm 68:5 ).
The One who is Other in nature and character provides the means by which Israel can live in the full reality of his nature, and in turn can come to share his aversion to all that is fundamentally unreal. This is shown most graphically in the distinction between the clean and the unclean, the sacred and the profane, the holy and the common throughout Israel's practical worship. Yahweh, who has sanctified a day and a bush, moves in deliberate steps to reveal actualized holiness in everyday life. Gammie illustrates this in a "mapping" of the sacred in which the demarcations of reality for the Israelites center on God's holiness. All of life is seen as having the option of moving from the natural to the spiritual, from the relatively secular to the totally Holy. Sinai, the tabernacle, Israel's two camps, (one for the clean and one for the unclean), and ultimately the temple, each with their accompanying physical elements and human ministers, point to one goal: the possibility of dwelling with the Holy One (cf. Zech 2:13-8:23 ; 14:20-21 ).
Though it is difficult to distinguish clear shifts in the progress of revelation in the Old Testament, it is quite apparent that holiness remains the central theme by which Israel understands its God and its relationship to him. There are discernible shifts in the usage of terminology from holiness as seen in things (all the cultic elements, e.g., 1 Chron 22:19 ), to its transmission to persons in relation to God ( Exodus 19:2 Exodus 19:6 ). And, finally, holiness carries strong moral and ethical implications. While awe of the Holy One remains ( Isa 6:5 ) there is a complementary seeking of God because he invites his people to relationship ( Hosea 11:8-9 ). Yahweh's personal presence affects every area of life. Thus, it is arguable that holiness is the primary way of describing God and his ultimate means of revealing who he is. Both grammatically and essentially, the word "holy" is synonymous with the God who confronted Israel. The attributes of sovereignty, purity, righteousness, steadfast love, and mercy are all defined by his holy name. They are qualified, measured, and defined by the essential nature of Yahweh, the Holy One ( Isa 6:3 ; Ezek 36:22-29 ).
Holiness in the New Testament: Transforming Triune Presence. The terms hagios [a&gio"] (holy) and other derivatives (holiness, sanctifying, sanctification) are unique terms that are not used in the extant Greek literature in the same way they appear in the New Testament. The holy takes on profound personal and spiritual realities in the New Testament text through its 230 instances.
Everything in the Old Testament begins and ends with the holiness of God. That emphasis is not lost but expanded in the New Testament. One inadequately interprets the New Testament if the Holy One of Israel is not presupposed in everything that is written. Holiness as the moral excellence of Yahweh is the same principle and standard for the life and ministry of Jesus. The radical discontinuity of Israel's monotheistic God is deepened in the appearance of the Holy One in incarnate flesh. Jesus is holy as his Father is ( John 6:69 ). Apart from angelic proclamation ( Luke 1:35 ), the only ones who recognize his unique essence at first are demons ( Luke 4:34 ). Where the Holy One is, all that realize his presence are altered. Holiness as glory, power, and majesty are revealed in real ways tinged with mystery ( John 18:6 ). Jesus' miracles attest his nature ( Mark 4:35-5:43 ). Various uncleannesses are confronted and removed. The awareness of his purity brings immediate conviction ( Luke 5:8 ; Rev 1:17 ). Every element of holiness in the Old Testament is rehearsed and particularized in the person and work of Jesus.
Jesus shares the Holy Name of Yahweh, and therefore the title "Holy Father" is an acclamation of his nature as well ( John 17:11 ; cf. Matt 28:19 ). The Holy Spirit, that is, the Spirit who both is and makes holy, is the specific title given for the third person of the Trinity in the New Testament (93 usages, cf. to 133 times of Spirit without "holy"). It is clearly discernible that the Triune God is holy in essence and in character. The expectation of the Holy One has not been altered either. His character unalterably demands a likeness in those who bear his Name. He consistently requires and supplies the means by which to produce a holy people ( 1 Peter 1:15-16 ).
The outward associations of the holy in Old Testament, postexilic, and rabbinic literature are radically internalized in the New Testament believer. Priestly rituals, prophetic descriptions of a holy social order, and the individual appropriation of holiness in the wisdom literature pointed to the people God was calling to himself. Jesus verifies this in the only usage of holiness attributed to him that is not a reference to divinity in John 17:17: "Sanctify them by the truth." This statement may be seen as the summation and purpose of the atoning work of Christ. He is not speaking about the endtimes but of a desire for the church to take on the likeness of the essential nature of God ( Heb 12:10 ). It is no surprise, then, that the common description for those who believe on the Triune God and relate to that God is "holy ones" (hagioiover sixty times in the New Testament). They are to be separated unto God as living sacrifices. ( Rom 12:1 ) evidencing purity ( 1 Cor 6:9-20 ; 2 Col 7:1 ), righteousness ( Eph 4:24 ), and love ( 1 Thess 4:7 ; 1 John 2:5-6 1 John 2:20 ; 4:13-21 ). What was foretold and experienced by only a few in the Old Testament becomes the very nature of what it means to be a Christian through the plan of the Father, the work of Christ, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
The moral and ethical results of this new realization of the consecrated will are radical indeed. Sexual purity within and without marriage, real and submissive lifestyle commitments that cause unbelievers to reflect on the nature of the Christian God, blamelessness of heart, good works, contentment, and constant praise are but a few of the results of the new nature God both imputes and imparts to the New Testament believer. There is no area left untouched by the holiness of God, not as an external standard alone but as the impartation of the divine nature in all of its fullness ( 2 Col 5:21 ; Heb 12:10 ; 2 Peter 1:4 ). There is an inheritance for the people of God that includes not just eternal glories but the possibility of living a life that is good, one that is what God intended. Sobering is the thought that the final distinction recorded in Scripture in the judgment at the end of human history will be whether one is holy or not ( Rev 22:11-15 ).
It is important to note that no one is ever called to be or can become holy alone. The saints comprise the church as a holy community. It is in the middle of normal life that the central factors of holiness are worked out. In ways similar to the transmission of the covenant in the Old Testament, there is a mutual accountability and encouragement inherent in the call to reflect the character of God (cf. 1 Thess 2:10-12 ; Heb 10:25 ; Hebrews 13:7 Hebrews 13:17 ).
The God who revealed himself to Israel and the church does so in an instructive manner. Progressive revelation is evident in the methodical way in which God shows himself to be both Holy and Love. Those ideas, though never exhausted by the human mind, become the essential terms for biblical faith. All else about God is comprised in and issues from his holiness. The believer is invited to live in his holy presence but only if that includes living with others who desire nothing less than God's holiness ( Heb 10:19-26 ). Once a person begins to comprehend the heart of holy love, then there is no response other than an outward orientation, in worship and service ( Hebrews 12:10 Hebrews 12:14 ). Both Testaments attest that nothing less than holiness will fully satisfy the nature of God. Thus, redemption is not complete in deliverance alone. The believer is set free in order to become like the One who redeems. It is his will that his own would be like him in every respect.
M. William Ury
Bibliography. J. Gammie, Holiness in Israel; O. R. Jones, The Concept of Holiness; Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel; D. Kinlaw, Beacon Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. "Holy, Holiness"; R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy; O. Procksch, TDNT, 1:88-110.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Holy, Holiness'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".