When Israel first encountered God at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19), only Moses could go up the mountain to meet Him. No one else was allowed to even touch the edge of the mountain. Later when Moses went up to receive the stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments as well as instructions concerning the Tabernacle (Exodus 24:9-18), he took with him Aaron and his two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders, but not all the way up. Only Moses and his assistant Joshua could go all the way up.
Hence in approaching God, there were three divisions of space. At the foot of the mountain, where Moses had built an altar, all Israelites could gather. Even then they had to first consecrate themselves through washing their clothes and abstaining from sex. At the top of the mountain, only Moses (with his assistant) could go up to receive the stone tablets. In between, only Aaron and sons (priests-to-be) and the elders could approach.
The Tabernacle, which could be viewed as the “portable Mount Sinai,” was patterned after this three-part division (see diagram above). For the Outer Court, where the altar is, all Israelites could enter. Even then they must be ritually clean. Only the priests could enter the Holy Place and do their work there. As for the Holy of Holies (the most holy place), where the Ark of the Covenant containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments was placed, only the high priest could enter once a year. The ark symbolized the real presence of God (Joshua 3:3-4), over which God manifested Himself (Exodus 25:22; Leviticus 16:2).
Actually there were not just three divisions of space but five (cf. Milgrom 1991: 724-25). The land outside the Outer Court, but within the boundary of the Promised Land, was the fourth division, where the laws based on the Ten Commandments were enforceable (Deuteronomy 12:1). Though God manifested Himself in the Tabernacle (later the Temple), He was said to “walk among you” and thus dwell in their midst within the Promised Land, rendering it the Holy Land (Leviticus 26:11-12; cf. Deuteronomy 23:12-14). Gentiles could visit the Holy Land but not enter the Outer Court. Finally there was the rest of the earth outside the Holy Land, where the Mosaic Covenant did not apply, but the Noahic Covenant (which still applies to the whole earth today) was applicable.
Meaning of God's holiness
To understand these divisions of space, we need to appreciate the idea of holiness. Some ideas can be more adequately defined or described than others. We may know an idea intuitively but not be able to put it adequately in words. As scientist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi (2009: 4) put it, “we can know more than we can tell.” For instance, the book of Leviticus is full of rituals. But what is a “ritual”? Even scholars specializing on the subject have difficulty defining it. Yet, “while it may be difficult to define, we know it when we see it” (Bergen 2006: 5).
The idea of “holiness” is even more difficult to define. Most people capture intuitively what “holiness” means by hearing the term used in the context of their culture or religion. But the meaning thus captured may or may not be adequately consistent with the meaning in the Bible. To capture intuitively what holiness means in the Bible we need to look at how holiness is manifested or experienced in the Bible. For now we will only consider what holiness means in the context of the holy God dwelling in the midst of Israel, a holy nation and a priestly kingdom, through the Tabernacle.
If a definition is to be given, to be “holy” means to be set apart (Leviticus 20:26; cf. Deuteronomy 14:2); but this hardly says anything about what holiness really means. Time, place, objects, persons and even a whole nation can be set apart or sanctified by the holy God to serve a holy purpose. Israel as a nation was set apart to serve as a priestly kingdom to all nations. But what is this set-apartness really about? God says in Exodus 19:5-6 that this involved Israel keeping the Mosaic Covenant. We have just taken a look at what that means. It means, at the individual level, being morally pure in one’s actions, intentions and attitudes. By thus observing the laws, at the national level, the peoples of the world would say of Israel, “surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).
But holiness is more than moral purity (Leviticus 20:24-26). In fact, since inanimate objects can be made holy, moral purity is not even central, though absolutely necessary, to the meaning of holiness when applied to persons, whether God or humans. To understand the Tabernacle and the ritual purity prescribed in Leviticus, we need to also take into consideration the non-moral dimension of God’s holiness.
Applied to God, the idea of being set-apart does not involve Him becoming set apart; God is intrinsically holy. As we shall see, Isaiah, who calls God “the Holy One of Israel,” presents His set-apartness as His absolute uniqueness in the universe. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever like Him. Recall that to understand the Bible we need to presuppose, at least temporarily, the claims of Genesis 1:1. This verse, which implies not only God’s omnipotence, but also His self-existence, already presents His absolute uniqueness. For it defines God as the uncreated Creator of everything else.
Human beings, being made in God’s image, are like Him in some ways. For this reason human beings can be holy like Him in some ways by keeping His commandments. For God is love and is just and He made us with a capacity to love and a sense of justice. And since God’s commandments embody love and justice, keeping them is simply to be holy like Him in terms of His love and justice. But when compared in absolute terms, human beings are not like Him. Apart from His self-existence, He is all-powerful, all-present and all-knowing.
Meaning of God's glory
There is something else absolutely unique about God that cannot be put in words at all. This indescribable something about God required Moses to take off his shoes when God appeared to him through the burning bush (Exodus 3:5). It also allowed God, when He appeared to Israel on Mount Sinai through thunder, lightning and a thick cloud, to have anyone other than those authorized put to death just for touching the edge of the mountain, and remain just.
This something about Him is manifested visibly in His glory (cf. Hartley 1992: lvi-lvii). In fact, “it has been well said that God’s ‘holiness is his hidden, concealed glory…. But his glory is his holiness revealed’” (Wenham 1979: 156). The thunder, lightning and thick cloud that Israel experienced at Mount Sinai was an expression of God’s visible glory. This display of power and splendor can evoke terror or worship, depending on how one is related to God. But what Israel saw then was not the full revelation of His holiness. For when Moses asked to see His “(full) glory,” God replied, “you cannot see my face [full glory], for man shall not see my face and live” (Exodus 33:18-20).
The term “glory” refers to what is glorious, which encompasses what is splendid and prestigious as well as what is praiseworthy and honorable. At the human level it usually refers to what is glorious about a person in terms of his achievement. And since human beings are made in God’s likeness they are also made for glory. All this explains the human drive to pursue glory, even at the expense of moral integrity. Since what is immoral is blameworthy and shameful, moral purity is integral to glory. This is well illustrated when an Olympic champion who broke a world record is later found out to have cheated by using illegal drugs. And even if he is not found out, can the cheater feel glorious?
At the divine level “glory” refers to what is glorious about God, both in terms of who He is and what He does. Since God’s glory is a revelation of His holiness, and moral purity is integral to glory, it explains why moral purity is integral to His holiness. And since humans are to be holy as God is holy, moral purity is also integral to human holiness. A holy but immoral person is a contradiction of terms. And those who are set apart by God as holy are already in a limited sense sharing in God’s glory, unless this is nullified by what they do that are blameworthy and shameful. Hence to feel glorious there is no need for them to pursue after glory; they just need to live holy lives according to God’s commandments. This was what Israel was called to be and to do.
Coming back to glory at the human level, when someone’s achievement is more glorious than others, we say he “outshines” the rest. So intuitively we figuratively associate glory with brilliance. When God’s glory is a manifestation of the indescribable something about Him, this out-shining of His holiness is not figurative but literal and is thus visibly brilliant. It is the “radiant power of His Being” (Vriezen 1966: 150; cited in Hartley 1992: lvi). The brilliance is so intense that no human can survive seeing it in its fullness.
For God to dwell in the midst of Israel, the holiness of God required Israel to approach Him through the three-part Tabernacle. And on occasions when the glory of God filled the Tabernacle a thick cloud would cover it and nobody could enter it (Exodus 40:34-35; cf. 2 Chronicles 7:2). “The cloud was a visible envelopment of the divine glory … [so that] its brilliance was contained in part within the cloud so as not to be impossible to look upon” (Stuart 2006: 792). When Israel approached God through the Tabernacle with all the attendant rituals that we will soon look at, they would capture intuitively the indescribable something about God, which is central to His holiness.
God's holiness and human sinfulness
Though the Tabernacle (or later the Temple) and the attendant rituals were not intended to be a permanent means through which God dwells with His people, the idea of God’s holiness that they embodied and thus revealed is eternal. So today we can still capture intuitively something of God’s holiness through an empathetic reading of Exodus 19-Leviticus 27. Only then can we feel adequately the holiness of God and thus be moved to take God and the Ten Commandments seriously. Otherwise even people who believe Genesis 1:1 as truth may have problems accepting what they read about God in the Old Testament. Those who do not even accept Genesis 1:1 as truth will all the more stumble all over the place when they read the Old Testament.
The universe and the world God created embody the reality of God (Psalms 19:1-6). Paul says God’s existence and His power is obvious from looking at the things He has created (Romans 1:18-32). As we have argued earlier, even in explaining scientific discoveries as sophisticated as those in astrophysics, Genesis 1:1 makes better sense than rival theories, if one does not presuppose the non-existence of God. Paul adds that people intent on exercising moral autonomy from Him suppress this natural perception of God and His power. We have shown how this suppression has reached a climax in modern civilization. For under modernity not only the way-of-thinking and way-of-life, but even the physical environment, incarnate the idea that there is no God. Hence even God’s existence, let alone His holiness, does not feel real. So all the more we need to consciously accept, at least temporarily, the claims of Genesis 1:1 if we want to understand what Exodus 19-Leviticus 27 teaches about God and His holiness.
God’s holiness renders Him inapproachable, especially by sinful human beings. Only “holy” (set-apart) people can approach Him, but in a limited way. Even Moses, who communicated with God “mouth to mouth,” could not see His face and live. Since only God is intrinsically holy, “any person or thing is holy as it stands in relationship to Him. Thus there are degrees of holiness depending on the proximity of an item or person to [Him]…. The closer a person or thing gets to God the more holy it becomes, and the holier it must be lest it be consumed by his holiness” (Hartley 1992: lvii). This is clearly reflected in the three-part division of the Tabernacle and the five-part division of the earth, and who can approach the respective divisions.
Under the Mosaic Covenant, the high priest was the holiest, followed by the priests (and the Levites), and then the rest of God’s people. Thus only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, the priests the Holy Place and the Israelites the Outer Court. Gentiles could not even enter the Outer Court. The whole set-up creates a physical environment that not only gives the impression, but also reflects the reality, of the spiritual distance between the holy God and sinful humanity. We can feel this distance more acutely when we recognize that the closer one gets to God the more holy one has to be.
Since holiness is more than moral purity, this does not mean that the priests were the most morally pure people, though the more holy one is, the more moral one is expected to be. They were set apart by God to be the most ritually pure, and they had to meticulously maintain their level of ritual purity. To be morally or ritually defiled and be near to God can be deadly. Nadab and Abihu were already consecrated as priests when they offered incense in the Holy Place (Leviticus 10:1-3). But they defiled themselves by doing what was unauthorized and they died instantly. God Himself explained: “By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.”
We can choose to read this text in light of Genesis 1:1 and in its own immediate context, and thus capture something of God’s holiness, or we can choose to read it otherwise and stumble over it. New Testament believers need to recall that Ananias and Sapphira also died instantly for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). In the case of Nadab and Abihu, it was the beginning of Israel as a holy nation; as for Ananias and Sapphira, it was the beginning of the Church, which like Israel is also called to be holy (1 Peter 1:14-16). God does not act in this way most of the time because of His mercy. Otherwise no one would be alive. God acted strictly according to His holiness at the beginning of each of these redemptive eras so that people would capture intuitively something of His holiness. This then helps them to appreciate His mercy when they sinned against Him and did not die. Most people do not realize that God’s mercy is to lead them to repentance (Romans 2:4).
When Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the two stone tablets and the instructions concerning the Tabernacle, the people made a golden calf to represent God and danced around it (Exodus 32; cf. Deuteronomy 4:15-18). Hence they violated the second commandment and worshipped God in a manner that violated who He is. Contrast how God would be perceived through this manner of approaching Him with that through the Tabernacle. They would have been destroyed by God if not for Moses’ intercession. Because they were prone to violating God’s holiness God did in fact said that He would no longer dwell in their midst but instead send an angel to lead them to the Promised Land (Exodus 33). This makes sense as we have seen how “impractical” it was for the holy God to dwell in the midst of fallen humanity. God relented when Moses refused to accept this alternative.
How then could the holy God dwell in the midst of sinful humanity? This leads us to look at the sacrificial system, which was integral to the functioning of the Tabernacle.