Holiness Theology in Leviticus

If you want holiness theology, Leviticus 17-27 is the place, especially chapters 19-22. In our teaching hour last week at Tikvat David (our congregation) I asked people what negative connotations the word “holy” has in their synagogue or church background.

In Jewish life, a negative association with holiness is self-righteous Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) who throw furniture at women, throw dung at liberal Jews, harass Christians and Messianics in Israel in ways America would never tolerate, and so on. If you have not seen the ugly side of ultra-Orthodoxy, I’m not sure how you have missed it. There any several blogs and websites dedicated to documenting hypocrisy and outright religious evil from some members of these communities. But let me be heard: for every bad example amongst the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox, there are dozens of good examples. Too bad a small number give the word “holy” a bad name.

In church life, holy can connote “holy roller,” which can be translated as “self-righteous prig.” It can refer to severe Christians with rules against good things based on overly restrictive notions of taboo. It can bring to mind scowling people with noses too high for their own good.

None of that is what I mean or what Torah means by holiness.

I broached this subject last week with a post on “Leviticus 19 and the Messianic Age” (see it here).

First, what is holiness in the Torah. Let me quote Jacob Milgrom (whose commentary on Leviticus is a major influence on my life and faith, which is not to say I always agree with him):

Holiness means not only “separation from” but also “separation to.” It is a positive concept, an inspiration and a goal associated with God’s nature and his desire for man. “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” That which man is not, nor can ever fully be, but that which man is commanded to emulate and approximate, is what the Bible calls ‘holy’. Holiness means imitatio Dei–the life of godliness.

Holiness is not, then, merely about abstinences (prohibitive commandments such as “you shall not”) but also positive deeds of justice and mercy (the performative commandments like “love your neighbor”).

Furthermore, Leviticus 19:2 has been used in Jewish spirituality as an indication of a calling to go beyond the “letter of the law.” Ramban (Nachmanides) speaks of people who look for loopholes in Torah or who follow the laws as literally as possible while violating them in every principle possible (see above regarding Jewish and Christian religious prigs).

The holiness section of Leviticus has several statements regarding the theology of holiness which are well worth pausing to read:

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My sabbaths: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 19:2-3 JPS)

You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Lord am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. So you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as unclean. You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine. (Leviticus 20:23-26 JPS)

You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the Lord. You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the Lord. (Leviticus 22:31-33 JPS)

The major concerns in this section include:

(1) that statutes concerning observances and holy things be kept and the Ten Commandments are alluded to here (as in 19:3).

(2) that Israelite society operate on principles of justice and ethics.

(3) that idolatry, prostitution, and necromancy (the death cult) be obliterated from Israel.

(4) that penalties for gross violations would rid the land of the death cult, transgression, and sexual sins.

(5) that the land would be holy, for it will spew out an unholy people (as we saw in the exiles to Assyria and Babylon).

(6) that all things symbolic of death and illness be kept way from God’s sanctuary.

(7) that the holy things will be treated with great care, so that time and space are sanctified.

(8) that God’s reputation would be holy and the people would take on themselves a similar holy reputation to be a light (it seems to be implied that the nations are watching).

Big Meaning From Ancient Torah
The theology which seems to be operative in the holiness theology of Leviticus says some big things about God’s view of the ideal, the perfect, and by a very small stretch of imagination to the whole earth renewed according to God’s pattern. That’s what we call the world to come.

No death or sin should enter the area of God’s sanctuary (Tabernacle and later Temple). He desires to dwell apart from all evil and death in human society and even in the natural order (yes, that raises questions about his providence and how evil came to be part of the natural order in the first place — but I’m not discussing that here).

And the holiness sections of Leviticus go farther. The whole land is holy, not just the sanctuary. In some senses, at least symbolically, the land should be free of death and evil also.


↑ Things destined to endure (holy things, justice, mercy, life) ↑

↓ Things destined to perish (death, suffering, evil) ↓


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6 Responses to Holiness Theology in Leviticus

  1. benicho says:

    Per reading Leviticus a lot lately…How do gentiles followers of the Gd of Israel set themselves apart? Sometimes we’re told all these laws of appearance don’t apply to us, but if we blend in physically how are we any different? For example, would you as a gentile follower go out and get piercings and tattoos because we’re told those laws don’t apply to us? I noticed that all these laws about separation (not mixing seeds, fabrics) are parallel demonstrations of Gd hating a mixture of His people with non-believers.

  2. Derek Leman says:


    Not sure there is a category “laws of appearance.” Non-Jews who wish to be observant of Torah should look to the Jewish community for the traditions about how to keep it.

    Also, the mixed seed, cattle, material issue is not about the mixing of the peoples. I’m not sure where you got that idea.


  3. benicho says:

    What else what you categorize them as? The Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Canaanites, Hittites, they all cut their hair and fashioned/shaped their beards specific ways. You can see it on amphora and hieroglyphics from all the cultures around Israel. I believe the Hittites and Canaanites were known for shaving the sides of their head. Gd didn’t want his people to be like the pagans around them. I’m not talking about mixing people in a racial context, about mixing Gd’s people amongst pagans. A people set apart, don’t marry the Canaanite woman, etc. I was saying the mixing of seeds, cloth, in those contexts may be a parallel to not mixing with the pagans.

    The point I was trying to make is that the intent of these laws of “appearance” were to set them apart, a peculiar people. Where does it leave gentiles who were grafted in. If we’re not to part-take in these laws, what do we do, just blend in? I realize this doesn’t apply today like it used to, that’s why I brought up tattoos and piercings, something most pagan cultures did, but Israel was forbidden to do.

  4. Derek Leman says:

    Tattoos and cutting (not piercings) were part of the death cult (cthonic worship and necromancy). The prohibition is not about looking different.

    Mixed fibers (linen, wool) are reserved for the holy (Tabernacle curtains, priestly garments, tzit-tzit on garments). No evidence that the symbolism of mixtures concerns mixing people groups either socially or maritally.

    To say more I would have to take some time to do some reading.

  5. benicho says:

    Tattoos, piercings, cuttings, these were typically done as part of cults tied to false gods. We see this everywhere, in fact the only instances of tattooing I can think of that doesn’t directly tie in with some sort of occult/ritual are ones where tattoos were a display of hierarchy (Celts, Germans, Samoans, various far eastern peoples). But even those likely had pagan roots (why display hierarchy with markings?). Piercings and tattoos are tied to self beautification these days, historically they served more than that as you stated.

    Why would Gd not want a mixture of his people with pagans? Why did Abraham not want Isaac marrying a Canaanite? Why didn’t Isaac want Jacob to marry a Canaanite? Why do Jewish Rabbis today want the Jewish people to intermarry? It’s not a difficult deduction.

  6. Derek Leman says:


    Intermarriage is actually not forbidden in Torah. Only intermarriage with Canaanites.

    Abraham did not want his sons marrying the locals because of the danger of assimilation which would likely erase his family’s distinctiveness and covenant identity in the larger culture.

    Sorry, but won’t be able to keep discussing tonight.

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