« Wisdom | Main | Righteousness »


When God put to death seventy men of Beth Shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the Lord (1 Samuel 6:20), the people of Beth Shemesh exclaimed, "Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?" But in Hosea 11:9, instead of threatening to destroy, God says he refuses to bring destruction on northern Israel because "I am God and not a man--the Holy One in your midst." How is it that in one passage God's holiness explains his wrath and in another it explains his mercy? The idea common to both situations is that God is not human--he does not act in the way human beings naturally would.

Holiness means "otherness," God's complete separateness and awesome difference from everything and everyone else. Otherness does not mean remoteness, because scripture always presents God as being close (Deuteronomy 4:7; Isaiah 57:15; Acts 17:27-28). Otherness does not indicate passivity. The God of the Bible is not the deist God who set the universe in motion according to immutable physical laws and then took his leave. In scripture, God is known by what he does in the world, often by mighty acts that defy physical law like parting the Red Sea or stopping time. Otherness signifies those qualities and attitudes that define the Lord God alone.

Holiness in the Bible has both literal and figurative manifestations. Taboos abound in the Old Testament: touching or looking into the ark (2 Samuel 6:6-7; 1 Samuel 6:19-20), offering unauthorized fire (Leviticus 10:1-3), touching holy ground (Exodus 19:12-13). The positive sign of God's holiness consists primarily of his shekinah, his "glory" or bright cloud of presence (1 Kings 8:10-11). Moses' shining face (Exodus 34:29-35) and Jesus' dazzling clothes (Mark 9:2-8) reflect the glory of God, the outward sign of his holiness.

The sacrificial system of the old covenant was a physical tribute to holiness. It came about because God commanded that the first-born of man and beast was to be consecrated (made holy) to God (Exodus 13:2, 12-13; 22:29) as a tangible sign of loyalty. As in the case of Abraham and Isaac, God allowed people to substitute their best animals in place of their children, thereby instituting the sacrificial system. Sacrifice, literal or figurative, represents the holy offering of human lives to God (Romans 12:1).

While physical taboos and sacrifices had their place in raising human consciousness concerning the divine, awesome otherness of God, these practices were not distinctive to ethical monotheism. Most religions had and have similar taboos or rituals. The originality of biblical teaching about holiness is that God's holiness manifests itself most fully not in his fearsomeness but in his righteousness (Isaiah 5:16; 6:1-7). God made ethical demands on his holy nation because of his own holy nature (Leviticus 11:44; 19:2; Psalm 15; 24:3-6; 1 Peter 1:13-16). Indeed, the whole ethical system of the Bible is founded upon the holiness of God, and scripture teaches that religion is good for morals only if you serve a holy God.

For Greeks like Aristotle, the excellence of human beings lay in their ability to reason. Living the life of reason, therefore, enabled intelligent, educated people to fulfill their human potential. The moral life was simply the cultivated, reasonable life that led to complete human fulfillment. The standard by which the prophets judged human conduct, however, was neither a reasoned ideal nor the brotherhood of man. To the contrary, it was an "inhuman" standard based on the holiness of God. God, not reason, conferred excellence on people by making them a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9-10). And God, not reason, is the ultimate judge of character. It is only in knowing God and his holiness that people have any hope of understanding his righteousness.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 6, 2007 10:41 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Wisdom.

The next post in this blog is Righteousness.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35