Three Different Visions of Holiness image

Three Different Visions of Holiness

What is holiness? In his commentary on Leviticus 19:2, Ephraim Radner critiques two common views and argues persuasively for a third. Holiness is not primarily about morality or ethics, and nor is it mainly about power and unapproachability, but rather separation and distinction. His argument comprises at least seven important points.

1. The call to “be holy, for I am holy” first appears in the context of clean and unclean animals (11:44), which means we cannot collapse holiness into ethics; its appearance in the context of a passage about difference and distinction, rather than what we might now call “morality”, is significant. “Distinguishing (and not eating) the swarming things of the earth as, if not a central, at least a broadly characteristic embodiment of holiness means that the presentation of the holy in Leviticus cannot at any rate be made equivalent to modern definitions of the ethical.”

2. The standard Hebrew term for holiness, qedusha, connotes separation and distinction. The making of Kiddush marks the separation between the Sabbath and the other days; the wedding betrothal, Kiddushin, marks the distinction between these two individuals, in their mutual commitment, and everyone else. “Holiness is distinction for the purpose of creative substance, of the gift of traversing distance, with all its cost and glory.”

3. This is bound up with discernment. “A Jewish definition of holiness,” explains Rabbi Hayim Donin, is about “developing one’s sense of discernment as to be able to distinguish and choose the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the good from the bad, the sacred from the profane, the pure from the impure, and the clean from the unclean.” The (presumably unintentional) echoes of Hebrews 5:14 here are fascinating.

4. Holiness is not primarily about power. “The anthropological concept of the taboo—which makes out the presence of sacred power and its threat, like a sign announcing “danger! high voltage!”—has been used to delineate the laws of Leviticus in particular: they are at base completely nonethical and seek simply to maintain the boundaries between what is powerful (sacred) and what is powerless (profane) ... They embody feelings of awe in response to power.” In some readings, this leads liberal or rationalist interpreters to jettison the primordial husk and move into pure ethics; in evangelical and Pentecostal reactions (Radner mentions James Usher, R. C. Sproul, and even the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark) it stresses holiness-as-power and our response of terror and distance. “But the terror is not inherent in God, for it is not because God is holy—too dangerous in himself to be approached—that God cannot be seen (Ex 33:20; John 1:18). It is because God is seen by mortal creatures that God is holy and hence known to be glorious (1:14).”

5. Divine holiness, rather, is bound up both with God’s distinction from his creatures and with his moving across that separation in the person of Jesus Christ. “Holiness is rightly defined as God’s self-offering in Jesus who is “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; cf. Acts 3:14).”

6. Human holiness is purely a result of this divine sanctifying work. “Only God himself makes holy, in the sense that it is his own coming that brings close.” This is not just a New Testament idea, as might be implied by the language of sanctification; it is at the heart of Leviticus (e.g. 20:8), and—intriguingly—embedded in Jerusalem’s name: “Zion (siyyun) is special to God on account of its embeddedness in this creative distinction (siyyun) marked out from other nations.”

7. If we read Leviticus and imagine that holiness is fundamentally morality/ethics or power/unapproachability, we will not have categories for making sense of much of it: clean and unclean animals, male and female discharges, different cloths, threads and seeds, and the like. (If we find ourselves wondering what on earth these regulations have to do with holiness, that’s a good sign that we haven’t understood holiness in the way that Leviticus does.) If however we see it as distinction and separation, then not only the more obscure passages, but also the more apparently obvious ones (ch. 19), become clearer.

Helpful distinctions, methinks.

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