Studies in Leviticus: God is Holy

LeviticusIt’s common place in Christianity to refer to God as “holy.” Yet it is also common for us to lose a clear sense of the meaning of words over time. We may often call God “holy,” or sing “Holy is the Lord, God almighty,” but it is worthwhile to think carefully about what this weighty term means. Since the holiness of God is a major theme in the book of Leviticus, it can serve as a guide to this important theological discussion. Leviticus establishes God’s holiness by means of geography and ritual.

“Leviticus sketches a geography of holiness” (Dempster, 107). God dwells among His people, holiness in their midst. This is not insignificant. At the heart of this book is an answer to the question raised by the preceding books of the Pentateuch: how can a holy God dwell with a sinful man. In some ways the Pentateuch is very focused on Geography, with its references to the Garden, the Tabernacle, the Promised Land. Even God’s promise to Abraham has to do with God’s presence with His people in His land. Leviticus starts to answer this question of “dwelling” by developing and unpacking Israel’s legal code. It essentially asserts that for God to dwell with His people sin and impurity must be removed from the camp. Allen Ross observes:

The idea of the holiness of god is understood from the outset by God’s prohibiting from his presence every sinful and diseased person or thing – they were simply incompatible with the holy Lord God. (Holiness to the Lord, 45)

Sinful people, and as we read diseased people, cannot come into the presence of God. In lieu of this God establishes the priesthood to intercede for them, here geography and genealogy combine. Consider God’s unique presence in the Tabernacle. It is here that sacrifices are made, communal meals are eaten, and worship is regularly offered to God.

Helpfully, Derek Tidball speaks of the “the spectrum of holiness” found in Leviticus. Within Israel’s life there were place of greater or lesser holiness, we see this particularly in relation to the Tabernacle. He writes:

For example, Israel thought about space as being divided into five zones: Zone 1: the Most Holy Place; Zone 2: the Holy Place; Zone 3: the Courtyard; Zone 4: the camp; and Zone 5: outside the camp. Where things take place matters. Only the events of the Day of Atonement take place in the Most Holy Place (16:11-17). Routine sacrifices take place in the Holy Place (16:18-25) and as matters partake less and less of holiness so they are removed further and further away from the sanctuary (16:20-22). So people who suffer a major uncleanness are exiled outside the camp, and the sins of the people are disposed of in the wilderness far beyond the boundary as well (e.g. 4:1-12; 13:46; 16:27). (The Message of Leviticus, 26)

God cannot be in the presence of sin or uncleanness, so He creates separation between Himself and such things. The geographical component is a tangible, spacial reminder of the spiritual truth of God’s holy transcendence.

The rituals that God prescribes for Israel’s cultic life also illustrate His holiness. The rituals for sacrifice and cleansing are delineated in such fine detail in this book. The average reader finds a lot of repetition in the text, and often can be overwhelmed by the amount of specificity and attention to the minutia of practice. But God insisted on exact performance. He tolerated no deviation because these rituals reflected the awesome perfection of the Lord and were carefully designed to make people and things holy as they came into His presence. The rituals themselves don’t have power, but the performance of them is a submission to God, a dedicating of oneself to the service of and obedience to God. The rituals are a means by which God draws near to His people and they draw near to Him as their God.

In discussing God’s holiness we are often inclined to speak solely of His transcendence. Yet there is a sense in which God’s holiness also communicates His immanence. Initially, God tells Moses “don’t come near.” But then he tells him to take of His sandals because he is on “holy ground,” and in the process God is inviting the man into a relationship (Ex. 3:5). In Isiah 6 the prophet hears the angels declaring that the Lord is “holy, holy, holy” and then he states plainly, “my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (v. 5). Holiness can allude to God’s immanence too, his drawing near. In particular it may be His drawing near to set apart people and things for His service. So the rituals, though addressing the Holiness of God, are an invitation to the people to come near to this God.

In a faculty address at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Peter Gentry stated:

While God is awesome in His majesty, His holiness does not mean that He is the ‘totally other’ nor does it speak of His separation … In fact, we see just the opposite [in Isaiah 6]. We see that God is coming to meet man. We see already the central theme of this new section of Isaiah – Immanuel, ‘God with us.

God’s holiness in Leviticus is communicated via space, distance and separation. Yet it is also communicated by the invitation to approach God through the precise formulas of the rituals.

Leviticus emphasizes the theme of God’s holiness in some unique and compelling ways, ways that communicate great truth and hope to us. They are worth considering as we think about the nature of this “holy” God that we worship. He is transcendent in His perfections, and yet He draws near to us. This is breathtaking and beautiful to meditate upon as we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God almighty.”

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