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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Greenberg

Biblical Holiness

A Divine Command

Kedoshim you shall be, for I [ADONAI your God] am kadosh.” (1 Peter 1:16, Lev. 19:2).

On the surface this command to be holy because ADONAI is holy seems a simple command, but it is actually counter intuitive and complex. How can we, who are finite and mortal, be like God, who is infinite and eternal? The answer to these questions is complex, but doable, after all we are created in the image of God. The Tanakh teaches us that holiness belongs to ADONAI and to those who participate in His divine holiness. We participate in His holiness by walking in His ways. But how do we actuate walk in his ways of holiness in our daily lives in our world? ADONAI answered this question and gave us instructions in what is known as the Holiness Code, Lev. 17-26:26, so named for its emphasis on holy living.

But What Does It Look Like?

The central idea of holiness code is found in Leviticus 19:1-2, where ADONAI tells Moshe to speak to all of Israel and tell them to be “kedoshim, for I, ADONAI your God, am holy.” This command is for all of Israel. The laws and commandments in this section are not just for Moshe, Aaron and the priesthood, but for all Israel, for all those who participate in His holiness. The laws and commandments in this section address every aspect of life, including Israel’s history and shared destiny.

Lets Go Verse by Verse…

Chapter 17 addresses the: 1) requirement that all sacrificed be offered at the one and only legitimate altar near the entrance to the tent of meeting; 2) requirements concerning the blood of sacrificial animals as well as those used for food; 3) prohibition against consuming blood; and 4) the prohibition against eating the flesh from carcasses of animals that died or were torn by beasts.

Chapter 18 contains the most systematic and complete collection of laws in the Torah dealing with the subject of incest and forbidden sexual unions. It defines which unions among relatives are forbidden on grounds of incest, adultery, etc. and in the process it defines the limits of the immediate family.

Chapter 19 contains the command to be holy “for I, ADONAI your (pl.) God, am holy.” The position of this command in Vayikrah (Leviticus) is significant. Vayikrah is the center of the Torah, and chapter 19 is the center of Vayikra. This places the command to be holy because ADONAI is holy, in the center of the Torah.

Chapter 20 is a continuation of chapter 19, but ends, well almost ends, in vv. 24 and 26 where ADONAI declares, “I am ADONAI your (pl.) God who has set you (pl.) apart from the peoples…You (pl.) are to be holy to Me, for I ADONAI am holy, and I have set you (pl.) apart from the peoples, so that you (pl.) would be mine. Sandwiched between the two commands to be holy because ADONAI your God is holy in 19:2 and 20:26 are commands that tell us what it means to be holy.

These two chapters (19 and 20) contain moral obligations as well as ostensibly irrational commands that seem far removed from our culture; e.g. the prohibitions against planting different kinds of seeds in the same field, crossbreeding livestock or wearing clothes made from both wool and linen. Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that today these commands relate to the respecting and integrity of and caring for the environment. When met with seemingly irrational commands, we must think beyond their literal interpretation.

So What Does It Mean?

From these two chapters we learn that being holy means having honest business practices, doing justice, sharing our blessings with others, and treating the poor with dignity and honor. Being holy means loving our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves (19:18, 34), which means not stealing, lying or deceiving others, not insulting or taking advantage of others, not hating others, bearing a grudge or taking revenge. It means having the courage to admit our mistakes and to make amends.

Above all it means living in the conscious presence of God, which means living lives that are distinct and set apart to ADONAI. To live in such a manner requires courage, courage to be different from the world around us. Bearing witness to ADONAI through holy living bears witness to Him who is beyond ourselves. This in turn encourages us to be more courageous, more just and more honest and to love our neighbor and the stranger.

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