Qedosh Yisrael — Holy One of Israel

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

To understand the title “Holy One of Israel,” Qedosh Yisrael (ke-DOSH yis-ra-AIL), we need first to understand that holiness is grounded in God’s nature. It refers not to one of his attributes but to the totality of his being. In his holiness, God exists above and apart from the world he has made.

Things, times, places, people, and other created beings can become holy by virtue of their connection to God. Thus, the people of Israel became holy because God has chosen them. Their holiness is to be expressed and maintained through their adherence to ritual practices and moral laws, which sets them apart for the service of God. It is important to realize that God’s holiness involves not just separation from sin but his absolute hostility toward it.

The term most frequently used for “holy” in the New Testament is hagios. The holiness of Jesus was recognized even by demons, who called him “the Holy One of God.” When Christ made himself an offering for our sins, he bridged the infinite chasm between a holy God and sinful human beings. As believers, we are called to reflect the character of Christ, to be holy even as he is holy.

Praying to Qedosh Yisrael

Imagine for a moment that you have never heard of the Bible, let alone Jesus Christ. One day, when you unwrap the fish you are planning to eat for dinner, you notice that something is written on the scrap of paper it’s wrapped in. You carefully unwrap it and then read through the paper, down to the very last words, which are these: “Leviticus 19:1-18.”

God is speaking to someone named Moses. He’s peppering him with a series of commands and instructing him to share these with the rest of the people:

Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.

Leave some grain in your fields for poor people and foreigners.

Don’t cheat anybody.

Don’t oppress anyone.

Don’t stick your foot out to make a blind person stumble.

Don’t say something nasty about someone who’s deaf, assuming the person can’t hear you.

Forget about revenge.

Never hold a grudge.

Pay a working man right away because he might need the money.

Don’t rob anybody.

As you read down the list, you notice something else. Each command is punctuated by the statement: I am the Lord your God. Over and over, I am the Lord your God. Is this a non sequitur? Why is God linking himself so closely to each of these commands?

If this were the only passage of Scripture you had ever read, what would it lead you to believe about the Supreme Being issuing all the commands? Well, for one thing, he seems very concerned about the little guy—the blind man, the foreigner, the working stiff. He’s kind, sensitive to people’s weakness, knowledgeable of their needs. What’s more, he can’t stand cheating, and he’s generous. Remember that bit about not harvesting the corner of your fields? And he must be forgiving, because he’s telling Moses not to hold grudges or try to get revenge. In fact, he seems to be saying, don’t do any of these things because I don’t do them. If you want to be my friend, if you want to hang around with me, do what I would do in all these situations and avoid doing what I wouldn’t do.

Leviticus isn’t the most popular book in the Bible. But this passage shows what even a little bit of Leviticus can teach us about God and about holiness—that we worship a God who hears the cries of the poor, who loves justice and abhors sin, and who wants to forge a relationship with people made in his image. That’s what holiness is about for us, God restoring the fractured image of his nature in fallen human beings, who are nevertheless destined to bear his likeness.


Originally published May 18, 2021.