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The first time the word “holy” (Heb. qōdeš) appears in the Bible is in Genesis 2:3 where God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” This is the only occurrence of “holy” in the book of Genesis. The next time “holy” occurs is in Exodus 3:5, which is the well-known passage in which God says to Moses out of the burning bush, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holyground.” “Holy” occurs another fifty-six times in Exodus. In Leviticus “holy” occurs ninety-two times, thirty-six times in Numbers, and twelve times in Deuteronomy. In sum, “holy” appears in the Torah 197 times. 

BookOccurrencesPercentage of Total
Genesis10.5%
Exodus5628%
Leviticus9248%
Numbers3619%
Deuteronomy126%

In the entire Old Testament, the word “holy” occurs no less than 502 times. This means that the Torah, while making up only 26% of the Old Testament,[1] contains 39% of the total occurrences of “holy”. This basic statistic supports the case that the Torah is foundational for understanding holiness in the Old Testament. Another much simpler and more obvious observation that supports the case for Torah as the starting point for understanding holiness in the Old Testament is its placement within the canon. The Torah is at the beginning of the Bible. To arrive at how the rest of the Bible conceptualizes holiness one must first go through the Torah. The Torah sets in place the theological (and historical) framework for Scripture’s telling of the single, epic narrative of God’s rescue of the creation and includes a robust introduction to the biblical notion of holiness and the role that it plays within that greater salvation narrative. 

So, how does the Torah conceptualize holiness? This chapter demonstrates that the Torah understands holiness first and foremost as “otherness”. The seventh day of the creation is holy because it is different, set apart from the other six days. It is distinct. Furthermore, applied to both God and people, to be “holy” means to be set apart, or different. God is holy in that he is utterly different from the false gods of Israel’s neighbors, and his life is different from human life that is characterized by an ongoing cycle of conflict and death. God’s people are set apart in that when they are faithful to obey the 613 commands of the Torah (i.e., covenant stipulations), their entire way of life is different than that of the other peoples of the world. 

But in what way are God’s people holy? What makes them different from the nations around them? As the Torah sees it, “holy” is synonymous with the restoration of the image of God via covenant faithfulness. In short, when God’s people are faithful to the covenant (i.e., holy), they look like what God always intended them to look like as his divine-image-bearers. The definition of “holy” as the divine image restored via covenant faithfulness flows out of a new creation motif running through the controlling narrative of the Torah (and the rest of the Bible). In relationship to the new creation motif, God’s holy people are the representative head of the new creation. We will see in the sections below that two dominant themes of the Torah are: (1) people, and (2) land. More particularly, Israel is the new Adam (i.e., image-bearer) and the promised land is the new Eden (i.e., place of peaceful co-habitation between God and humanity). With this new creation motif at play in the narrative, the overarching purpose of the restoration of the image of God (i.e., holiness) is for the glory of God to fill the creation. As the new Adam multiplies, the divine image that glorifies God fills the creation. This means that when God’s people are holy, they are not only set apart as they embody the divine image, but God’s original intent for the creation as whole is also restored. 

I. GENESIS

Genesis can be divided into two main parts: chapters 1-11 and 12-50. The first section (1-11) comprises pre-history, including the story of the origins of the cosmos, humanity, sin, and God’s creation-rescue mission. The second section (12-50) is also about origins, namely, the origins of God’s chosen people starting with the patriarchs (i.e., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). The message of Genesis as a whole is loud and clear on three essentials ideas foundational to holiness: (1) the Creator is the One True and Good God who is completely other than the deities of ancient Israel’s neighbors in both nature and ethics; (2) God’s original purpose for the creation is the fill it with his glory by way of the multiplication of humanity, his image-bearing vice-regents; and (3) God’s rescue plan will be accomplished through Abraham and his family.

Genesis 1: The Otherness of God. Is the tragedy of human life all there is? Are conflict, suffering, betrayal, corruption and death the beginning, middle and end of it all? Creation myths of the ancient Near East consistently answer “yes” to all of these questions. Furthermore, the unending cycle of existential and ethical brokenness not only characterizes human condition, it also characterizes the life of the gods. Just like humans, the gods of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon are subject to fate and live by their own ethical standards. Dennis Kinlaw describes the world of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon this way:

The reality is that the divine world is a reflection of the human world, not visa [sic] versa. This also means that since everything came out of the same womb, there is a certain continuity in everything […]. There is a certain continuity of both the divine realm and the human/nature realm with each other and with the primordial realm, since everything came ultimately from that primordial womb.[2]

In other words, non-biblical worldviews conceptualize deities after the human image, and the divine existence in the likeness of the human condition. For humans and gods alike, conflict, suffering and death—which all result from moral relativity—are all there is. 

Genesis 1 anticipates this pagan way of viewing the world with a resounding “no”! Furthermore, this “no” is at the heart of holiness in the Torah. Genesis announces that the Creator’s existence is utterly different from human existence. Very much unlike the gods of Israel’s neighbors, God’s life is not a mirror image of human life.  Genesis 1 makes the unique claim that Ělōhîm is (1) sovereign (i.e., God is all powerful), (2) one (i.e., there are not many gods), (3) transcendent (i.e., God is not continuous with the created world), and (4) good. In sum, Genesis 1 proclaims that Ělōhîm is the One True Good God.[3] This is not only a dramatic departure from the way ancient Near Eastern peoples viewed the world (both invisible and visible), it is also the fundamental starting point for understanding reality, and more specially, human existence. 

Forming Filling the Creation: The Vocational Image of God. The otherness of God is not the only good news of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 also announces that the tragedy of human existence is not what God intended. He intended for humanity—and by extension the entire creation—to share in his “other” life of light, order, self-giving love, joy, and peace. This is accomplished through conformity to the divine ethic. In a word, God’s life, unlike the human condition, is one of šālôm. It lacks nothing. It is whole and absent of strife. Furthermore, God created humanity in his image and with a vocation to multiply and fill the cosmos with his šālôm life. 

This vocation is highlighted in the forming and filling motif of Genesis 1. The first three days (days 1–3) of the creation are forming days, and the last three days (days 4–6) are filling days (see Table 1). We can see this pattern fleshed out in all six days of God’s creating activity. God’s forming and filling comes to a climax on the sixth day when he creates humanity. In Genesis 1:26 God creates humanity in the divine image (Heb. ṣelem) and likeness (Heb. dĕmût) and subsequently commands humanity to (1) multiply and (2) rule over the creation. As the Creator’s image-bearing vice-regents are faithful to their vocation, the cosmos will be filled with God’s glory. Life, order, freedom, justice, love, and šālôm are to reach to the ends of the earth as humanity is faithful to its God-given vocation. All of this comes together with the single purpose of glorifying God. This is the image-bearing vocation of humanity. It is as G. K. Beale writes,

His [God’s] special revelatory presence does not fill the entire earth yet, since it was his intention that this goal be achieved by his human vice-regent, whom he installed in the garden sanctuary to extend the garden boundaries of God’s presence worldwide.[4]

This God-glorifying, image-bearing vocation of humanity as described in Genesis 1 establishes the goal of holiness. 

The Fall: Abdication, Moral Autonomy, Idolatry, and Regression to Chaos. Genesis 2 recounts God placing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and commissioning them to work and keep it. He instructs them that they can freely eat of the trees in the garden with the exception of the tree of knowledge of good and evil because if they do, they will die (Gen 2:16–17). In the chapter immediately following, the serpent accuses God of lying to Adam and Eve (Gen 3:4) in order to convince them to eat the forbidden fruit. The serpent explains that the consequence of eating of the forbidden fruit is not that they would die, but that they will become like God. Adam and Eve, believing the serpent’s accusations, eat the forbidden fruit. In doing so, Adam and Eve go from a state of innocent obedience to God to a state of guilty disobedience and are expelled from God’s presence.

When viewed through the wide-angle lens of Genesis 1, the fall becomes much more than human disobedience needing punished. The fall is first and foremost humanity’s abdication of its image-bearing vocation. Rather than filling the earth with God’s glory by ruling over the creation in his likeness, humanity’s progenitors give themselves over to the temptation of doing things their own way at the expense of fellowship with the Creator. The forbidden tree’s name indicates that in the act of disobeying God’s prohibition, Adam and Eve are deciding for themselves what is good and evil. What God has called “bad,” Adam and Eve have called “good.” This is moral autonomy. Moral autonomy, however, is the unique right and privilege of the One True God. When created beings decide independently from the Creator what is right and wrong, ethical relativity enters into the creation. Chaos and darkness reign in a world in which people do what is right in their own eyes (Judg. 21:25) precisely because the proper order and function of the creation is programmed according to God’s definitions of good and evil. Because God’s ethical profile is built into the ordering of the cosmos, and the creation is dependent upon him for proper function and well-being, turning away from ethical behavior as defined by God results in regression back to the pre-cosmic chaos.

The failure to recognize Ělōhîm as God is a failure of worship. It is an act of idolatry. Holiness, in its most basic sense, is right worship. Anything less than holiness is idolatry. Misplaced worship by way of idolatry results in the unraveling of the cosmos, and the unraveling of the cosmos is what Genesis 4–11 is all about. As the story progresses after the fall, sin escalates to cosmic proportions. Evil becomes the standard. The brokenness of human life becomes, in a word, “common.” Genesis 6:5–6 says,

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.

This is what precipitates the cosmic flood. The flood returns the creation to the pre-cosmic state of watery chaos and darkness that was present in the ṯōhû wāḇōhû[5] (variously translated “formless and empty”) of Genesis 1. Return to the pre-cosmic state is the inevitable result of a world filled with moral relativism. What becomes common in the world is utterly different from God and his intentions for the cosmos. By God’s grace, the waters reside and the dry land, and Noah as the representative head of the new humanity, emerges once again from the chaos.

It only takes a few verses for things to go sour with Noah. Noah, by wrongly consuming of the vine in his garden, follows in the footsteps of Adam and Eve. With Noah’s sin of drunkenness, the cycles of sin starts all over again and evil runs amuck in the post-flood creation. The rebellion of humanity comes to a climax in the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). The Tower of Babel is a symbol of humanity’s autonomy and self-sufficiency. In a word, the Tower of Babel is a symbol of idolatry. The people of Babel’s congregating into one place and concentration of their efforts to reach heaven is the opposite of what God intended. God’s vision of the human vocation was for them to spread out over the creation and for God to share that space with them. The story of the Tower of Babel, then, tells us that humanity is the antithesis of God’s intention for humanity and the creation. God doesn’t give up on his creation-redemption plan. God judges Babel by dividing them and dispersing them, and launches an entirely new plan to redeem the people and the place. 

Genesis 12-50: The Patriarchal Narratives: The New Adam, Election and Covenant. In order to get his filling-the-earth-with-his-glory project back on track, God identifies a new, faithful image-bearer; a new Adam; one who trusts him and worships him alone. By grace, God chooses Abraham and his family as the representative head of the new humanity. God promises Abraham that blessing would come to the world through his family.[6] At the center of God’s promises to Abraham are land and family. In short, God’s šālôm will return to the creation by way of Abraham’s family. Trust is the foundation for the divine-human relationship and the basis for God’s life to fill the creation through humanity. 

Soon after Abraham goes out from Ur, God seals his promises to Abraham with a covenant. The importance of intimate fellowship between God and humanity in the creation-rescue mission is highlighted in fact that covenant is the instrument through which God’s redemption comes to the world. The Hebrew word for “covenant” (Heb, bĕrî) means “agreement” or “alliance.”[7] Animal sacrifice was an important part of covenant-making in the ancient Near East. The blood sacrifice in covenant making is a remnant of the origins of the concept of fictive kinship in ancient Near Eastern patriarchal culture.[8] Covenants originally served as a means for creating conceptual family bonds between people, like marriage or adoption. The blood-sacrifice symbolized that even though two parties were not of the same bloodline, they would exist together as if they were, thereby creating an imaginary shared bloodline between them. This is the most intimate of bonds. It is a symbol of two becoming one.[9]

This means that when God makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:17–18 he is binding himself to Abraham in the most intimate way possible. In this account, God promises to be faithful to Abraham, and then instructs Abraham to sacrifice five animals and separate the halves of the carcasses. After Abraham does this, he falls into a deep sleep. While sleeping Abraham has a vision of God’s presence passing between the divided carcasses. In passing between the carcasses, God is sealing his promise to Abraham. His passing between the carcasses symbolizes that if he does not uphold his promise then he is subject to the punishment of death. He’s making a familial promise to Abraham. He is telling Abraham, “You can trust me. You’re like family to me.” God is declaring is loyalty to Abraham. 

The patriarchal narratives making up the remainder of the book of Genesis affirms God’s loyalty to Abraham as well as Abraham’s faith in God. God fulfills his promise to Abraham and Sarah and Isaac is born (Gen 21). The testing of Abraham’s faith comes to a climax in Genesis 22 when God instruction Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his one and only son (Gen. 22). As Abraham does exactly as God tells him, Abraham’s faith is affirmed as unwavering. This story makes it clear that Abraham lives by the conviction that God is God, and he is not; that God alone decides what is good and evil. Abraham is a monotheist. Abraham, as the representative head of the new humanity, is walking in fellowship with God and worshipping God alone. This is what God intended from the beginning. What God has with Abraham is what the Garden of Eden was supposed to be all about. In Abraham’s and God’s relationship, Eden is restored. 

As the story continues, God’s faithfulness to Abraham is affirmed as the Abrahamic promises pass on to Isaac and Jacob (and Joseph). In all of the successes and failures of the patriarchs, God proves faithful to his promise to Abraham in the multiplication of his family and the acquisition of land. 

Genesis 50:19–20 summarizes the central theme of the book: Ělōhîm is sovereign. Forty-nine chapters after the creation account, Genesis reminds its readers once again that while it seems as if the cosmos is unravelling, Ělōhîm is the One True Good God who is powerful enough to rescue the creation.


[1] These figures are based on a Leningrad Codex word count. 

[2] Dennis Kinlaw, Lectures in Old Testament Theology (Wilmore: Francis Asbury Press, 2010), 79.

[3] See Ex 8:10; 20:3–5; Deut 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam 7:22; 1 Kgs 8:23; 1 Chr 17:20; Neh 9:6; Ps 83:18; 86:10; 89:6; Is 37:19; 40:18; 43:10–11; 44:6; 45:5, 18; Jer 25:6; Rom 3:30; 1 Cor 8:6; Eph 4:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Jam 2:19

[4] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: Apollos, 2004), 138.

[5] For a thorough explanation of this phrase in its philological context see Hamilton, Genesis 1–17, 108­–109 and David T. Tsumura, “The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation” (JSOT Supplement; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989).

[6] Gen. 12:1–3; Is. 51:1–5; Lk. 1:72; Acts 7:1–8; Rom. 4:1–25; 9:6–8; Gal. 3:7–9. 

[7] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1994–2000), 157.

[8] See Sandra Richter, Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008).

[9] For a helpful discourse on metaphors for salvation in the scriptures that highlight the level of intimacy God desires with humanity see chapter 2 of Dennis Kinlaw’s, Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).


Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary

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