Defining Holiness: Where to Start?


I find it a very common practice by theologians to insist upon beginning with God when defining holiness. With the resurgence of trinitarian theology, the focus has been on beginning with God’s trinitarian nature and relationships as the matrix for holiness. Some have gone so far as to assert that if one’s definition of holiness does not work within the Trinity before creation it is incorrect.

Logically, it makes sense to begin with God. Clearly, God is holy (Exod. 15:11). He is incomparable in holiness (Isa. 40:25). What interests me is that God does not start our understanding of holiness where theologians think He should. (Who knows where He started Adam’s?!) If we take the canonical order of the Torah as His chosen starting point for preserving His revelation for our understanding, then God starts teaching us about holiness with non-personal items: a day, some dirt, and an assembly.A holy day


In Gen. 2:3 God makes the seventh day holy because in it He rested from all his labors. Several things are noteworthy here:

  • “To sanctify” here denotes God’s action in setting the day apart from the other six days on which He worked unto a special purpose: rest.
  • The sanctification of the day made it special. In other words, it is not an ordinary day but a special day by virtue of having been set apart (made holy) for rest.
  • Without any preconceived idea of what the verb qadash means, it is clear that it involves separating something from the ordinary unto the special.


In Exod. 3:5 God tells Moses that the dirt he is standing on is holy. What made the dirt holy? I take it that God’s special presence made the ground holy. I note here that …

  • holy ground requires special treatment. Moses had to take off his sandals.
  • the fact that it was “holy” meant it had been separated from ordinary use unto special use by God.
  • Here again separation from the common/ordinary unto special use/treatment by God is at the core of the meaning of holy.


In Exod. 12:16 God designates the first and seventh day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread as days upon which a “holy assembly” was to be held. The text does not specify the purpose of the assembly, but Ezek. 46:3, 9 indicate it was for the purpose of worshiping Yahweh.

What is “holy” about this assembly? The text reveals that no work was to be done on these days, except for the work needed to cook. Again, God separates a day from ordinary days by prohibiting work and separates it unto a special purpose: assembly for worship. Holy in this context appears then to have the sense of “special as a result of a having been set apart by God.”

In each of the first three pentateuchal texts where God calls something holy, the meaning of the word holy involves the ideas of “separated from common use/activity unto special use/activity by God” or “special because of having been separated for a special purpose.”

Originally posted at Exegetical Thoughts and Biblical Theology.

Philip Brown
Philip Brown
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).