Holiness in the Old Testament

Holiness in the Old Testament

To state the obvious, Scripture is very concerned about our holiness. For example, Peter says,

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14–16)

The Bible’s main term for “holiness” occurs about 850 times in the Bible. Of those, 152 occur in the book of Leviticus. This frequency demonstrates that holiness is preeminent in this biblical book.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the law of God, states:

Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament. (19.3)

This paragraph raises some interesting questions. For example, do ceremonial laws have any bearing on the New Testament people of God? Why would God give so much space in the canon of Scripture to describe such strange rituals and laws if they no longer apply to the people of God?

This article will focus on the so-called Holiness Code in Leviticus and the purposes of rituals, ceremonial regulations, and other practices so that we may see how Israel was different from the other nations. Next, we will discuss what God was trying to teach His people by including these prohibitions in His revelation to His specially chosen people. Finally, we will conclude by briefly discussing the significance of these ritual laws for God’s new covenant people.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus

August Klostermann in the nineteenth century was the first to call Leviticus 17–26 the Holiness Code. Chapters 1–16 of Leviticus were considered a different editorial strand. Nevertheless, to make Leviticus 17–26 a distinct section from chapters 1–16 would seem to destroy the connections between chapters 16 and 17 and unnecessarily separate chapter 17 and the manual of sacrifice in chapters 1–7.

Holiness is the dominant and all- encompassing theme in these chapters of Leviticus: 17:1–16 addresses the place of sacrifice and the sanctity of blood; 18:1–20:27 speaks about sins against the moral law; 21:1–22:33 makes clear how priests must be holy; 23:1–44 addresses holy convocations (e.g., the Sabbath, the Passover, the offering of the firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks, the seventh month, the feasts of the seventh month, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths); 24:1–23 discusses the holy oil, the bread of the Presence, and the sin of blasphemy; 25:1–55 addresses the sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee. Finally, 26:1–46 addresses the sanctions—that is, the blessings and curses. Now, let us be honest: when we read through these chapters in Leviticus, many of these practices seem strange to our modern sensibilities. Even so, this was our forefathers’ world: it was filled with blood and guts and demanded strict adherence to these practices, or the consequences would be dire.

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