I am … the holy one in your midst (Hos. 11:9)
We’ve been concerned over these past two Carillons with the question, “What makes the Holy Land holy?” This question continues to reverberate in my heart and mind since we made our pilgrimage to Israel and the West Bank in late April, early May, and saw and heard so much that was “unholy” in the Holy Land. Last month I addressed the question through what I perceive to be a Zionist implementation of a form of priestly holiness that separates the state of Israel from, and condemns, everything not considered clean, pure, or worthy of a humane treatment, by Israel—i.e., Palestinians. Comprehensive mistreatment of Palestinians by “non-stop Zionism” through policies of apartheid that dehumanize Palestinians and de-legitimate their right to the land, appear to me to be the outworking of priestly holiness in modern guise.
But there is another understanding of holiness in Scripture that moves in the opposite direction from Zionism. We can call it prophetic holiness. Prophetic holiness also upholds the “separateness” of God. But God’s “separateness” (God’s holiness) takes the form of an embrace of what is unholy. God is holy, “separate,” precisely because God embraces all that is unholy in order to transform it. We find this embrace voiced by the prophet Hosea. In chapter 11, Hosea takes us inside the very heart of God as God struggles with Israel’s persistent ingratitude and sinfulness. Hosea portrays Yahweh as wrestling within himself as to a course of action. First God recalls his parental concern for Israel and Israel’s adolescent indifference to, and rebellion against, this love and concern.
When Israel was a child, I love him / and out of Egypt I called my son /
The more I called them/the more they went from me …
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk / I took [Israel] in my arms
but they did not know I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness … I bent down to them and fed them …
My people are bent on turning away from me (11:1–4, 7)
As God’s deliberations continue, he contemplates giving up on Israel. “They are bent on leaving me,” God seems to say. “Well, then, good riddance. Let them go. They have offended my holiness. Let them rebel. Let them suffer the consequences. I’m done!” But then we find God repenting, awakened to the contradiction of his own nature against what he is contemplating.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? / How can I hand you over, O Israel? …
My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender /
I will not execute my fierce anger / I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come to wrath (11:8–9)
God realizes, in the midst of his anger, that he can’t abandon Israel. It’s against his very nature to do so. In the midst of God’s rising frustration, God finds himself startled by his all-to-human temptation to reject those who disappoint him. It’s almost as if God is shocked to find himself considering the temptation to act this way. “My heart recoils within me … for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst.” God here identifies holiness as the very opposite of our human propensity to exclude and separate from those whom we disapprove.
There is indeed a tension throughout the Bible between priestly holiness that seeks to uphold God’s character by separating God from all that is unholy and the prophetic holiness that recognizes in God’s holiness the radical embrace of what is unholy. As God’s people we must take great care when we consider: (1) who we believe God to be when we say “God is holy” and (2) what ethical implications flow from the God we worship as holy (to be continued).