Hebrew Meaning of Holy – Set Apart For A Purpose
The meaning of “holy” is often defined by the culture around us, but the ancient Biblical culture gives us a different perspective. Merriam-Webster defines holy as a “religious or morally good; exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” For this reason, when we read about people like holy priests that minister to God in the tabernacle, we often cannot relate to them because we feel like we aren’t good enough to fit into that category. Then we read in the scriptures that there were a lot holy objects in the Temple. Does that mean that these objects are “morally good” or “perfect in righteousness?” There is something that we are missing in both of these understandings.
There is something that we are missing in both of these understandings.
Hebrew is a unique language when it comes to word studies, because words will carry the meaning of the root word that it comes from originally. In this way, the Hebrew word “Qodesh” is most commonly translated “holy.” This word comes from the root word “Qadash,” which means “to set apart for a specific purpose” (Ancient Hebrew Lexicon, vituralbookword.com publishing, Jeff Benner).
While there are times that aspects of moral righteousness or Godly devotion are connected to “holy” people, on its own, the term holiness does not refer to piety or perfection. When the Bible calls something “holy,” it is not speaking of purity or righteousness, but rather that something is “set apart” from everything else to do a job. By this definition, our homes contain a few holy objects. If you own a coffee pot that is only used for coffee and not tea or fruit punch, so by definition, you have a “holy coffee pot.” Your toothbrush is only used for your teeth and not someone else’s mouth or cleaning any other item, so by definition you have a “holy toothbrush.” There is nothing divine about these household items, but they are set apart for a unique purpose.
With this new understanding, consider these well known scriptures:
Exodus 19:6 and 1 Peter 2:9 both refer to Israel as “a holy nation.” A quick glance at Israel in the Bible and today will find many faults that do not live up what God intended. When the Scriptures call Israel a holy nation, it isn’t suggesting that Israel is perfect or sinless but that Israel’s calling is for a specific purpose in the earth.
In Leviticus 11:44 and 1 Peter 1:16 we read “Be holy as I am holy.” Many have understood this to mean that we are required to be perfect like God. If we could be perfect on our own or simply encouraged to do so, we wouldn’t have a need for the sacrifice of Jesus. We simply can’t do it. In this verse, God is not putting something on us that we cannot carry or requiring us to be perfectly sinless on our own. He is saying he wants us to choose to be uniquely different from our surroundings and focused in the way He is.
We read in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8 that the angels are crying out before God “Holy holy holy is the Lord of Hosts” day and night. With our western understanding, we might wonder why they would say the same thing over and over and not get bored. Yet before the Lord’s throne, nothing could be more compelling. The angels are proclaiming the holiness or the uniqueness of God and how different He is from all Creation. In essence they are saying “You are so set apart from anything and everything in every situation! There is no one that loves the way you do! No one has the perspective that you do! No one in all the earth is as kind and merciful as You! Your justice is like no other justice in the universe! You are so uniquely different than anything else you have created!” We could go on and on proclaiming how set apart and focused He is on a specific purpose — and that is exactly what the angels do.
Holiness is not about being absolutely perfect, but instead about being set apart for a specific purpose. We cannot make ourselves perfect and blameless, but we can choose to be set apart for God. We can choose to be holy.