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Shemot/Exodus 29:37 And the altar will be most holy; everything touching the altar will be holy.
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Once again, we have a high concentration of repeated words in this text. It comes from the section whereHaShem is giving Moshe instructions about how he is to set up and consecrate the Tabernacle in the wilderness for the first time, to bring it into service as a place of worship where HaShem's presence can dwell in the midst of the people. The altar in question is the main altar of burnt offerings, positioned in the courtyard in front of the Tent of Meeting, freely seen every day by all Israel and used by every priest performing the ritual of every type of offering from sin and guilt offerings to purification and thank offerings, yet it is to acquire the same status in holiness as the Holy of Holies, hidden behind the parochet and accessible only to High Priest once a year.
The first repeated word is , altar or, more literally, place of sacrifice. Coming from the root , "to slaughter", probably or especially for sacrifice, it appears twice in the text: first with a simple definite article, 'the'; and second with the prefix and an elided definite article, "in/on the" although the preposition is omitted in English translation as it is paired with the preceding verb to denote the focus of the verb's action. The second repeated word is the root , "to sanctify, consecrate or make holy", which appears three times in the text: the first two times in a construct arrangement, meaning either "holy place of holy places" or "most holy"; the third time as a verb - , the Qal prefix 3ms form, "he will be holy". The construct is missing the definite article normally used when talking about "the Holy of Holies", so the superlative adjectival form is the most likely in this context.Ibn Ezra comments that the alter "shall attain the holiness of the holy things".
The phrase "everything touching" (or "whatever touches") - the Hebrew , the Qal active ms participle of the root , "to touch" - is replaced inTargum Onkelos by , from the root , "to approach", giving the differently nuanced "whatever approaches the altar becomes holy". Onkelos does this in two other verses as well (Shemot 19:12, where the Israelites are forbidden to touch or approach Mt Sinai, and 30:29, where HaShem stipulates that those serving the altar must be holy), perhaps pointing to the idea that the intention to touch - even if not actualised - still renders someone or something holy. The Rashbam picks up on this idea when he says that 'whatever' should be translated 'whoever': "Whoever comes close enough to the altar to touch it must be ritually purified before he does so." Ibn Ezra is more definite: "whoever touches must be consecrated. This is to prevent a layman from touching the altar, which must only be done by a consecrated priest." The Bekhor Shor adds, "The point of this is to keep them from touching the altar unnecessarily."
Holiness is contagious - the quality of being holy can spread. Nahum Sarna points out that "Some of the ancient sages restrict the application of this principle to those items for which the altar is the proper place (m. Zevachim 9:1)", but that goes beyond the plain wording of the text: all, everything, anything becomes holy.Rashi even goes as far as claiming that "the altar consecrates even an invalid offering that is placed upon it to render it fit in that should not be taken down." After reminding us that coming into contact with ark, which is holy, also makes one holy, Richard Elliott Friedman makes a really important point: "The Torah involves a belief that there are certain conditions which are invisible but which have an effect on persons and objects. The spreading of holiness by contact also confirms that the word 'holy' does not refer to just being 'apart' or 'separate'. Holiness is a powerful condition related to closeness to the divine." Hirsch suggests that both the ark and the altar are holy places "from which all other holy places receive their holiness."
Then Hirsch makes his biggest step. Read this carefully: "All Jewish ideas of a Sanctuary are ideas of sanctifying, it is not made holy so that holiness should be concentrated in it, and that all other is left to non-holiness. Everything becomes holy so that it makes things holy." Do you see what he saying? There is a purpose for holiness, other than simply being holy; that purpose is that other things may also become holy. By a simple process of iteration, not only can holiness spread, but the ability to pass on holiness spreads and grows. HaShem told our people not to be defiled with unclean things but "Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy" (Vayikra 11:44, NASB). We are to be holy places, from which other places receive holiness.
Writing to the believers in Corinth, Rav Sha'ul urges believers that have a spouse who is not a believer not to initiate a divorce if they will consent to remain. He writes, "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy" (1 Corinthians 7:14, NASB). The words 'sanctified' (twice) and 'holy' are all forms of the word , "set apart, consecrated, sacred". Ben Witherington suggests that Sha'ul "saw marital love as a cleansing or sanctifying force on the unbelieving partner."1 While insisting that this could not possibly mean that the unbeliever acquires salvation or holiness, Gordon Fee suggests that far from the believer being defiled by the (particularly sexual) relationship with the unbeliever, that the unbeliever is sanctified by the relationship. "As long as the marriage is maintained", he writes, "the potential for their realising salvation remains."2 Similarly, the children in the family; while not 'saved' are set apart for salvation, perhaps until the age of maturity.3 The influence that just one believer can have over a whole household is much greater that they might think as they live holy lives, demonstrating love, peace, patience, gentleness and the other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). As Sha'ul wrote a few verses earlier, "A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough" (5:9, NASB).
As Yeshua was talking with the disciples on the Mount of Olive as He was about to (physically) leave them for the last time, He told them, "you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth" (Acts 1:8, NASB). This process too was to be by organic growth as the holiness that Yeshua had shown the disciples during their time with Him was given to them by the Ruach: the twelve and the larger group of disciples as they met in the Upper Room, "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance" (Acts 2:4, NASB); the first deacons, "After praying, they laid their hands on them. And the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem" (6:6-7, NASB); the believers in Samaria, "When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit ... Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit" (8:14-17, NASB); Cornelius and his household, "While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message" (10:44, NASB); the Gentiles living in Antioch, "Those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch ... some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Yeshua. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord" (11:19-21, NASB). Like layers of an onion skin or ripples from a pebble dropped in a puddle, the message of the gospel spread from one to another, not requiring the apostles to be there on every occasion, but just from one believer to another.
What part do we play in this process today? As believers in Messiah we have touched the altar and become holy; we have G-d's holiness living inside us. We now have to make ourselves available to be touched by others, so that they too can catch G-d's holiness and be drawn into His kingdom in a chain reaction that will reach through each of our communities, our countries and on around the world.
1. - Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth - A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1995, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), page 174
2. - Gordon D. Fee, NICNT 1 Corinthians, 1987, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), page 300
3. - Ibid., page 301
Further Study: Acts 2:43-47; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
Application: Have you been touched by someone who wants to share G-d's holiness in their life recently? Are you living a life of holiness, particularly in your family, that extends holiness and the presence of G-d to others? Have you made holiness - being pure and clean in all that you do and say - a lifelong habit that others can see, touch and catch?
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
Comment - 07:57 27Feb15 David Wright: I like the concept of holiness being contageous! Too often people shy away from some relationships as they fear their own "holiness" could be defiled. Realising and actualising holiness as a contageous "ease" (not dis-ease) should be our aim.
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