Holy, Holiness (in Deuteronomy)

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For most people today the term holy, or the realms of purity and clean/unclean, have little practical meaning. They may think of God as holy, although what this means other than some exalted way of speaking of God may be quite ambiguous. Or it may remind them of an earlier time when the church sanctuary (cf. Latin sanctus, "holy"), or at least the platform, were considered holy and thus treated with a special respect and reverence.

A recent hymn reflects the contemporary approach, "What is this place where we are meeting? Only a house, the earth its floor …" (Hymnal 1). The hymn helpfully draws attention to the people who gather, and to the significance of what happens when the people celebrate the Lord's Supper; yet in the process it contributes to a modern, rational approach that has little room for the notion of holiness. Space and objects are merely physical and functional.

Israel's understanding of holiness was simultaneously derived from the culture and religions of its day, yet distinct from it. Jacob Milgrom, a Jewish scholar, describes the ancient perception as follows:

An examination of Semitic polytheism (and indeed of any primitive religion) shows that the realm of the gods was never wholly separate from and transcendent to the world of people. Natural objects, such as specific trees, rivers, or stones was [sic] invested with supernatural force. This earthbound power was independent of the gods and can be an unpredictable danger to the latter as well as to humans. "Holy" is thus aptly defined, in any context, as "that which is unapproachable except through divinely imposed restrictions," or "that which is withdrawn from common use." (Milgrom: 187)

The Hebrew term translated holy literally means that which is "separated," or "set apart." "Holiness demands separation. Just as God at creation separated the day from the night, the waters above the firmament from the waters below, the seas from the dry land, and the days of labor from the day of rest, so God blessed the seventh day and 'set it apart' " (Gammie: 9). Certain objects, people, or places had unique powers or forces that distinguished or separated them from the profane or common. In ancient societies these powers were inherent in the object. To disregard them could be life threatening.

In Israel's world, objects, people, and places could be holy, with powerful consequences. It was dangerous to come into contact with something or someone ritually unclean. When Uzzah inappropriately puts out his hand and takes hold of the ark, he dies on the spot (2 Sam 6:6–8). As in other cultures, holiness in Israel was nothing to be trifled with. But in Israel, all holiness was derived. Only God was truly holy. All other objects, places, and people derived their holiness from God. Nothing other than the one God was inherently holy. The God who designated something holy could also recall this quality, thereby once again making it profane or everyday.

Within the Old Testament it is the priestly literature that places the greatest emphasis on holiness, with the most developed understanding. According to Leviticus, a primary responsibility of the priests is to distinguish between the holy and the common (Lev 10:10; cf. Ezek 22:26; 44:23). Patrick Miller speaks of gradations or a hierarchy of holiness (Miller: 144–48). Among people the high priest was most holy. Next came the priestly class as a whole, then the Levites, then the people of Israel, and finally the other nations. A similar continuum can be imagined for space, with the ark in the holy of holies at the one extreme, followed by the land of Israel, and finally the whole earth.

In contrast to the priestly approach, and consistent with its tendency to move away from cultic detail, Deuteronomy presents a somewhat simpler conception. Some form of the word holy is used fifteen times in Deuteronomy (compared with nearly one hundred times in Leviticus), with the most common referent the people of Israel (seven times: 7:6; 14:2, 21; 15:19; 26:19; 28:9; 33:3). Neither the priests nor the land of Israel are ever spoken of as holy in Deuteronomy. The tabernacle is never mentioned once, compared with fifty-five references in Exodus and thirty-two in Numbers. For Deuteronomy, it is the people of Israel who are holy. And they are holy through their election. As a holy people, Israel is special, God's treasured possession, different and distinct from other nations. Its life is to reflect this difference (see "Election, Separation, and Mission" in TBC at the end of ch. 7).


  • Gammie, John G. Holiness in Israel. Overtures to Biblical Theology 1. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
  • Hymnal: A Worship Book. Edited by Rebecca Slough et al. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press; Newton, KS: Faith & Life Press; and Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992.
  • Milgrom, Jacob. "Ethics and Ritual: The Foundations of Biblical Dietary Laws." In Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives, edited by E. B. Firmage, J. W. Welch, and B. Weiss, 159–91. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990.
  • Miller, Patrick D. The Religion of Ancient Israel. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000.

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Gerald Gerbrandt