Biblical Concepts of Holiness

How can we unify the sacred with the profane?

Print this page Print this page

The biblical term for holiness is kodesb. Though the noun is abstract, it is likely that the perception of holiness was not thoroughly abstract. In fact, kodesh had several meanings, including "sacred place, sanctuary, sacred offering." In addition, in certain syntactic positions, Hebrew nouns function as adjectives. Hebrew shem kodsbo, for example, does not mean "the name of His holiness" but, rather, "His holy name." This leads to the conclusion that in the biblical conception holiness is not so much an idea as it is a quality, identified both with what is real and perceptible on earth and with God. Indeed, the only context in which a somewhat abstract notion of "holiness" is expressed relates to God's holiness. God is said to swear by His holiness, just as He swears by His life, His faithfulness, and His power. When speaking of God, it is recognized that holiness is inextricable from His Being; it is a constant, divine attribute.

Peoplehood & Ethics

The overall content of Leviticus 19, with its diverse categories of laws and commandments, outlines what the Israelites must do in order to become a holy people. It includes many matters of religious concern, as we understand the term: proper worship, observance of the Sabbath, and also the avoidance of actions that are taboo, such as mixed planting and consumption of fruit from trees during the first three years after planting. What is less expected in ritual legislation is the emphasis on human relations: respect for parents, concern for the poor and the stranger, prompt payment of wages, justice in all dealings, and honest conduct of business. Even proper attitudes toward others are commanded.

In this latter respect, Leviticus 19 accords with prophetic attitudes indicating that the priesthood was highly receptive to the social message of the Israelite prophets. Holiness, an essentially cultic concept, could not be achieved through purity and proper worship alone; it had an important place in the realm of societal experience. Like the Ten Commandments and other major statements on the duties of man toward God, this chapter exemplifies the heightened ethical concern characteristic of ancient Israel.

Holiness, as a quality, knows no boundaries of religion or culture. Very often, the reactions it generates are perceived by all, regardless of what they believe. Similarly, places and objects as well as persons considered to be holy by one group may be perceived in the same way by those of other groups. There is something generic about holiness, because all humans share many of the same hopes and fears, and the need for health and well-being. A site regarded as holy by pagans might continue to be regarded as such by monotheists; indeed, some of the most important sacred sites in ancient Israel are known to have had a prior history of sanctity in Canaanite times, although the Bible ignores the pagan antecedents and explains their holiness solely in terms of Israelite history and belief.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Baruch A. Levine

Baruch A. Levine is Skirball Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.? He is the author of many books on biblical topics, including The Anchor Bible Commentary: Numbers 1-20.