“Be Ye Holy!”
Author: Dwight A. Pryor
THE GIVING OF THE TORAH at Mt. Sinai forged the ransomed Israelites into a holy nation of priests. The giving of the Spirit at Mt. Zion fashioned the redeemed disciples of Yeshua into a covenant community called the church. These interconnected historic events occurred in the context of the biblical feast of Weeks (seven Sabbaths after Passover), which in the New Testament is called by the Greek name of Pentecost (referencing fifty days after Passover).
Both the Torah and the Spirit are holy and they call forth holiness in the people of God. The Torah was written by the “finger of God” (Ex 31:18), a Hebrew idiom for the “Spirit of God” (cf. Lk 11:20 and parallel Mt 12:28). The Spirit “proceeds from” the Father (Jn 15:26) and enables believers “who walk according to the Spirit” to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Torah (Rom 8:4), which is “holy, righteous and good” (7:12).
This connection between the Torah, the Spirit and holiness seems entirely natural to the Hebraic mind but alien and obscure to the classic Christian mindset that prejudicially views the Law and the Spirit in opposition.
This is why, in my experience, Christians almost never guess correctly when asked, “Which book of the Torah would children, like Jesus of Nazareth, study first in their Jewish education?” Not Genesis, but Leviticus! Children are holy, said the Sages, so let them begin with a study of holiness (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3).
HOLINESS IS A PERVASIVE THEME of Leviticus and indeed all the Torah. Chapter 19 is one of the most pivotal and pregnant chapters of the entire Bible, a virtual treasury of sometimes strange but invariably potent spiritual directions from the Lord to His covenant people.
For example, the Rabbi Jesus cites Leviticus 19:18 as a summary principle of the Torah and the Prophets (Mt 22:39). The Apostle Paul concurs when he declares that “the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal 5:14). Three times the Hebrew command, v’ahavta… (“and you shall love…”) occurs in the Five Books of Moses, and two of them are found in chapter 19 (18, 34).
The centrality of holiness to covenant living is captured in the chapter’s memorable opening words: “K’doshim tih'yu … Be ye holy, for I the LORD your God am holy!” (19:2) The New Testament echoes this sentiment: “Pursue…holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:2).
The God who is altogether Holy—“Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Tz’vaot!” (Isa 6:1)—requires commensurate holiness in his covenant partners. To draw near and become like the Holy One of Israel we too must become holy.
Holiness is the ultimate doxological predicate and the foundational principle of all biblical ethics. Nothing greater can be attributed to God in worship. The unprecedented angelic three-fold intensification, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” points beyond mere Divine attribute to the ultimately mysterious and impenetrable essence of Deity.
Adonai alone therefore is intrinsically holy; anything or anyone else shares in His holiness derivatively when they are set apart in an exclusive relationship with the true and living God and consecrated for His service. For example, though the whole earth is the Lord’s, a narrow strip of land on the eastern end of the Mediterranean basin became the holy land when the almighty sovereignly conveyed it to Abraham and his offspring for covenantal purposes (Gen 35:10-11). The assembly of Israelites became a holy nation when redeemed by the God of Abraham and set apart from all other nations as priests under His kingship (Ex 19:5-6).
Normally we think of holiness as a state of spiritual perfection or goodness. But the root meaning in Hebrew of kadosh derives from a verb meaning to demarcate, separate, or set apart. An ancient midrash on Leviticus therefore interprets “You shall be holy” to mean “You shall be distinct!”
God’s grace, His redemptive initiative, saves us and demarcates us from all others; but we in turn are enjoined to a reciprocal covenant responsibility of walking in that distinction, in holiness. His Spirit sets us apart as a holy people and keeping His commandments sanctifies us—i.e., we are commanded to become that which we are in Him. “Be ye holy!” says the LORD God.