As part of my series on reclaiming biblical God-talk from ontotheology i.e. using Bible language to talk about God instead of philosophy, I ironically want to look at a divine quality that is often glossed over in more philosophical descriptions of God. That attribute is his holiness.
Holiness is commonly considered to be an ethical category, that is, something to do with moral behaviour and values. So things like God cannot lie, he does not sin and he does not tempt people to sin. All those things are true of him and even though they are related to holiness, in the Bible holiness is not primarily associated with moral integrity. You need moral behaviour to maintain holiness but moral behaviour does not result in holiness. It cannot be achieved through action.
A helpful way of seeing this is in biblical sacral language. The opposite of holiness is not sinfulness but profanity. Now sin is about transgressing a command but profanity on the other hand is not saying or doing something that shocks or offends another person’s sensibilities. Profane here is another word for something common, mundane or ordinary. So the concept of holiness is actually about distinction.
You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean – Leviticus 10:10 ESV.
Let’s look at the Jewish dietary laws, which are abrogated in the New Testament, for example. There is no moral value in eating one kind of food over another. It is still possible to observe kosher while violating the ten commandments. The reason why God gave them those type of restrictions was to distinguish them from the nations around them. This is evident in the famous episode of Daniel and his contemporaries who refused to eat Babylonian food. It made them stand out in a pluralistic environment. When you do not eat the same food you cannot have communion with people. In observing the dietary regulations, they were fulfilling the great command, “Be holy for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16.)
As I have already said, the command to be holy does not mean it is something that can be acquired through action or lost through inaction. The reason to be holy is because the Lord is holy. In other words, holiness is not an ethical category but an ontological category. It is a distinct way of being in the world. In fact, be holy for I am holy is not just an imperative but a declarative statement; “I am holy and since you belong to me you are also holy and you should therefore live as holy people.” That is what it says in Leviticus 20:26 which Peter paraphrases as “be holy for I am holy.” The idea of distinction is still present in the way we use the word today. When something is sacrosanct it is set apart. Being set apart is language the Bible actually uses to denote holiness. Spatial symbolism and metaphors of association are commonly used in scripture to represent holiness. We keep holy things together away from the common.
Holiness plays a critical role throughout scripture. As I argued that God being described as king is who he actually is because it is a recurring motif throughout the Bible, a similar thing can be said about his holiness because it is equally as ubiquitous. It is also present from the beginning of the biblical narrative which tells it us it is foundational to his identity. Right from the get go you should know that he is holy. Like we just saw, it affects how people relate to God because it is about who he is which in turn dictates how you associate with him. As a way of being in the world, an ontological category, it also determines how the real world is ordered and arranged. It is not a religiously or ritually limited term but a question of real identity and true belonging. He is a holy God and Israel is his holy people.
YHWH is a holy king. His deity, royalty and holiness cannot be separated. Deity was royalty and royalty was considered as deity but both they were all thought to be sacred. These were the worldview categories people operated with in the ancient Near East (ANE.) Gods were objects of worship so they were obviously sacred. Now if the kings bore the image of the gods it meant they too were to be considered as sacred. In other words, they played a mediatory role as the representative of the gods to the people. Though there was always a designated priesthood in those cultures by virtue of the king’s position they had priestly roles. For example, in the Bible Solomon built the temple and participated in it’s dedication. These concepts of holiness are not peculiar to ANE cultures but it is characteristic of theistic societies. Even in secular cultures there are things that are sacrosanct like democratic rule, freedom of speech among others.
The concept of sacredness is pervasive in every society. It is part of the fabric of how we understand the world. This makes it very hard to define. Since it is common to all people we can look at biblical sacral language and from it derive a general understanding of what it means for something to be sacred. I have already described holiness as an ontological category and therefore it says something about how reality is ordered. For instance, if you say something is physical, you are describing a set of things which all share common qualities. It also means you can arrange the world according to what falls within that set or not. Now within a worldview what is holy is a distinct, foundational reality which is the fulcrum of cosmic order. A worldview is the lens and the basic grid through which we perceive reality. There is objective reality but we interact with it through our collective, subjective experiences and that is where worldview comes. We also do not regard the world as one continuous thing but something made up of different parts that mutually coexist and work together; an integrated reality. (Even those who believe in pantheistic monads believes it manifests in different ways.) To have any useful vision of reality, of all the things it is made up of, there are some things that must be properly basic and non-negotiable, things you must assume or nothing makes sense. These are the things that are sacrosanct because everything else depends on them. Because they are definitive, they are absolutely necessary, inviolable and must be maintained. So everything is based on and ordered around them.
Let’s take democratic governance for an example. Even though it is a secular enterprise there are somethings so critical to it that without them that system of governance loses its identity. One secular hallow is freedom of speech. Without it, it is impossible to have a meaningful representative government that reflects the will of the people. Even though it is a supposedly non-religious thing, we express how holy it is by the sacral metaphors and symbols used to describe it. We say things like freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution and other such sacred metaphors. There are things about democratic governance that need to be set apart and protected or it lacks definitive realness. The presence of the sacred is mediated in the world through symbolic praxis. Symbolic praxis is a thing or action that means and represents more than itself. For instance, sheets of paper with marks on them are not significant in themselves. However, if those marks form certain words they could be the constitution of a country and that document is no longer an ordinary one. Rights, freedoms, responsibilities and other sacrosanct things in that system are embodied in the constitution so those values can be definitively identified as real through the symbol of the constitutional document. This is what it means for the presence of the sacred to be mediated in the world. Something that means more that itself representing the sacred and because of that it too is sacred.
I have used non-religious examples to explain holiness because they are not obvious or commonly understood that way so when they are pointed out it is more poignant. Now back to more explicit examples like a temple. It represents the continuing presence of a deity among his worshippers. They are the centre of all life and in the ancient world it is a civic responsibility to participate in temple ritual activity since all human success depends on the favour of the gods. This temple imagery is present in the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. That is why I argue God is fundamentally depicted as holy because apart from it being a constant motif throughout the Bible, it is how God is characterized in the primary narrative of scripture. In The Cosmic Landscape and other resources that can be found on this platform, I outline the temple features of Genesis 1 and 2. If the creation of the cosmos is depicted like the inauguration of sacred space then we can safely say the story of creation is about a holy God. A brief summary of the temple features is as follows:
- God “resting” on the seventh day is technical language for a deity coming to inhabit sacred space, that is to say, they come and “rest” in the temple. That was the final act that made the space sacred so the temple could properly begin to function. So creation did actually take 7 days.
- An image of a deity is an idol. The making of humanity in God’s image is to say humans are living idols and therefore they represent him in sacred space just idols stand in the place of and embody the deity’s presence. The imago Dei is therefore a temple feature.
- Man, as the living image of God, is made on the sixth day. In the ancient Near East, the final item that is placed in a temple is the idol. It is the penultimate act in inaugurating sacred space. Since the temple is the home of the deity, something needs to represent its presence.
- In ANE thinking, they believed the gods were found in the world but temples and other kinds of sacred space were like their headquarters from which they managed the cosmos. So temples were a microcosm. Though the world is God’s home the Garden of Eden is depicted as the centre of sacred space, the most holy ground.
- The Garden of Eden belonged to God and the couple were there to maintain and expand it. Since it belonged to God it was obviously sacred space. God’s presence is therefore found in the garden and where ever a deity is present is sacred.
- Temples were often modelled after gardens in the ANE. An example is the Jewish temple which had vegetation as artistic features.
- Placing man as the living image of God in the garden was the same as placing an idol in sacred space. It was not uncommon to find idols placed in garden environments that served as sacred space.
- The first couple’s duties to maintain the garden is a subset of humanity’s mandate over the entire earth. That means Adam and Ever were acting as representatives of humanity therefore they were acting like priests through their mediatory role. The man and the woman were allowed to eat from the trees of the garden the same way priests are allowed to share in the offering since they belong to sacred space which they maintain.
- When they sin they are expelled from the garden which is the same thing that happens when you profane sacred space.
- The placing of cherubim to guard the garden is reminiscent of the art of the Jewish temple which featured cherubim prominently. In scripture those creatures represent the divine presence.
- Overall, not only are there are similarities to sacred space in the ANE, it resembles the latter Jewish tabernacle and temple. In apocalyptic texts, visions of the eschatological temple in turn bear features of Eden such as the tree of life and a river flowing through it.
All these features were immediately recognizable to someone in the ANE since they were common place in their cognitive environment, that is, the way people in that region conceived the world. However, the biblical depiction of God’s holiness right from Genesis 1 was still unique in the ancient world. I initially defined holiness as an ontological category. In the ANE a whole class of beings, that is the various pagan pantheons, were holy and everything else had differing degrees of holiness depending on their relationship to the gods. The gods were distinct beings from the rest of the world who created and sustained the world therefore they were holy. In Genesis he is holy because he is the only God.
A common scriptural refrain is ‘YHWH is holy’ or as English translations have it the ‘Lord is holy.’ The use of God’s personal name along with stating his holiness is a way of emphasising how unique he is. To say God is holy is to say there’s truly none like him therefore he demands special attention. Things which are holy inspire awe and demand reverential worship because they occupy a necessary transcendent role in the world. The holiness of God encapsulates all that he is as well as his relationship to the world. As an ontological category the term is used to designate a distinct way of being in the world. It is therefore not only transcendent because of its uniqueness, it also immanent, that is present in the world, because it is unique in relation to everything else. The holiness of God captures both his immanence and transcendence. His presence can be found in the world but he is not the same as the world because the world depends on him but he depends on himself, which is why his presence is needed in the world. He is the I AM, the Holy One.
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Origins and the Cosmology Debate, pp. 86-91, InterVarsity Press, 2009.
 Ibid. pp. 71-76.
 J. Richard Middleton, Liberating the Image? The Imago Dei in Context, p. 11, Christian Scholars Review 24.1, 1994.
 Ryan Bonfiglio, Images and the Image-Ban in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite Religion, Oxford Biblical Studies Online, 2017.
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Origins and the Cosmology Debate, p. 74, InterVarsity Press, 2009.
 Ibid. p. 81.