Friday, December 31, 2010

Holy Means Whole (or Set Apart): According to Solomon's Wisdom

There is an under-appreciated piece of Solomon's wisdom that I recently recovered in Ecclesiastes 9:4. It says that there is hope for the living "because a live dog is better than a dead lion." Its application to the debate over the meaning of holy in the Biblical text is important.

It suggests a wiser approach than I have taken previously to defining this word. It seems appropriate at the very end of 2010 to do a little reflection. As I reflect back to creating my two blogs on the meaning of holy, I realize that I lacked some of Solmon's wisdom. I think I could have made a wiser decision by seeing that "a combined certainty of both possible definitions is better than a singular uncertainty of one definition."

Here is what I mean. Recently, I have run across a lot of admissions by great scholars and great minds that the idea that holy means "set apart" is "probably" or "possibly" the correct understanding. The problem for them, quoting some famous translators, is that: "they are wise [that] rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated by one, when it may be the other."

That would make these scholars potential fools for choosing just one definition "when it may be the other." I too have been a fool at times, thinking I must be decisive and choose one even in the face of real uncertainty.

Martin Luther explained Solomon's advice this way: "Better a sparrow in hand than a crane in doubt." What is not doubtful is that holy means either "whole" or "set apart." Both together with differing probabilities may not look like a majestic crane, yet it is a sparrow without doubt.

My problem is that I cannot say today that I can remove some important doubt about holy means whole. Internally, I have more certainty, but the important thing is the evidence I have been able to present to others. I can say that I am at 70% sure that holy means whole, but that leaves a significant 30% chance I might be wrong on a very important word to define correctly. Better to be aware it might be another meaning than to kid myself.

I am choosing to go with Solomon's dog and Luther's sparrow. I want to be wise. I want to avoid a situation of uncertainty that risks "throwing out the baby with the bathwater." Past scholarship has thrown out some bathwater. Let's proceed with caution and make sure the next toss is bathwater too.

From this position of wisdom, learning and studying can then create a stronger and stronger argument for one or the other definition. Then and only then may one definition take a singular place without the other. The nice thing is that I can relax and commit myself to understanding rather than to making sure I don't look like a fool.

So when you see that my title says "Holy Means Whole (or Set Apart), know that I am wiser than I was before. I am wiser and I am hopeful, because "a [sure] dog is better than a [doubtful] lion." Be wise and have a Happy New Year!

In Christ,