The Meaning Of “Holy” In The Old Testament -- By: Peter J. Gentry

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 170:680 (Oct 2013)
Article: The Meaning Of “Holy” In The Old Testament
Author: Peter J. Gentry

The Meaning Of “Holy” In The Old Testament

Peter J. Gentry

Peter J. Gentry is Professor of Old Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

“No one is holy like Yahweh” was Hannah’s bold praise when God granted her request for a child (1 Sam. 2:2).1 Hannah’s praise is based not only on her own experience, but also on the revelation given at the Exodus. Moses’ Song at the Sea rang out, “Who is like you among the gods, Yahweh? Who is like you—majestic in holiness!” (Exod. 15:11). The revelation of God as holy and the creation of a covenant people who are holy are connected specifically with the events of the Exodus. “Saint” is, in fact, an Exodus word, and indeed Paul’s use of it has in view the work of Jesus Christ as bringing about a new Exodus.2

Unfortunately, the church of Jesus Christ, at least in the western world, has not understood very well the meaning of the word “holy,” nor what it means to worship a holy God. Systematic theologians from the Reformation to the present time are surveyed by Richard Muller, who describes the Reformed orthodox doctrine of the divine holiness as follows: “Holiness, has, moreover, two implications, both of which are typically stated in relation or in contrast to creatures. First, it can indicate the absolute ‘moral purity’ of God and stand, therefore, in relation to his justice or righteousness. . . . Second, ‘the word is also employed to denote God’s infinite excellence above all that is low and created.’ ”3 Thus holiness is seen as

roughly equivalent to “purity” and “transcendence.”

Understanding of the root קדשׁ, moreover, is commonly based on the work of W. W. Baudissin, “Der Begriff der Heiligkeit im AT,” published in 1878.4 Baudissin surmised that the original root was a biliteral קד meaning “to cut.” He influenced more than a century of ecclesiastical thought, for recent theologians continue to rely on the etymology adduced by him.

Not only is this etymology entirely uncertain,5 but also scholars, whether biblical exegetes or systematic theologians, have been warned for over half a century about the dangers ...

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