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Sacred Spaces, Objects, Offerings, and People in the Priestly Texts: A Reappraisal

From: Journal of Biblical Literature
Volume 132, Number 4, 2013
pp. 749-767 | 10.1353/jbl.2013.0053



In the Priestly texts, holiness is understood both as an absolute and as a relative term to demarcate the hierarchy within the holy sphere. Rather than primarily redefining the term “holy,” the present work aims to determine the term’s function in describing spaces, objects, offerings, and people in the Priestly account. While there are several different levels of holiness for people, places, objects, and offerings, the Priestly writers have only two terms at their disposal, “holy” and “most holy,” which they use in a dizzying combination to situate elements hierarchically. Nonetheless, once the Priestly language is clarified, elements in the holy sphere fit into a fairly consistent hierarchy. Within this taxonomic system, people have access to spaces and objects of one level of holiness higher than they themselves possess. While accessing one degree higher is acceptable, two degrees proves fatal. The Priestly labels “holy” and “most holy” mediate access, express the privilege and unnaturalness of access, and indicate the consequences of improper contact, thereby safeguarding the divine abode from improper encroachment and humanity from the corresponding punishment.

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