January 2023 | The True Vine and The Soon Coming King

Holiness in the Old Testament

Holiness in the Old Testament

Pr. Thomas Cherian


The saying ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ is a well accepted fact in almost all the religious traditions. Cleanliness and purity are the synonyms often used for holiness. Unfortunately for many, holiness is a religious sounding word meant for a special category of people like the clergy. To them it is a lost cause. To some it is not even a commandment. What does it mean to be holy?

Reputable writers have used the word Holiness to explain the state of freedom from sin or being in a state of innocence or sanctity. The adjective ‘holy,’ is applied to a person who is pure in heart, godly, pious, irreproachable, guiltless, or acceptable to God. However when we come to the Old Testament (O.T.) there are various meanings suggested by different scholars based on the etymology. Let us look at some of them to understand what God actually intended to explain to His people in the O.T. We shall further look at the difficulties the church is facing today to understand the term Holiness.

Terminology and Meanings of Qadosh 

The Hebrew root word for holiness is qadosh. In the O.T., the root, qadosh appears in various forms in several different Semitic languages. In the Akkadian language the root word qadasu (to shine), suggests the possible meaning as light. It conforms to several contexts where the holiness of God is associated with fire (Deut. 5:23-26; Is 34:8-10; Amos 1:4, 7, 10, 14). Scholars like Bubzen and Vriezen feel that the term qadosh is taken from the Arabic and Ethiopic root languages where it means ‘to be bright’ or ‘to be pure.’ Another popular theory claims that the root qadosh is derived from a hypothetical primitive root word, which means to ‘cut,’ ‘to mark off’. Allied to this idea is a similar root nazir, which means ‘to separate’ or ‘to consecrate’ (Num 6:1-22). Basically, whatever is holy is cut-off, or separate or different from all other common forms of life1.

The use of the root word holy in the O.T. seems to favor the meaning ‘to be marked off,’ or ‘separated from the common use.’ The separation of the sacred from the profane is the basic meaning of the parallel Greek word hagiamos, and the Latin word sanctus. Thus, the term ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ can be defined as set apart from the profane, to protect it and to protect against it, as soon as the corresponding need for protection is perceived. 

God is understood to be transcendent, in the sense that He is separate or different from all what is profane. Anybody who approaches this Holy God should be holy. Therefore a Holy person has to separate himself from sinful activities and should be separate unto God. 

Expectations of the Holy God in the Old Testament

God expected the People of Israel to be Holy (separated) basically in two realms of life: the physical and the spiritual.

In the Hebrew understanding ‘all that was separated unto God’ became His property and thereby, has to be separated from unethical and immoral ways. For the people of God in the O.T. the physical impurity also related to the category of profane, because they believed that the soul and flesh were inseparable.

The physical or the external realm includes primarily three areas: body, land and war.

God expected the Israelites to be different in dealing with their physical body, land and strategies related to war. Therefore rules were laid down for things related to eating and drinking habits (Lev. 11, 17), as well as ceremonial laws related to hygiene (Lev. 12-15). Physical impurity connected with sex was considered as loss of life and therefore impure. Rituals were observed to maintain the purity.

Special land rules were given to the Israelites to keep the land holy. Thus the concept of Sabbath and Jubilee were introduced in Israel (Lev. 25) and were strictly implemented. Such rules were introduced to separate Israelites from the corrupt ways found in the pagan world.

War is considered to be Holy for Israelites because of the involvement of God in it. So the Priests took the leading role in encouraging the soldiers to maintain their separation to the Lord (Deut. 20:24). They carried ‘sacred utensils’ which were the anointed (hence sacred) cult objects, along with the Ark into the battlefield, as a symbol of God’s presence (Num.31:6). The bringing of the Ark of the Covenant scared their enemy and reminded them that they were a covenant people unlike their neighbors (Deut. 14:2; 26:19; 28:9; Ex. 19:6). 

God is holy and cannot lose His holiness. Any person or thing is holy only by relation and not by nature. That relation may alter or terminate. So the people of Israel had to undergo the following preparations, before they went for war. As a group they are bound together by various rites (Josh. 3: 5), like washing of clothes and sexual abstinence (cf. 1 Sam.21: 5; 2 Sam.11: 11). In the context of the holy war the men can face their God only when they were ritually as well as morally clean. Any breach of this state would jeopardize military operations.  Since war was a holy undertaking, sexual intercourse was forbidden on campaigns. This should have encouraged the warriors of Israel to be loyal to their wives back home, and have protected the woman of defeated peoples from abuse. The soldiers were supposed to anoint their weapons, in order to protect them (2 Sam.1: 21).

The next is the spiritual realm. God was very strict about matters relating to the spiritual realm like the Worship, its place and the things related to it.

The dwelling place of God on earth is called as tabernacle. This was so holy that common people were restricted to approach it without proper sacrifices and other preparations. 

The idea behind the centralization of worship, reading of the laws, bringing of gifts, offering sacrifice is to keep the people of Israel separate from the profane or common. Once the covenant was broken, the punishment was due. So there were both negative and positive side of encountering with the holiness of God. Holiness, as separation, is also known as wholeness, which includes ritual, moral and ethical purity. The Ten Commandments (Ex. 20) and the holiness code (Lev. 19) were mandatory rules given to the people of Israel.

Israel’s separation from other nations doesn’t make them holy automatically as is understood in Deuteronomy, although separation only sets a stage for consequent holiness. According to Holiness code people attain and maintain holiness by observing the commands. In Num. 15:37-41 the people are asked to wear fringes, which are a symbolic way of remembering all the commands, which would ultimately lead them to holiness. While declaring that obedience leads to holiness, the holiness school recognizes that holiness ultimately comes from God (Ex.31:13; Lev.20:8; 22:32). When people live a life in accordance with divine holiness, they are in turn sanctified by God. Priests in the O.T. are only declaring the people as holy.

The O.T. priests had a great role in facilitating the people to maintain their holiness. Due to the transgression of the Law, people were degraded to a state of physical, moral and ethical impurity. It was the priests who reminded the people of their impure state, by their sound teaching from the Torah. They encouraged the people to regain their holiness or re-establish the covenant, in order to avoid punishment. Further the priests help the people in making atonement. Proper guidance is given to the people concerning the procedures of sacrifice. So their role of teaching, interceding, helping in performing the sacrificial rites, blessing, judging and involvement in war helped the people in coming close to the state of holiness. 

From the above discussions we understand that the holiness described in the O.T. had two meanings:

1.  External, or ceremonial.

2.  Internal, or moral and spiritual.

God expected the Israelites to be careful in both the areas. A little more emphasis is given to the internal cleansing or holiness. In other words the internal cleansing that comes from inside includes mending of one’s attitude and behavior. A central feature of the Day of Atonement is that of inward cleansing (Lev. 16:30). A clean hand and a pure heart are the qualifications to enter the Holy Temple (Ps. 24:3-4). 

Theological Significance of Becoming Holy

Have we ever wondered why the Israelites were expected to be different (Holy) in every sphere of their life? Why was the phrase ‘be Holy’ used several times in the Old Testament? The answer lies in the very theological fact that their God Himself is different (Holy) and He dwells among them. The primary meaning of the word Holy is ‘separate.’ Scholar Sproul throws little more light on the meaning of the word Holy to explain the Holiness of God. According to him the word qadosh also means, ‘to cut,’ or ‘a cut above something.’ When we find a garment or another piece of merchandise that is outstanding, that has a superior excellence, we use the expression that it is ‘a cut above the rest.’ 

This means that the one who is holy is uniquely holy, with no rivals or competition. This Holiness (separation or difference) is seen in all the attributes of the God of Israel. It reminds us that His love is holy love, His justice is holy justice, His mercy is holy mercy, His knowledge is holy knowledge, and His spirit is Holy Spirit. Therefore God in the O. T. expected the standard of the people and the things related to Him to be outstanding and unique. In other words because God is different from other so called gods, the standard of His people should be different from their neighbors.

This Holy God also acts differently unlike the pagan so called gods of that time. He is known as the God of the oppressed and cannot tolerate any oppressive activity in the land. All the O.T. prophets reminded the people of God about such a Holy (different) attitude of God. The people of Israel were punished severely by God for falling short of the standard of holiness, based on the Law of their God.

Another thing which God wanted to remind His people was that He is a universal God and thus belongs to all humanity. He thus wants to bless or transform the whole world through His chosen people Israel. This was the Holy purpose of God behind the election of Abraham (Gen.12:1-3). In short the Holy (different) God wants to transform the whole world into a Holy (different) place through His Holy (different) people.

Practical Problems in the Contemporary Church and its Remedy

In today’s church context the word holiness is either misunderstood or partially understood. Several churches have understood holiness from an outward point of view. Holiness is measured from the way people dress or appear outwardly. We however cannot deny the significance of holiness (distinction) in the area of external appearances. These external features are sometimes a blessing in disguise. The uniformity in the external appearance has become an identification mark in several traditional Christian denominations. Does this mean that the inward appearance is not important? From the above discussion we have understood that God in the O. T. was not interested in the external ceremonial holiness whenever they miserably failed in the area of internal holiness. This led to the destruction of the Kingdoms of Israel from the 8th century B.C.E. onwards, as a part of God’s judgment. With due respect to all the believing Christians, I want to bring out certain practical difficulties the church is facing today. Like in the O.T. times, believers in the present day church are satisfied just with the external expressions of holiness like going to the church, tithing, singing, praising God and even claiming to speak in tongues. These things are important but should not be done at the cost of inner holiness. People are more interested in the gifts of the Holy Spirit rather than the fruits of the spirit (the byproduct of the inner Holiness). Think about our God whose heart is grieved when He sees the attitude of such believing Christians. Think about the God in the O.T. who refused to stay with His chosen people when they fell short of His standard of Holiness. I want the readers to sincerely respond to the offended heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. Do we think that He is happy with the above mentioned believing Christians’ unethical behaviors like showing disrespect towards the poor and uneducated believers, narrow minded attitude, hatred, discord, dissentions, factions, jealousy, selfish ambition and so on (Gal. 5:19-21)?  Does He appreciate those who are becoming ungrateful, unforgiving, slanderous, lovers of pleasure (2 Tim. 3:2-4)? Are there not any prophets left in the church to remind such people of the seriousness of the Inner Holiness? I am so scared to even think of the fact that many believers and Christian leaders take things for granted. Some don’t have time even to think about the poignant state of the church today. Many don’t feel comfortable to either preach or hear from a topic which is related to holiness. Why don’t we take a step NOW rather than wait for tomorrow (Heb. 4:7)? It is time for us to wake up. William Booth once said “We must wake ourselves up!  Or somebody else will take our place, and bear our cross, and thereby rob us of our crown.”

Let us strive to set us apart from the unholy things, attitudes, feelings and behaviors (2 Cor. 6:14-17). Let us stand together against the sinful temptation from the pornographic internet cites (Rom. 1:21-27), pornographic magazines (Matt. 5:27-30), unspiritual music, videos, foolish talks, coarse joking (Eph.5:4), company of the wicked (Ps.1:1) and so on. Let us be very cautious about the strategies of secular politics that is creeping into the church today and throw off EVERYTHING that hinders our Christian race (Heb.12:1). Let us therefore not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom we were sealed for the Day of redemption (Eph. 4:30)

Let there be an inner state of freedom from moral fault and a relative harmony with the moral perfection of God. This process may not be an easy one. Let us be like the clean animals in the O. T. who were expected to ‘chew the cud.’ The phrase ‘chew the cud’ means that the clean animals swallow their food very well, by first temporarily storing it, regurgitating by re-chewing it, until they finally digest it. In the same manner one should make a deliberate attempt to desire and implement and again desire and implement until he/she attains the state of Inner Holiness. In the words of Joseph Caryl “Perfect holiness is the aim of the saints on earth, and it is the reward of the saints in Heaven”

Let Holiness of God guide our thinking on accountability, about self –esteem. Let it change our attitude and conduct in worship and let it make the gospel a glorious necessity.  God can never use an unholy Church. C. H. Spurgeon once said “An unholy church - it is useless to the world, and of no esteem among men! It is an abomination, hell’s laughter, heaven’s abhorrence. The worst evils which have ever come upon the world have been brought upon her by an unholy church.”

Let the unfading beauty of Jesus be revealed in us, which is of great worth in God’s sight (I Pet 3:3 - 4). In the words of Oswald Chambers “Holiness, not happiness is the chief end of man.” 

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