Be Holy

Be Holy August 8, 2016

Leviticus 20 is mainly concerned with the penalties for sexual crimes. Adultery, homosexual sodomy, bestiality, and some forms of incest are capital crimes. Yahweh Himself punishes other crimes. The chapter begins and ends with more general exhortations to avoid the customs and ways of the Canaanites. Near the end, in Leviticus 20:26, we find a chiastic theology proper in seven words.

Chiasm first, following the Hebrew word order:

A. You will be

B. to me

C. holy

C’. for holy

B’. (am) I

A’. Yahweh.

This exhortation is linked to Yahweh’s earlier declaration that He had separated (badal, used for the separations of Genesis 1) Israel from the midst of the peoples (v. 23), which leads into an exhortation to be separate (v. 24). By exodus, Yahweh has created a separated people, and they are called to maintain that separation. In the same way, Israel’s holiness is rooted in Yahweh’s own holiness. The logic is not: I am holy, therefore you cannot be; rather: I am holy, therefore you must be. The chiasm reinforces the point: Holiness is where Israel and Yahweh intertwine (C/C’); holiness is the shared inner sanctuary of Yahweh and Israel. That runs against some accounts of holiness, which see it fundamentally as Yahweh’s separateness from creation. If that is true, though, it’s a separateness that Israel somehow mimics or shares.

The outer frame of the statement links up nicely. Yahweh’s name (A’) is rooted in the verb “to be” (hayah), a form of which is used in A. But A and A’ diverge. A is a second-person command, and A’ is the name of Yahweh. A tells Israel what they are to do, while A’ declares who Yahweh is. The structural link suggests a connection between the two. At a minimum, we’re being told that Israel’s life is a reflection of the character of her Lord and Redeemer. She serves “I am” and so “you will be” as He requires. The connection of A and A’, in short, reinforces the First Word.

But the structure may suggest something more. Perhaps Yahweh is holy Yahweh because He has a people who will be holy. The connection of first-person references in B and B’ suggest this. Israel’s separation to Yahweh becomes part of His own self-assertion as “I.” Israel herself is incorporated into Yahweh’s name and identity. He is who He is regardless of whether there is a creation. Creation is an act of free choice on His part. Yet, given the world He planned and created, He is God only as God of Israel. Unless there is an Israel “to Me,” there is no “I Yahweh”—not because Yahweh needs Israel but because He has freely chosen her, and in choosing her has chosen (start the Barth cantata) to be God for Israel.

The imperative force of the whole verse has to be reckoned with. The structure implies not only that Yahweh is holy Yahweh only because Israel is; it specifies that Yahweh is holy Yahweh only because Israel is holy. And holy here means not only separated-to-Yahweh but obedient-to-Yahweh. Unless there is an obedient Israel, and Israel that is holy in fact, Yahweh is not Yahweh. Yahweh has committed Himself not only to being Israel’s God, but to ensuring that Israel comes to mimic, reflect, and share in His holiness.

And from there we can spin out Christological, covenantal, and ecclesial implications. The God of Israel is God only if there is an obedient Israel; there is such an Israel and His name is Jesus. Jesus is the obedient Israel that confirms the Godness of the God of Israel. But the God of Israel is God only if He fulfills His promise to create a people that walks in holiness; His covenant commitment is to form a church, not only to gather a people but to ensure that this people is conformed to the obedient Son.

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