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D'varim/Deuteronomy 26:19 ... and to be a holy people for the L-rd your G-d as He said.
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These words come at the end of the section (starting the chapter and including the first three aliyot of the parasha) describing the liturgy for the first fruits offerings and tithing declaration. Moshe exhorts the people to be sure to obey these - and all the other - commands as wholeheartedly as they can because they are in covenant withHaShem. He has explained that this covenant is mutual: the people have agreed to do certain things, such as "walking in His ways and observing His laws and commandments and rules" (D'varim 26:17), and HaShem has agreed to do certain things: setting you, "in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; so that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the L-RD your G-d" (v. 19, NJPS). Although HaShem is G-d and is always free do whatever He thinks best, He has nevertheless voluntarily bound Himself to act in a certain way with regard to Israel. Later, through the prophet, He affirms the permanent nature of His commitment - "As surely as I have established My covenant with day and night -- the laws of heaven and earth -- so I will never reject the offspring of Jacob and My servant David ... Indeed, I will restore their fortunes and take them back in love" (Jeremiah 33:25-26, NJPS) - and Rav Sha'ul repeats that assurance as a part of the New Covenant reality: "As regards election, [Israel] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of G-d are irrevocable" (Romans 11:28-29, ESV).
Rashi points out that the words "as He spoke" (lit.) or "as He promised" (NJPS, above) refer to HaShem's words in Vayikra, "You shall be holy to Me, for I the L-RD am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine" (Vayira 20:26, Buble(NJPS)), predicating Israel's holiness not on themselves, but on His holiness and His having set them apart from the nations. Ovadiah Sforno says that although Israel will be a holy people in this world - that is the immediate and obvious practical meaning of the words - they will also be a holy people "eternally, in the life of the world to come." Commenting on Israel's relationship with the nations, Rabbi Hirsch explains that, "He has brought to the knowledge of all men the calling of, and expectations from, Israel, that every member of it is to be one of a 'holy nation', only directed to what is morally good and satisfactory to G-d, so that if ever it should become unfaithful to its holy mission the smallest boy out of the other nations could remind it of its calling and obligations." That is quite an uncomfortable position in which to be: held up as an example for others and open to correction or criticism by everyone else if they make the smallest slip! In a kinder light, perhaps this thought informs Rav Sha'ul's comment that "salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous" (Romans 11:11, ESV). He wants "somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them" (v. 14, ESV).
Jeffrey Tigay and Christopher Wright both see HaShem's promise stemming from the moment of the Ten Words at Mt. Sinai, when HaShem said, "you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples ... you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:5-6, NJPS). We must notice that these words are conditional, prefaced by "If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant" (ibid., NJPS), in a way that our text is not, simply being started with an exhortation to faithful obedience and a statement of covenant. Here there are mutual obligations, but they are not co-dependent; the people have covenanted to keep the Torah regardless of what G-d does and He has agreed that they shall be His people, regardless of what they do. Tigay says that, "here 'a holy people' means one that is sacrosanct, inviolable, a nation that others harm at their peril", as Moshe will later say: "all the peoples of the earth shall see that the L-RD's name is proclaimed over you, and they shall stand in fear of you" (D'varim 28:10, NJPS). Stressing the mutuality of the covenant agreement, Wright points out that "holiness is linked to Israel's role as G-d's priesthood in the midst of the nations and both are linked to covenant obedience."1
Walter Brueggemann sees the surrounding context of the firstfruit and tithing liturgy as refreshing a covenant. He observes that "the taking and receiving of vows yields the status of Israel as YHVH's 'treasured people', a people 'holy to YHVH your G-d.' These mutual vows create in the world a relationship of covenant and an entity (Israel) that did not exist until this moment of formal utterance and solemn declaration."2 Akin to a marriage, where the exchange of vows creates a new family, a married couple to be of one flesh, so the exchange of vows between G-d and Israel creates covenant where it did not exist before and the possibility for israel to be that holy and set apart people that G-d desires as His very own among all the nations.
Focusing on the last part of the text - the reason why Israel is to be a holy people - Patrick Miller points out that this is for G-d's glory. He writes, "this understanding of Israel's glory being a reflection of the glory of G-d and ultimately for G-d's sake is further indicated in Jeremiah 33:9 - 'And this city shall be to Me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it' (ESV) - where healing and forgiveness and restoration are promised to Israel and Judah after G-d's judgement."3 Although Israel will be a people of "fame, renown and glory" (D'varim 26:19, NJPS), this is because of what G-d will do for them and through them, and - although the Hebrew text is ambiguous - for His sake and glory.
So how are we - Jews and Gentiles, followers of Yeshua, grafted in or regrafted branches - to be 'holy'? TheBaal HaTurim notices a couple of little points in the text. First of all, he says, the word is "spelled defectively, without a vav [to carry the vowel, between the yod and the tav], for the existence of Israel's holiness is not very apparent in this world." We would have to say the same if not more so today: the holiness of G-d's people - Jew and Gentile - is not very apparent in this world. We are split and fragmented into thousands of denominations, movements and independent groups; we argue too loudly and in public about our disagreements; we have compromised with the world on far too many issues; we can't even agree on the simple meaning of the Bible, our key text! The Tur's second point is that the word , 'holy' is also "spelled defectively, without a vav [to carry the vowel between the dalet and the shin], to indicate you should sanctify yourself below and they will sanctify you from above."
Now, the Tur's last point is based on a passage from the Talmud, where "our Rabbis taught: 'You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy' (Vayikra 11:44, NJPS): If a man sanctifies himself a little, he becomes much sanctified. [If he sanctifies himself] below, he becomes sanctified from above; if he sanctifies himself in this world, he becomes sanctified in the world to come" (b. Yoma 39a). This would imply that when we make an effort, when we reach out towards G-d, He more than reaches out to us; when we set ourselves apart from this world - not allowing ourselves to be contaminated but its habits and desires - He sets us apart for eternity with Himself. This places some responsibility upon us - the original command in Vayikra certainly does: sanctify yourselves and be holy. Peter confirms that this is something that applies to all of us as followers of Yeshua: "but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct" (1 Peter 1:15, ESV). We can't just sit on our hands and expect G-d to do everything for us. Rav Sha'ul seems to agree, writing, "God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives" (1 Thessalonians 4:7, NLT). More than that, "He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him" (Ephesians 1:4, ESV).
Sha'ul picks up the theme of the calling when he writes to Timothy, "[G-d] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of His own purpose and grace, which He gave us in Messiah Yeshua before the ages began" (2 Timothy 1:9, ESV). As with our original text, our holiness is for G-d's purpose and grace. We are to "live holy" so that G-d is glorified, to be a reflection of G-d's holiness in the world. Sha'ul is very clear that this starts with us, "if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work" (2:21, ESV). When we clean ourselves from things that are 'dishonourable' - think here of things that are the opposite of Sha'ul's list in Philippians 4:8 - then we will be set apart, by Him, as holy and fit for His service. So the next question is how to clean ourselves - can we do that? The key text - that we have been to many times - on this is, of course, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, ESV). That makes it very clear that He does the cleaning. But notice that the sequence of events starts with us: if we confess. We have to declare ourselves ready to be cleaned. Are you up for that? Holiness begins at home!
1. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 273.
2. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 249.
3. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 188.
Further Study: Colossians 3:12-17; 1 Timothy 4:4-5
Application: What are you doing to sanctify your life today? How can you be holy for G-d and so receive more of His holiness into your life? Reach out to heaven today and ask Yeshua what is on His agenda for you to partner with Him in getting resolved.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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