Most Holy
April 8, 2019

A number of things are called "most holy" (qodesh qadashim) in the Old Testament. Various sanctuary furnishings are "most holy" - the altar of ascensions (Exodus 29:37), the altar of incense (Exodus 30:10), the tent, the ark, the table of showbread, the lampstand, the laver (Exodus 30:29), incense (Exodus 30:36).

Aaron is described as "most holy" in 1 Chronicles 23:13, and a person that is devoted (herem) to Yahweh is "most holy" (Leviticus 27:28).

And certain foods are "most holy": some tribute offerings of grain (Leviticus 2:3, 10), the flesh of the trespass offering (Leviticus 7:1, 6; 14:13) and of the sin/purification offering (Leviticus 10:22), showbread (24:9).

Most holy things are off-limits to any but the priests; if a non-consecrated person touches a most holy object, he or she becomes holy (Exodus 29:37). The same goes for most holy food: It too is contagiously holy (Leviticus 6:17-18, 26-27).

Only priests can eat most holy food (Leviticus 6:17; 7:6), including priests who are disqualified from altar service because of a physical defect (Leviticus 21:22). Only males priests could eat most holy food, not their families. And they ate most holy food in a holy place (Leviticus 7:6).

Those restrictions suggest that the consumption of the food is a part of the ritual of offering, a suggestion that appears to be confirmed by Moses' words to Aaron in Leviticus 10: Eating the priestly portion of the purification offering was one way that the priest "bears the iniquity" of Israel.

Now, what makes something "most holy"? Is the category arbitrarily assigned? Or is there a discernible logic?

The answer depends on the kind of thing we're talking about. Sanctuary furnishing was made most holy by anointing (Exodus 29:36: "you shall anoint [the altar] and consecrate it"; 30:26-30). That's straightforward.

Determining what makes food "most holy" isn't straightforward. Perhaps the addition of oil to grain products provides part of the answer. A tribute offering needed to be mixed with oil in some fashion to qualify for the altar. Grain by itself was never enough. Only "anointed" bread could be turned to smoke as Yahweh's bridal food.

But that doesn't seem to explain most holy meat. We might think that food is most holy when it's reserved from the fire. That works for the remainder of the tribute offering: A memorial portion is turned to smoke, and the rest goes to the priests. It works for most holy flesh too: Both the purification and the trespass offering are partially burned and partially eaten by priests.

But there are anomalies. The same parts of an animal are burned whether the offering is a peace offering or a purification offering, but the meat of the former isn't most holy while the meat from the latter is. Besides, some food is most holy without ever going near the altar fire - the showbread, which is said to be 'ishsheh (often translated as "offering by fire"; Leviticus 24:9).

We might resolve some of these anomalies by noting that the sanctuary incense is most holy (Exodus 30:36). It's not entirely clear how it achieves this status, but it seems to have some connection with its placement in the holy place, before the testimony in the tent of meeting (Exodus 30:34-38). If so, that would also explain the categorization of the showbread. Bread and incense become "most holy" by being in the tent.

And there's a parallel with some of the bread and meat reserved from the altar. Mary Douglas has suggested that the priest constructs a "holy place" in the altar (fire, wood, then animal, then grain with oil and incense). The memorial portion of a tribute offering goes into the holy place of the altar, as the showbread enters the holy place of the tent; the incense of the tribute offering goes into the holy place of the altar, as the incense is consecrated by its placement in the tent; portion of an animal enter the altar, as the priest enters the tent to minister.

This leaves the remaining anomaly of the peace offering, which enters the "holy place" of the altar but isn't classified as "most holy." Perhaps the solution is this: The peace offering elevates the worshiper so that he is capable of receiving a portion of Yahweh's bridal food. That elevation is temporary, limited to one or two days, after which the food needs to be destroyed. But for a moment, the lay worshiper anticipates the status of new covenant saints, most holy people who receive most holy food.

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.