Posted on Jun 04, 2021 by Mike LeDuke
Holy is a word that has come to almost have a mystical aura to it. Something that is holy seems like it should, in some senses, be something that is powerful and that commands respect. It is something to be treasured. While there are aspects to these associations with holiness that are correct, holiness, at least Biblically, appears to be much more straightforward:
Exodus 19:5-6 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.
After bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, God led them to the foot of Mount Sinai. At Sinai, He declared His covenant to them. If they accepted the covenant, they would be brought into a special relationship: they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This didn’t mean that Israel would have special powers. Nor did it mean that they would command respect. Instead, it meant that they were separated for God from the midst of the other nations. Indeed, is that not what had happened? Israel had dwelt in Egypt, and God had separated them out from the Egyptians in order that they could be His special, separate people.
In the book of Leviticus, God explained this again, but this time, with more detail about why the people were to be holy:
Leviticus 11:44 For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground.
God said these things to the Israelites just after giving them the laws concerning clean and unclean foods (the basis for the kosher laws in Judaism today). Here, He explained part of the purpose of those laws: they were to make the people holy, just as God is holy. And yet, how could refraining from eating insects make them holy? How could it make them like God?
Perhaps the answer is that these customs made them different than the other nearby nations. it made a separation between the Israelites and their neighbors. Just as God is different and separate from the gods of the nations, He is the living God (Exodus 15:11; Psalm 86:8; 95:3), the Israelites were to see themselves as different from those around them. This is what it means to be holy. Holy means separate and different.
Here is the difficulty, however: when something is different, we tend to compare it to other things. We either look at it as better than others or as worse than others, depending on how we evaluate its differences. For Israel, that temptation to judge their status of holiness, was also there. And thus, God made it clear that holiness was not something over which they could boast:
Deuteronomy 7:6-8 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
God separated them because He loved them, not because they were better or more important than anyone else.
With that, we can see that holiness means separateness, and it doesn’t necessarily convey status. But still, what does it really mean? Why is separateness so important? And how does all of this affect us today?
We’ll consider those questions in the next post, Lord willing.