The Foundational Concept of Holiness in Leviticus

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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The book of Leviticus is grounded in the truth that God is holy. The word qodesh occurs over a hundred times in the Hebrew text of Leviticus. To say that God is holy means that he is completely separate from all evil or defect. Or to put it in another way, God is completely and perfectly good. The Lord is worthy of total allegiance, exclusive worship, and loving obedience.

Israel’s identity arises because by God’s actions they are holy, yet also because the Lord expects Israel to act holy in practical ways. Israel is called to be holy because the Lord himself is holy (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8). The seemingly disparate laws of Leviticus that deal with the ritual, ethical, commercial, and penal aspects of life all rest on this core notion of holiness.

Alexander Hill, then, is following Leviticus’s central principle when he grounds his discussion of Christian business ethics on God’s holiness, justice, and love. “A business act is ethical if it reflects God’s holy-just- loving character.”[1] Hill claims that Christians in business reflect divine holiness when they have zeal for God who is their ultimate priority, and who then behave with purity, accountability, and humility. These, rather than trying to reproduce the commercial code designed for an agrarian society, are what it means to put Leviticus into practice today. This does not mean ignoring the specifics of the law, but discerning how God is guiding us to fulfill it in today’s context.

Holiness in Leviticus is not separation for separation’s sake, but for the sake of a thriving community of the people of God and the recon­ciliation of each person to God. Holiness is not only about individuals’ behavior following regulations, but about how what each person does affects the whole people of God in their life together and their work as agents of God’s kingdom. In this light, Jesus’ call for his people to be “salt” and “light” to outsiders (Matt. 5:13-16) makes complete sense. To be holy is to go beyond the law to love your neighbor, to love even your enemy, and to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48, echoing Lev. 19:2).

In short, ancient Israel did not obey Leviticus as a peculiar set of regulations, but as an expression of God’s presence in their midst. This is as relevant to God’s people today as it was then. In Leviticus, God is tak­ing a collection of nomadic tribes and shaping their culture as a people. Likewise today, when God’s people enter their places of work, through them God is shaping the cultures of their work units, organizations, and communities. God’s call to be holy, even as he is holy, is a call to shape our cultures for the good.

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