If you want to understand the Hebrew Bible, you have to understand the meaning of two of the major words. If you would better grasp what God is about and what is going on between God and Israel – make that between God and humanity – you need to grasp their significance.
The first word is “hesed.” It is one of the most important words in the Bible and one of the most difficult to translate. It means covenantal or marital love, not just love as such. That is, it signifies the love you have in a covenanted relationship, like that of marriage. It includes love, loyalty, mercy, faithfulness, and all that is essential for love’s sustainability. Though “hesed” is meant to be a reciprocal, shared or mutual love in the sacred context of a committed, covenantal relationship, it is used almost exclusively in reference to how God loves us.
In times of need and crisis, God’s “hesed” is called upon. It is translated in English either as “steadfast love” or “loving-kindness.” So, for example, when David cries out to God, “have mercy on me according to Your steadfast love (hesed)” (Psalm 51:1), he is appealing directly to God’s love in their covenantal relationship.
Hesed then, means more than mere loving. It includes the commitment to that love and to continue loving without rejection or divorce. We are most fortunate that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Paul will later indicate that God’s marital-like covenants are irrevocable (Romans 11:28-29). The entire future of humanity is totally dependent on God’s “hesed.”
The second word is “kadosh,” meaning “holy” or “holiness.” The original meaning of “holy” is “set apart.” It is as simple as setting apart a particular apple for yourself from among a barrel of apples. Holiness involves a movement “from – to.” The apple you select from a pile of apples is for your sake, for the gratification of your appetite for apples. Just so, God makes “holy” the people Israel when God selects them from among the nations for God’s own sake, to be God’s own people. This God enacts in the covenant service at Mt. Sinai, with Moses serving as the priest between God and Israel.
I have conducted hundreds of weddings. During the ceremony, just prior to the couple reciting the vows, which signifies the sealing of their covenant, I usually go through a series of questions, for which I had not prepared them, so as to catch them off-guard. Typically looking first at the man, I ask, “So, is she ‘the one’? That is, of all the women in the world are you saying at this moment before all of us gathered here today, that she is ‘the one’?” After receiving a “Yes” from the guy, usually a bit embarrassed at this point, I would ask the woman the same two questions, always leading to the same “Yes” answer.
Then I would tell them that they were this day making each other “holy.” That is, they had selected one another of all the other persons in the world, calling them out and covenanting with them, for themselves alone. “You are mine and I am yours . . . From this day forth and for the rest of my days, if not beyond.” Truly, “the two shall become one flesh.” That yoking is the essence of becoming “holy.”
Therefore, when God says to the people Israel, “You shall be holy, for I your God am Holy” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16), God is saying, just like the wife and husband are saying to each other, “I have set you apart for me, and I too am setting myself set apart for you.” This means a committed exclusivity between the two partners, with what is between them as sacred as they themselves. Just like a human marriage, it is all about the relationship.
The Bible, then, is about a God-human marital covenant and how the partners respond to each other and their relationship. Holiness is not about being “sinless” or “perfect” or assenting to some set of dogmas; it is more than performing some set of rites or rituals. It is about being “wholly in” the relationship, the union. And as anybody who has ever been or continues to be married knows, what matters most is what is usually the most difficult to pin down: where is your heart relative to mine, and my heart relative to yours? Are we still wholly in?