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Shemot/Exodus 22:30(31) And men of holiness you shall be to Me
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This week's text starts with an unusual expression, almost always mistranslated in English Bibles. Whilst the biblical Hebrew syntactical device known as a 'construct' (in modern Hebrew as , 'support') is very common, the particular phrase here is not. A construct creates a relationship between two adjacent nouns - for example 'A' and 'B' - so that the second is seen as qualifying the first and is usually translated as "A of B" or "the A of B". Here, the word has a vav/and conjunction on the front, but is the masculine plural construct form of , 'men'; the second word, . is a masculine singular noun from the root meaning 'holiness'. These two words come together to say "men of holiness". "Holy men" or "holy people" is the most common English translation (NIV, NASB, , NJPS), while "consecrated people" is offered by others (ESV, NJB, NRSV), both treating as an adjective. Doing so misses the point that Moshe (andHaShem behind him) is trying to make: it's not about who you are, but what you do.
Connecting us to the context of the preceding verses, Professor Cassuto reminds us that "the ending of the injunction recalls the conclusion of the two preceding verses: you shall give to Me ... you shall give to Me ... you shall be to Me. And because of the nobility of your mission you must behave like noblemen, not only from the spiritual aspect, but also in the sense that you cultivate fine habits and maintain the self-respect due to your calling."1 OvadiahSforno explains that "in this manner you will be holy men, if you separate the firstborn sons and the gifts (of firstborn animals) to My service; for then the firstborn will teach knowledge to the people and 'you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy' (Vayikra 11:44, NJPS)."
Observing thatTargum Onkelos changes the Hebrew , "men of holiness" to Aramaic , "holy men", Rabbi Hirsch insists that "it does not say , holy men, but , men of holiness (a holy calling); a man is not yet holy if he does not eat treif, but he can then more easily become so. Eating treif gets in the way of our accomplishing our holy calling. It is more difficult for one who eats treif to climb to that spiritual moral height which we should all reach." Rashi connects the ideas of holy behaviour with belonging to HaShem: "If you are holy and abstinent from the repugnances of carcasses and animals that have been mauled, behold you are Mine. But if not, you are not Mine." Nahum Sarna adds, "this is the ideal for Israel set forth at Sinai (Shemot 19:6). In the pursuit of this end, one must - among other things - avoid polluting substances and defiling actions, for these disturb the relationship with G-d."
TheMekhilta emphasises the way in which we belong to HaShem when we obey Him: "Rabbi Ishmael says: If you are holy then you are Mine. Issi ben Akiba says: with every new commandment which G-d issues to Israel He adds holiness to them." As we engage with each new commandment, we have another opportunity to grow in holiness - remember, that is being set apart for G-d - and demonstrate that we server and follow Him. Gunther Plaut writes that " means people who are constantly aware of their relationship to G-d. Holiness is understood to be not only a moral outlook but a total way of life." What is HaShem doing with this text and the command that immediately follows it of not eating the meat of animals that have been torn or damaged in hunting or in the fields? Rabbi Hirsch answers, "It is not our bodily health, but our spiritual and moral purity and capability, our holiness, our being ready, our becoming ready, our remaining ready, for everything which is godly and pure, which is the expressed object of the Lawgiver of these laws."
So what is the issue and the challenge to Israel to which this text points? "The issue for Israel is not how it can become a holy people but how it can be in daily life the holy people it had already become by G-d's action on their behalf," says Terence Fretheim.2 Israel is already a holy people; G-d has chosen them and brought them out of Egypt, through the waters of the Reed Sea, expressly so that they might be His people and be holy - separated, different from all the other nations - to Him, a distinctive and easily recognised people, who keep His Torah and are His witnesses in the world. However imperfectly our people have kept that mandate across the centuries, it is and remains true to this day: the Jews are - even in the most assimilated cases - different form everyone else. But the challenge is how to show and live in our calling, how to be holy at a practical level. Thomas Dozeman agrees: "This [text] presupposes the holiness of the people. It demands that the Israelites be a "holy people". The consequence of the demand for holiness means that the Israelites may not eat meat killed and torn by another animal. Such meat is ritually impure and fit only for dogs because of the absence of proper sacrifice."3
What does that mean for us as modern believers in Yeshua, Jews and Gentiles? The gospels do not record any explicit exhortation by Yeshua for His disciples to be holy. If this was such a key part of being the people of G-d, shouldn't we have expected Him to say something about it? The most obvious answer is that the call to be holy was taken for granted during the years of His earthly ministry and among His almost exclusively Jewish first audience, as Israel had already been called to holiness. In a verse that probably has only tangential if happily coincident relation to our text, Yeshua shows that He affirms that there is a difference between things that are holy and things that are not and teaches the need to be careful in how they are handled: "Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you" (Matthew 7:6, ESV).
Yeshua's first disciples, speaking into a wider world that didn't have the in-built assumptions about holiness, are less reticent. In the well-known verses, Peter writes, "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, ESV). Although this is based on a different source quote (Vayikra 11:44, 19:2, 20:7, etc.), the message is clear: the followers of Yeshua are to be holy in everything that they do, irrespective of whether we were brought up with the idea or not. As part of the people of G-d in Yeshua, it now applies to us. Paul too urges holy conduct and behaviour - "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of G-d, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to G-d, which is your spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1, bible(ESV)) - as does John: "And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure" (1 John 3:3, ESV. We are to emulate Yeshua in His holiness; He is holy and we are being conformed to His image, including His holiness! But how many of us have the faintest idea what being a person of holiness means?
How does this work, in the nitty-gritty of everyday life? Although usually taken to cover the field of sexual conduct, Sha'ul says, "Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to G-d as instruments for righteousness" (Romans 6:13, ESV). We watch our hands and fingers, not picking up things that don't belong to us; we watch our eyes, not looking at or watching things that are violent, immoral or indecent; we watch our mouths and our ears, not listening to or participating in gossip, slander or talking about people behind their backs. At the same time, we have to "strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14, ESV). Knowing that we have been called to holiness, "let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of G-d" (2 Corinthians 7:1, ESV). Is this difficult? Surely, yes. The world won't understand and the enemy actively wants to draw us into all these things to knock us off our walk and drag us into sin. But as Sha'ul goes on to say: "G-d has not called us for impurity, but in holiness" (1 Thessalonians 4:7, ESV).
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 295.
2. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 247.
3. - Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2009), page 548.
Further Study: Colossians 3:5; 1 Peter 4:3-5; Titus 3:1-3
Application: How could you be a person of holiness for your world, for the people around you, for those who know or depend on you in some way? Can you think of something you could do or change that would make Yeshua more visible to those with whom you work or those you love today?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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