September 2: Leviticus 19:2

Leviticus 19:2

“You shall be holy (one)s, for I, YHWH your Mighty (One), (am) holy”
<k#yh@ýa$ hwhy yn]a& wodq* yK! Wyh=T! <yv!d)q=

This declaration in Leviticus 19:2 is one of the fundamental religious statements in the Old Testament, and a defining statement of religious identity for the people of Israel. Indeed, it defines, in certain respects, what it means to be the people of God, and so is very much worth examining as part of a study on the theme of the “people of God” (cf. Part 3 [upcoming] of the current article in this study).

The statement in verse 2 comes at the beginning of an important chapter (ch. 19) that is part of the so-called “Holiness Code” (Levitcus 17-26), a corpus of laws and regulations specifically dealing with religious and ceremonial matters. The holiness theme is especially prominent in chapters 19-22, with the declaration here in verse 2 essentially being repeated (or restated) in 20:7, 26; 21:6, 8. It has been noted by commentators (cf. Levine, pp. 124-5) that the regulations in chapter 19 parallel in certain ways the commandments of the Decalogue (Exod 20:1-17). Indeed, it may serve to illustrate something of how the ‘Ten Commandments’ were understood as functioning, in practice, in early Israelite society. For more on the place of the Decalogue (and the Sinai covenant scene in Exod 19-24) in connection with the theme Israel as the “people of God”, cf. Part 3 [upcoming] of the aforementioned article.

Let us look at each key word or term in Leviticus 19:2, as it occurs in order:

rB@D^ (“you must speak”)—This imperative follows precisely the narrative introduction in verse 1: “And YHWH spoke [vb rbd] to Moshe, saying…”. Moses was a ayb!n`—that is, a spokesperson for YHWH (cf. Num 11:17ff; 12:6-8; Deut 18:15ff; 34:10)—indeed, in the early Israelite period, he was the great spokesperson (i.e. prophet) who would serve as God’s representative, communicating His word and will to the people. Just as YHWH speaks to Moses, so he is to speak to the people, repeating precisely the words and things that God expresses to him.

td^u&-lK* (“all [the] appointed [gathering] of”)—The noun hd*u@ is a common term referring to an appointed meeting or gathering (of people). That is to say, it signifies a time when all of the people are gathered together; but it can also refer, in a more abstract sense, to the people as a whole, collectively. However, the sense of a group being gathered or assembled, at a particular time and place, remains primary. It is at such a time, when the all the people are assembled (whether entire, or through represetatives), that Moses is to deliver this word of YHWH to them.

la@r*c=y]-yn@B= (“[the] sons of Yisrael”)—that is to say, Israelites, the people of Israel. As an expression of religious (and cultural) identity, it is not only an ethnic term, but, as the instructions regarding the Passover make clear (cf. Exod 12:43-49), it would apply also to any who would join with Israel, taking on themselves the covenant sign of circumcision, as a mark that they too belong to the community of God’s people. As I discuss at length in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (especially those articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”), this conceptual framework was of immense importance for the questions and debates regarding religious identity among the earliest Christians. Paul maintained the conceptual framework—i.e., that Gentile believers in Christ become part of the people of God (Israelite/Jewish believers)—but without any requirement of circumcision (or any other regulation in the Torah).

<yv!d)q= (“holy [one]s”)—This is the first word of the actual message Moses is to deliver to the people of Israel (“You shall say to them…”). It thus in emphatic position, indicating the importance of the idea, expressed through the adjective vodq*, in plural form as it is applied to all the people. The fundamental meaning of the root vdq is to “separate” or “set apart”, “make distinct”. From the earliest evidence in Akkadian and Canaanite (Ugaritic), it was used primarily in a religious or cultic sense—i.e., of something being separated or set apart (as sacred). It also regularly connotes the idea of “cleanness, purity”, but this has as much to with the process of setting something apart as it does any intrinsic attribute of the thing itself. Virtually everything in the religious or cultic sphere is “holy” in this basic sense, and the idea is universal, common to all religions, and is scarcely unique to Israelite religion or the Old Testament.

It was common, of course, to set apart certain places for worship and reverence, as well as specific times, objects, and so forth. Once consecrated for use in this way, associated with deity and the divine power, presence, etc, the thing set apart no longer was part of the ordinary sphere of life and existence. Particular persons could also be set apart and consecrated as “belonging” to the deity—i.e., priests and others involved in the ritual/cultic apparatus—however, the idea of the entire people being thought of as “holy” in this way is most unusual, and appears to be unique to Israelite religion.

Wyh=T! (“you shall be”)—Though the verb is in second position, we would tend to translate it first; when doing so, it is important to remember that the adjective is emphasized: “You shall be holy“. Translating the plural more precisely, and in light of the denotation of the adjective (cf. above), we might also render the phrase as “You shall be (one)s set apart [i.e. holy] (to God)”. Imperfect verb forms (as here) occasionally have the force of an imperative, depending on the context and syntax. The imperatival (or jussive) sense of the phrase is more or less captured through the emphatic modal “shall” in English: “You shall be…” (= you must be, you are to be). The verb hy`h* is the common verb of being/becoming, and could also be translated here as “you shall come to be”, “you shall become”. It is a command for the people of Israel to be holy—that is, to set themselves apart as something sacred and dedicated to God.

yK! (“for”)—This conjunctive particle provides the reason (i.e. “for, because”) why the people are to be/become holy. It also has a certain comparative force here—i.e. the holiness of the people is to mirror the holiness of YHWH (cf. below).

vodq* (“holy”)—Again the adjective vodq* is in emphatic position in the phrase (preceding the subject). The first occurrence (in the plural) applied to the people, this second occurrence (in the singular) applies to YHWH. However, the basic sense of the adjective must be regarded as the same in both instances.

hwhy yn]a& (“I, YHWH”)—YHWH is stating this of Himself, i.e., that He is holy. This may be understood in two ways:

    1. As an attribute or characteristic of YHWH. This can further be understood in terms of “power”, “purity”, or simply the “otherness” of deity—something transcendent, which, of its very nature, must be regarded as distinct and apart from humankind (and the rest of creation).
    2. As reflecting how human being ought to treat and regard Him—i.e., with honor, reverence, and worship, setting apart an entire realm of space and time that is devoted to interacting with Him.

Both aspects are entirely valid and reflect the proper meaning of the adjective in its context here. A substantive use of vodq* (“[the] Holy [One]”) does occur in the Old Testament, but is somewhat rarer that one might think, occurring most frequently in the book of Isaiah (30 times, Isa 1:4 et al). Despite its use in the later Prophets (Jer 50:29; Ezek 39:7) it is, in fact, a most ancient name/title, which, as might be expected, was preserved almost exclusively in early poetry, before being picked up by the prophetic writings of the 7th/6th century. Of its preservation in poetry, we might note Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; 2 Kings 19:22; cf. also Job 6:10; Prov 9:10. Only rarely is the title used of human beings (Num 16:7; Psalm 16:10; 106:16).

<k#yh@ýa$ (“your Mighty [One]”)—or, more properly, “your Mightiest (One)”. On the assumed meaning of <yh!ýa$, when applied to God, as an intensive plural, cf. the earlier article on the name Elohim. The importance of designating YHWH as the “Mighty One” (i.e. God) of Israel is twofold:

    • It builds upon the tendency, in the early period, of explicitly identifying YHWH with the Creator °E~l (la@), by which name (primarily) He was worshiped by the ancestors of Israel (cf. Exodus 6:2-3ff, and throughout the early traditions in Genesis).
    • It emphasizes the fundamental covenant principle that El-Yahweh is Israel’s God, and the only deity whom they are to acknowledge or worship. Recognition of any other deity represents a violation of the terms of the covenant, in the most basic (and blatant) way.

For more on both of these points, cf. the articles on the names El and Yahweh, as well as the recent notes on Exodus 3:13-15. These themes will be discussed further in the next daily note, as we look at Leviticus 20:7, 26, with its declarations similar to that of 19:2, in light of the comparable statement in Exodus 19:6.

References marked “Levine” above are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus arqyw, commentary by Baruch A. Levine (Jewish Publication Society: 1989).

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