Christian Leadership Center



Old Testament Word Studies




"Holy, Set Apart, Distinct"



The words "holy" or "sanctify" are often interpreted to mean "righteous" or "pure" or something similar.  But the basic concept of the word qadosh and its related words is that of "apartness" and "distinction."  Each of the nouns, adjectives and verbs from this root express these ideas with a view to a specific purpose or limitation.  A survey of the way the words are used will help solidify the concept of holiness used in the Bible.




            Brown, Driver and Briggs (BDB) list the meaning of the word as "separation" or "withdrawal," and the denominative verb[1] qadash, "to be set apart, consecrated."  The dictionary by Koehler and Baumgartner (KBL) list the various meanings as "to be holy, withheld from profane use, to be treated with special care, fallen to the sanctuary's share."  Jastrow offers evidence from later Hebrew usage (post-biblical and Rabbinic) for the straightforward meanings of "be/become pure, holy, sacred."   


Hebrew Derivatives

These ideas can be traced through related Hebrew words as well.[2]  In addition to the adjective, qadosh, "holy," and the denominative verb qadash, "to be holy," there is the noun qodesh that has the meaning of "apartness, sacredness."  There are also the words qedesh, "sanctuary," and miqdash, "sacred place."  These words clearly refer to places that have been set apart from common or secular use for worship. 

When the verb "to be holy" is written in the piel, pual, hithpael verbal systems, the meaning becomes "causitive."  That is, it then means "to make holy, to be made holy, and to make oneself holy," respectively.  Here the translations usually use English words such as "sanctify" or "consecrate."

Additionally, Hebrew has the forms qadesh and qedashah for "temple prostitute" (male and female respectively).  These two nouns provide a vivid illustration of the meaning of the word group.  Men and women in the pagan world were often dedicated to temple service in such a manner; for them, marriage was out of the question usually--they were set apart from normal life to this special function.  While it is hard for modern Christians to think of the word "holy" being used in this case, if they keep in mind that the word only means "set apart" then they will understand precisely.  As we shall see, the words can be used for many things that are not in our understanding ethically pure or righteous; but they have this common theme of separation or apartness.


Cognate Languages

The idea of being separated or withdrawn from common life towards that wich is especially religious finds clarification in the historical development of the word in the other Semitic languages where the meaning of "purification" is frequent.  The Akkadian texts used the term for "cleansing" something for ceremonial use.  In addition, here too we have the feminine noun kadishtu applied to a hierdule consecrated or set apart to Ishtar.  That is, she was not to marry but to be dedicated for temple use.  This is a common application of the word in the ancient Near East since temple prostitution was prevalent.

Phoenician has the adjective "holy," and the noun "sanctuary" (m-q-d-sh). Palmyrene, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic carry the same forms and meanings.  One can observe, therefore, a solid block of evidence supporting a common Semitic word group with the meaning of "separation from the common" or profane, especially in regard to a deity or a shrine.

Ugaritic is of particular interest due to its proximity to Israel geographically and linguistically.  Here we discover the basis usages consistent with the other languages as well as three distinct expressions.  The first is the appearance of the active participle in the plural,  q-d-sh-m (vocalized[3] to be qadishuma) in the lists of guilds; it is "cultic holy men" or "male prostitutes."  The second is the expression referring to the members of the pantheon, b-n   q-d-sh (vocalized as binu qadishi), "the sons of the holy."  The third word is a proper noun, q-d-sh (vocalized Qadesh), equivalent to the biblical Kadesh in form, but probably referring to the northern Kadesh on the Orontes River ("Holy" would be a common name for a city that was essentially a shrine).



In light of the wide usage of this term in the ancient languages, we may look more closely at how the words (the verb, adjective and common nouns) were used in the Hebrew Bible.  It will be helpful to study a few simple passages first that show the meaning of separation, and then turn to the more frequent religious contexts.


1.                  Separation

There are a number of passages that clearly show the meaning of separation, and many of these passages are set in common life situations.

For example, Isaiah 65:5 illustrates this specific aspect of the word clearly.  The prophet describes those self-righteous or arrogant people who say, "Stand by yourself, come not near me, for I am holier than you."  These are people who are wrapped up in pagan idolatry and false ideas of holiness.  But the idea of physical distance and separation are clearly related to the idea of "holy."

Haggai 2:12 offers another usage that may amplify the meaning.  The text says, "If one bear holy flesh in the bottom of his garment, and with the bottom of the garment touches bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any food, shall it become holy?  And the priests answered and said, 'No'."  As the next verse indicates, uncleanness or defilement can be caused by contact; holiness, on the other hand, cannot be transmitted by physical contact with that which is holy.  The point of the passage is that it is separation that is at the heart of qadosh; contact and contamination are at the heart of impurity.

There is one passage that is very difficult to sort out and needs to be explained.  It then can be set aside before we proceed with the word study.  Deuteronomy 22:9 has "You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest the whole fruit [the fulness] be forfeited, the seed which you have sown."  In this context the emphasis is on keeping seed, clothes, and animals separate and distinct.  This verse uses  pen  tiqdash (Alest it be consecrated" literally) in an unusual sense to remind Israel of the taboo against mixing different kinds of things that are to be kept separate.  Since pen ("lest") implies the averting of the undesirable, it is clear that the literary device used here is a substitution of what is desired (consecrated, separated) for that which is undesired (defiled).  In other words, instead of saying "defiled" it substitutes "consecrated"; the word tiqdash is not to be defined as "defiled" on the basis of this passage, for that is the meaning of the word intended.  If they mingled seed, they would fail to make the distinctions.  By using the word for the thing desired ("holy' in the sense of separate or distinct) when clearly the undesired thing is meant ("defiled") the law reminds the Israelites of the need for keeping those distinctions.[4]  

While these verses do relate to the laws and customs of Israel, they refer to things in common life and are not ceremonial or theological uses in the strict sense.  Now we shall survey those uses that describe God, the sanctuary, the priests, and the ritual; here we will see that the common idea of separation carries through.


2.                  Unique, Set Apart, Distinct

God is holy.  The obvious starting place is in passages that describe God as "holy."  The idea of holiness is a common description of God's unique power and position as the sovereign Lord of the universe:  he is distinct from all that is impotent and impure.  Isaiah records many references to the holiness of God, such as this one: "For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy (qadosh): I dwell in the high and holy place, also with the one who is of a contrite and humble spirit" (Isa. 57:15).  No one else could claim such things.  There is no one like God in all the universe.  It is important to remember here that Isaiah's context in the latter part of the book is filled with descriptions of God's unique character ("I am Yahweh and there is no one else," Isa. 45:5).  It is his person and works that display his uniqueness.  Isaiah records the words of the LORD, saying, "Thus says Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel and his Maker . . . .  I have made the earth and created man upon it; I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded" (Isa. 45:11-13a).

By definition one can say that God's holiness means that he is set apart.  Specifically, he is distinct and separate from all created beings and false gods; there is no one like him in any way or in any place.  The evidence for this is found in all the other attributes of God--all of them will clarify in what ways God is distinct or different than all gods and all creatures.  For example, His righteousness and his power display that there is no one like him.  He is not sinful and impure as people are, or as the false gods are; neither is he powerless as mortals or pagan deities.  These and other contrasts between the nature of God and all of creation may be summed up in the description that "God is holy." 

Due to the failure of God's people, however, the reputation of God has been tarnished.  Ezekiel tells how the LORD will gather his people and fulfill his promises to them in order to prove himself holy (Ezek. 36:23).  The nations will then know that by his power and in his faithfulness he keeps his word for he will be sanctified in their sight.  Until then, the saints can only pray for this to happen with "Hallowed be  thy name" (AV).


3.                  Set Apart to God and His Service

One of the common uses in this category concerns holy place--places are set apart.   Certain places, spots of ground, hills, houses, even countries, came to be known as "holy" because they were set apart to God, or because they were places where God appeared, and therefore they could not be treated as common ground. In the presence of God at the burning bush, Moses was commanded to remove his shoes because the ground upon which he was standing was holy ground (Exod. 3:5).  What made that patch of sand holy was the fact that God was there; it was unique. 

One of the most frequent uses in the Bible concerns the temple mount, Mount Zion, God's holy hill.  The only thing "holy" about a hill is that it was the place that God chose for his dwelling place.  It was not a common hill; it was not like any others.  It was set apart to God and his worship.  To ascend the holy hill required a certain amount of purification ritual, because this was no ordinary mountain.

Along with this sanctification of the mountain, there was also the setting apart of the altar, tabernacle and utensils (Exod. 29:37, 30:29).  Vessels and instruments were set apart to the service and could not be used for common or profane purposes.  It is interesting to note that our word "profane," in spite of how we use it now, originally meant "outside the temple."  That which is profane is simply common, and sometimes pretty base.

Another sub-category here is that times are set apart.   Sacred seasons and days were those times of the year that were set apart for specific purposes, primarily to God's service.  The first mention of "holiness" comes in Genesis 2:3 where we read that God "sanctified" (made holy, set apart) the seventh day.  This day, later known as the Sabbath day (for God "ceased" [shabat] from his work), was to be distinct from all others, just as each special season dedicated to worship was to be different.  No common activities could be conducted on these days, and no pagan rituals either.  The holy times were to be given over to the worship, service, and enjoyment of the LORD.

Another specific example of how this worked in Israel comes from the legislation of the time of Jubilee (Lev. 25:10).  The fiftieth year of a cycle was to be set apart from normal years in a number of ways: they were not to plant crops, they were to release all debtors, they were to restore property, and they were to live off the common land.  This was no ordinary year--it was distinct.  It was holy.

Another use of the category of being set apart to God concerns people--people are set apart.  For certain reasons, people in the Old Testament were to be holy (and of course the New Testament would require the same in the doctrine of sanctification).  One reads of general uses as well: the wicked were set apart for slaughter (Jer. 12:3), the prophet was set apart for his ministry even before he was born (Jer. 1:5), idolatrous people preparing for worship were also to be set apart (Isa. 66:17), and even manslayers found the cities of refuge set apart--here was true sanctuary if they fled to them (Josh. 20:7).  In all these samples, what was set apart became distinct, different, unique.

One specific example of people being set apart for a mission concerns holy war.  In 1 Samuel 21:1-6, the question has arisen as to whether David's men were qualified to eat the bread in the sanctuary.  The major qualification, according to the priest, was that they had to have kept themselves pure from women for this mission.  David attested that they had done this, even on lesser missions.  His men, he continued, were surely "holy" because this was a most important task.  So the concept here is that the men had set themselves apart to the mission before them and had done nothing to hinder it.  This passage is interested in that the antonym khalal is used: there was no ordinary (khol) bread on hand for them to eat.  David also used the antonym to describe the "ordinary" journey he had been on previously--but this journey was different.  Therefore, because this was a distinct ("holy") mission, the men were involved to eat the holy bread of the sanctuary.

Of primary concern in the Old Testament are administrators of the theocracy.  The nation of Israel was supposed to be a holy nation (a nation set apart to God and therefore unique), and a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6).  In the nation, priests were to be sanctified, set apart for the services by a well-defined ceremony.  Their actions, therefore, could not be profane; they were required to imitate the holiness of God and present the proper picture of the nature of God to the people: "I must be sanctified by those who draw near me!" (Lev. 10:9).  Unfortunately, Moses' impatience and self-righteous arrogance did not sanctify the LORD in the eyes of the people, and he was prevented from entering the land (Num. 20:12).

Devotees and worshipers were consecrated (made holy) for various purposes.  One interesting sample is when Joshua consecrated the people for the removal of things under the ban (kherem; Josh. 7:13).  What had happened is that Achan had stolen what was banned (what in fact belonged to God), and the whole nation was in danger.  By putting Achan to death, Joshua brought the consecration, that is, he brought separation for the nation from the sin and its curse. Separation from defilement and infringement on God's devoted things was again safeguarded.

The primary requirement for believers in both Testaments is that they be holy, because God is holy (Lev. 19; 1 Pet. 2).  They are to be set apart from the world and from sin and from ordinary or profane lives; they are to be set apart to God.  They are to be distinct.  For example, we speak of "holy matrimony" (a term that we may need to revive if the society keeps paganizing and corrupting marriage); that means the marriage is set apart from the world--it is different.  In the Bible we also read how the praise and worship of the righteous is to be adorned with holiness (Ps. 29:1, 2); praise from people who live and love and choose as the world does is hypocritical and not pleasing to God.  Holy worship comes from holy living.

There is a simple illustration for this concept of holiness that may help people understand it better.  You may have in your linen closet "holy towels."  That is, those towels are set aside for company.   Now if someone in the family came in from the garage and used one of those towels, that person would be guilty of desecrating that which is holy--and it goes without saying, would be dealt with rather severely.  There are other towels and in this case rags that are for common, everyday use.


Synonyms and Antonyms

While the etymology and usage of these words clearly show the idea of "apartness" or "distinction" in the concept of holiness, related terms help clarify the meaning as well.  As already mentioned, the major antonym is khalal, "ordinary, common, profane."  While this word is sufficient to contrast the main idea of qadosh, there are other antonyms as well, such as words for uncleanness and defilement, both in a cultic and physical sense.

Of the major synonyms, the word kherem (mentioned in the Joshua passage above) is the most specific.  It has the sense of "devoted" to God.  What is given to God, then, can be either destroyed by him (hence, "ban"), or used by him in his sanctuary.  But the point is that it is off-limits to people for private or common use (hence, the sin of Achan).  If someone took such an item, as Achan did, the sin would require a swift purifying judgment.   A cognate of this Hebrew word is the well-known "harem," certainly a place that was set apart for the king's use.

Another synonym that is helpful is nazar, which is best known in the Nazarite vow (Num. 6:9, 12).  The word means "consecrate, separate"; it would be used for making a special vow for a time and a purpose.  This word does not have as many applications as qadosh.



No particular help is gathered from the study of the Greek words used for these words in the Old Greek translation of the Bible.  The common verb used was hagiazo, which means "set apart."  Occasionally words for "cleansing" (katharizo) and "glorifying" (doxazo) were used if the context was that specific.  So the ideas of "distinction" and "purification" predominate.

The English word "holy" is defined by the American heritage Dictionary (AHD) as Abelonging to. Derived from, or associated with a divine power, sacred" and "specified or set apart for a religious purpose."  This is exactly how the word group with qadosh functions in the Bible. 

Some commentators have followed the etymology of the word and as a result come to conclusions that the text will not support.  The Indo-European root is kailo-.  This at one time meant "whole, uninjured."  Old English is hale, "whole." Old Norse is heill (that is, "healthy, hail, wassail").  The usage that came over to the sacred idea was Germanic hailagaz, which in Old English was halig, that is, "holy, sacred."  Barr rightly points out that the connections to "healthy" and "whole" are not involved in the word qadosh (Biblical Semantics).  One may wish to understand the origin of the English word, but when doing exegesis it is the meaning of the Hebrew that must be used.  "Holy" is a good English translation for the Hebrew, provided it is defined as used, and not defined by ancient etymological connections. 

For the causative verb's translation, "sanctify" is a good choice.  It comes from the Latin sanctificare (sanctus, "holy," and ficare, "to make").



Qadosh with all its related forms has the significance of being set apart for some specific, (normally) religious purpose.  This necessarily involved a separation from certain things and a dedication to others.  The holy person is one who is consecrated to the holy God and to spiritual service.  This means that the life and the conduct of the believer is to be distinct from the common or profane.  Of course this does not refer to the mechanical and routine necessities of life--believers use much the same measures for transportation, maintenance, and household matters as the unbelievers do.  However, within all aspects of life they make choices; and if they live, love, and choose as the world does, for the reasons the world does, they are profane.  They must seek ways to live out their faith (and this calls for a study of the biblical teachings on sanctification). The standard for this sanctification is God himself: "Be holy because I the LORD your God am holy."  God is distinct from all celestial and terrestrial beings and items by his nature and his works.  And so the life of the believer is to imitate and reflect that holiness.



[1] A denominate verb is one that is derived from the noun.  More precisely, we use the term for verbs that are less common than nouns or adjectives and may have developed out of them, but without data that development cannot be proved.

[2] The term Aderivative@ is more convenient than accurate.  It does not mean that the other words occurred first and these were derived from them.  It is simply a way of referring to less common words from the same root.

[3] Ugaritic has no vowels written with the words, and so the words have to be vocalized by a careful comparison with the words in the cognate languages.

[4] A similar thing happens in the Book of Job when Job=s wife tells him to curse God and die.  But where the word Acurse@ is intended, the Hebrew text has Abless.@  But everyone knew what she intended.