On The Ambiguities of Holiness

Holiness means “set apart,” and that set apartness is the main theme of this week’s SDA lesson quarterly chapter on “The Holiness of God.”  “God is set apart from anything else in creation,” asserts our lesson author, Professor Jo Ann Davidson.  “He is transcendently separate, so far above and beyond anything that we can truly grasp.  To be holy is to be “other,” to be different in a special way, as with the seventh-day Sabbath.”  I have no quarrel with this assertion nor with where Prof. Davidson is headed with it.  By the end of this week’s lesson she establishes that God’s holiness means our repentance: “Each one sees and admits their personal guilt and without any excuses and without reference to the faults of anyone else.”  Fair enough.  But if you look at the contexts of some of the Biblical texts on holiness that Prof. Davidson cites, a certain ambiguity appears.

Take Exodus 15:11, “"Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?”[1]  What are these “wonders?”  Slaughtering the whole of Pharaoh’s army in Red Sea and, with the spreading of the news, terrifying the inhabitants of Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Canaan.  Or take Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:2: “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.”  The occasion for Hannah’s praise and proclamation of the holiness of God?  As she says in verse 1: “My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.”  Her “victory” of course was the birth and weaning of Samuel, whom she dedicates as a nazirite and leaves at the Temple.

We might readily sympathize with Hannah’s victory over her husband’s other wife, who had taunted her miserably for her barrenness, even as we readily side with Israel over Pharaoh.  But I think at points like these we begin to see additional meanings for the idea of the “holiness of God,” the kind of meanings whereby humans tend to claim God for their side over against the Others and, more generally, to make God in their own image.  God’s holiness and the people’s holiness, after all, are explicitly linked in the Biblical books that have most to do with the so-called “holiness codes:” “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).  Keeping the precepts of God’s holiness, furthermore, results in blessings of fertility and prosperity upon lands, crops, flocks, human bodies, society as a whole, and triumph in war against others, while turning aside from the commandments results in the curses that bring about all the dangers and privations parallel to the blessings (Deuteronomy 28).

Holiness in Leviticus and Deuteronomy has to do with more than just being set apart.  British social anthropologist Mary Douglas has famously traced the meanings of ancient Hebrew holiness in her classic, Purity and Danger.[2]  Holiness meant wholeness, she points out. 

A major model of wholeness was the perfectly self-contained, unblemished body.  Thus no blind, maimed, diseased, lepers, or persons in any other way blemished may be priests (Leviticus 21).  Menstruating women (Leviticus 15) and women after childbirth (Leviticus 12) are unclean because their bodily boundaries have been ‘transgressed’ by bodily products, and they must make sin and burnt offerings to atone for their uncleanness.  Men with any kind of bodily discharge are unclean and must bathe and wash their clothes and be regarded as unclean until evening (Leviticus 15).  It is notable that men’s uncleanness from seminal emission, judging by the elaborateness and time of atoning ritual, seems to be not nearly so unclean as women’s menstruation.  Nevertheless, men must stay out of the camp of warriors for a day after a nocturnal emission.  Also, no bodily wastes are allowed inside the camp (Deuteronomy. 23:9-14).  It is notable again that this latter rule seems obviously a hygiene rule, while the former rule about seminal emission does not.

Another major model of wholeness, argues Douglas, was keeping distinct the categories of creation.  Maintaining the unity and integrity of kind was wholeness and thus holiness.  For the ancient Hebrew pastoralists, whose Lord was their Shepherd, the model of holy food was the livestock they herded: cattle, sheep, and goats.  This category is 1) hoofed, 2) cloven-footed and 3) cud-chewing.  The pig and camel are anomalous, that is, they violate the category by being hoofed, cloven footed, but not chewing the cud.  To be anomalous was to be unclean.  Perhaps a case can be made, reading back, that the pig’s scavenging habits make it a less hygienic or healthy food, but the actual text of the Bible apparently made no such reference (Leviticus 11).

More generally, harking back to Genesis, there are three elements or categories of creation: the earth, the waters, and the firmament, and creatures are classed according to the means of locomotion proper for their element.  On earth four-legged animals hop, jump, or walk.  Thus snakes and other creeping, crawling earthbound creatures are anomalous and so, unclean.  In the waters scaly fish swim with fins.  Thus catfish and eels that lack fins but swim in the waters are anomalous, hence unclean.  In the firmament, two-legged fowls fly with wings.  Thus winged creatures that fly, but are four-legged, are unclean (Leviticus 11).  The general principle, says Douglas, is that “any class of creatures which is not equipped with the right kind of locomotion in its element is contrary to holiness.”[3]  Creeping, crawling, teeming, or swarming is explicitly contrary to holiness because it is an indeterminate form of movement not proper to any of the elements.  The prototype of swarming things is the worm, which belongs to the realm of the grave, death, and chaos.[4]

Douglas closes her chapter on Leviticus by suggesting that these dietary laws would have been like signs which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, purity, and completeness of God, giving physical expression to holiness in every encounter with the animal world and at every meal.  Observance of the rules would have been part of the worship that culminated in the Temple sacrifice.[5]  And thus contemplation of the oneness, purity, and completeness of God would have led also to a ritual realization of the oneness, purity, and completeness of God’s people. 

But coming back to the “set apart” meaning of holiness, observance of the laws was also explicitly tied by the Deuteronomist to the destruction of other peoples: “when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. . . .  For you are a people holy to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 7:2,6). 

In sum, the holiness of God, by the witness of some Biblical sources, means that God sides with “Us” against the “Other,” makes our way of life the superior one--“The LORD will make you the head, and not the tail; you shall be only at the top, and not at the bottom” (Deuteronomy 28:13), and justifies the destruction of the Other.  Professor Davidson, in contrast, has assembled a range of Biblical witnesses that testify to a Divine holiness that demands a repentance “without any excuses and without reference to the faults of anyone else.”  Candidly, I prefer the assembly she has found to the one I have found.  I think, however, that both are there for the finding.

I have read recently[6] that the well-known Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann speaks of competing narratives in the Hebrew Bible--those that promote violence and those that promote mercy and compassion toward foreigners.  He likens these competing narratives to witnesses in a court, each claiming authority and correctness.  There are commands to genocidal obedience (1 Samuel 15) and there is questioning and dispute against such impulses, as in Abraham’s challenge to God: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked . . . .  Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Genesis 18:25) 

How do we pick our witnesses in a way that rises above mere personal whim?  I have no better suggestion than the Golden Rule, that is, if your reading of scripture inclines you to break the Golden Rule or to justify its violation, then probably your reading is wrong.  Specifically with regard to the topic of “holiness” I would suggest a corollary rule: When approaching ‘holiness,’ take off your shoes, not just out of reverence and repentance in the presence of God, but also to forestall running roughshod over the Others who approach from their own directions and with their own notions of unity, purity, and completeness.



[1]This and all subsequent scriptural citations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2]Mary Douglass, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

[3]Ibid., p. 55

[4]Ibid., p. 56.

[5]Ibid., p. 57.

[6]Derek Flood, “The Way of Grace and Peace,” Sojourners, Vol. 41, #1 (January 2012), pp. 34-37, 46.





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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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