If we look at the history of trying to define holy, much of the method focuses on words to the neglect of things that could make things plain. Quite often, scholars look for a definition for holy among the writings of previous times. Occasionally, if one is fortunate, one finds just such a thing. But ironically, the Bible does not have a straight-forward definition for holy in the dictionary or lexicon sense. Instead, one has to make plain what was meant by the word, using other means.
In the past, you can see a few different approaches to this task. One of them is to quote definitions from older Jewish sages like Rashi or Rambam, used often by Jewish rabbis. Another is to research the languages that may have had ties to Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek for language parallels or for languages that may have preceded or followed it closely, used often by contemporary scholarship. Another method, used by Johann Bengel, a German scholar of a few centuries ago, is to look for parallels within the Biblical text. He derives his meaning for holy from this method of connecting parallel passages regarding name and holy. A further elaboration of this method was to again see the connection between the concept of a name and holy and recognize that this was a Hebrew or Jewish cultural understanding of a name that was operating rather than an English concept of name that was operating. This seems to be where C.H. Spurgeon got his definition of holy. Yet in the end, all of these methods rely on words to make plain other words rather than using words tied to things.
I have also written elsewhere about another approach that appears to have begun due to some critical work by William F. Albright, where pictures of things are connected to words or rather the letters that now make up Hebrew words. This does go beyond relying just on words to elaborate other words, because of the introduction of the pictures of things. But I have said more on this before. It also may get a boost from what I am going to say about words and things below.
Recently, I was introduced through a phone call to someone, who is a Mayan scholar or anthropologist. They are working on the idea that stones that are shaped like mushrooms in Mayan culture were intended to stand for mushrooms. But there is a problem. This seems plain enough and yet it is not, because, as his father states, scholars are so prone to routine, they have blinders on. So the point this scholar makes “is hidden in plain view.”
I sense that the same thing has happened to the meaning of the word holy. I imagine that to the ancient Hebrew people, the meaning of holy was pretty much in plain view, it is just hidden to us. And I think there is a reason for this. We have done a good job of separating words and things, which goes contrary to our everyday existence. Also we have been using a method for studying language that tilts the balance towards words over things. Whether you are talking a Jewish rabbi, a liberal scholar, a fundamentalist pastor, an evangelical professor with a Ph.D., a Johann Bengel or a Charles Spurgeon, they all are relying on a method that is focused on words making plain other words.
One thing that has helped us move beyond this some in our own time, is the fields of archaeology and anthropology, where things help to make plain the meaning of words. This may be why Mary Douglas, an anthropologist, is one of the pioneers in our time in relying less on words and more on the objects spoken of in a text, to make plain the meaning of holy. Likewise my professors of linguistics in college would probably better be called anthropological linguists, because of their grounding their ideas not only in a multi-dimensional approach to language, but also in an approach that took seriously not just words and studying, but also things and learning.
Saul M. Olyan, of Brown University, took Mary Douglas’ insights that “holiness was given an external, physical expression” and applied it to stones as referred to in Exodus 20:25 and Deuteronomy 27:5-6. He states:
My focus was the stones of the altar in Exod. 20:25 and Deut. 27:5-6, as well as the stones of the temple in 1 Kgs. 6:7. Exod. 20:25 forbids an altar made of ashlar (cut stone), warning that working altar stones with a tool profanes them: “If you wield your tool upon it, you profane it (wattehaleleha). This statement indicates that accorind to Exod. 20:25, altar stones, like most sacrifices and like priests, are sanctified. If this were not the cse, the stones would not be subject to profanation. (Profanation transforms that which is holy into that which is common). Deut. 27:5-6, elaborating Exod. 20:25, also forbids the use of a took (explicitly iron) on the stones; it refers to the uncut stones from which the altar is to be built as “whole stones” (abanim selemot). Thus the unworked “whole stones” of Deut. 27:6 parallel the uncut holy stones of Exod. 20;25. This suggests a connection between the wholeness of the uncut altar stones and their holiness, which is lost according to Exod. 20:25, if they are worked with a tool. If I am correct about this connection, then we can compare Deut. 15:21. Just as the male first-born sacrificial animals with a “defect” are not sanctified according to Deut. 15:21, so altar stones that lose their wholeness lose their holiness. In both instances, that which is whole is understood to be holy, and that which lacks wholeness is treated as common. (p. 5-6, See my link for Mary Douglas to see his full article).
There isn’t much here that I cannot whole-heartedly agree with. I especially would like to re-iterate his statement: “that which is whole is understood to be holy, and that which lacks wholeness is treated as common. “ But what is most revealing to me is the thing called “stones.” They are something we can plainly get our minds around, even if the word “holy” seems elusive.
A whole stone versus a cut stone, that is no longer whole, shows us through things what holy means. The word holy that was plain to the Ancient Hebrew can also be plain to us, if we will see that the meaning of holy is simply hidden from us in plain view.
What I mean by that, is that the physical manifestation of holy is plain and obvious. What is not plain is our method of understanding communication when we are in school. Our focus in school is on a system of communication that focuses not on things, but on words. So the obvious is in effect hidden from us. We search not among the objects like an archaeologist, but only among the text like a linguist or more rather a literary critic. It is as though we only have texts and no objects. We simply don’t ask the right questions.
If you want to learn more on this go to my link on communication and see my March entry. In there I will explain what is hiding things from us and how we can bring things out into plain view by teaching communication basics differently.