Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Holy Means Whole: According to the Possibility that Holy Means Set Apart

I have never noticed before, like I have recently, how many times writers qualify their definition of holy with words like: “probably,” “possibly,” “ plausible,” “seems,” “ assume” and “controversial.” Keep in mind that this kind of language is not material you will find in any lexicon or a dictionary entry for holy. In those places, you find a summary of already drawn conclusions. But in those books that look at the evidence and then draw a conclusion, there is the ability to say that whether you define holy as whole or as set apart, it is controversial or plausible.

It is difficult to say with full confidence what the meaning of holy is in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek according to the greatest experts of the 20th century. Whether you read Rudolph Otto, Norman Snaith, Rabbi Dr. Klein or lesser lights in the 21st century on the internet, you find hesitancy among them to say that the definition proposed is definite. That is because trying to determine its root meaning is difficult for them. There are two different directions they can go, because of two possible roots for its meaning.

This problem would not matter, except that holy is the primary word for expressing God’s character whether you read Isaiah’s “holy, holy, holy” or Revelation’s (John’s) “holy, holy, holy.” Its importance is what causes some people to simply slam their Bible shut and say its meaning cannot be controversial. It is too important. But things are what they are regardless of our response. You can’t avoid difficulty by closing the book. There is a way though to conquer it.

I suggest that we open the book and see the reasons for hope that the controversy can be resolved. Ezekiel 45, for example, is a passage which could yield great results with skills of effective interpretation. In a longer space, I think I can prove that “holy” and “all” parallel each other significantly. Yet this is not the place or space for that extensive argument. Like a lexicon or dictionary with limited space, only so much ground can be covered here.

What argument does fit this space is the significance of great scholars using words like “probably”, “possibly,” “plausible,” “seems,” “assume” and “controversial” rather than words like “is” or “is not.” Their significance is that they all point toward a position of hedging one’s position between saying what something is and what something is not.

The lexicons and dictionaries pretty much create the impression rather than the reality that the definition of holy is a strongly held position. Yet the top scholars like Otto and Snaith say something a little less strong than that, as does the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, a highly regarded tool in evangelical circles. They also don’t say their definition is a weak one, only pointing out what holy does not mean. They clearly are confident beyond that point.

On a scale from strong to weak, people typically make themselves clear as to how strong they hold a position by either saying something is so, saying something seems to be so, or saying something is not so. The first position is the strongest and the most positive. It takes the greatest amount of strength to say. The second is the one that says something between strong and weak. The last is the weakest one, saying only what something is not. Saying I am incompetent in one thing is not as strong as saying I am competent to do another thing.

The key in action for producing strength is skill in wisdom. Daniel and his three fellow Jews possessed skill in all wisdom, as one reason that they rose to a place of prominence in their day according to Daniel 1:3-4. What great scholars are telling us is that their skills did not take them to a point of making a strong statement of what holy means. They felt they could only make a semi-strong statement.

That is being confident to the level of actual strength. I value their actual strength, rather than the strength that seems to be there when you read just lexicons and dictionaries. Again, that is part of the limit of tools like lexicons and dictionaries. That is not the same as an intentional exaggeration of strength. We must realize too that these tools also cover a whole language, not one word like holy in-depth. Their strength does lie in that ability, to survey an entire language in a handy volume.

The reason I am hopeful for the future is that I think the skill of these past scholars can be eclipsed by the skills already developed by those who have both learned and studied language, as my two professors in college had done. I wish I had the time to use the skills that they gave me to their full strength in this small space right now. It is only a matter of me having enough time in my schedule to do more than I am currently able to do. I have the skills, yet not the time.

I am convinced that their skills and the skills of other scholars I have been fortunate to study under mean that someday I and others with me can say confidently that either holy means whole or holy means set apart. We won’t have to hedge. I look forward to the day that our greatest scholars and our greatest ordinary learners can say confidently what it means.

In the meantime, I can say “probably” means strength is needed and in turn skill in wisdom is needed. The key is skill. Skill gives strength. It gives leverage. It gives us the advantage others didn’t have. I learned this in the classroom, the sports field and in the office. It lets you say realistically something strong rather than something semi-strong or weak. So I can end this day with a great amount of hope in my heart that the strength that skills give will one day get fully used. God willing, it is only a matter of time.

In Christ,