Hollow and Hallow

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Hollow and Hallow Audio Version

To start, a multiple choice quiz question: Among all possible candidates, who or what is first designated as holy in the Bible? You might want to read that question again, since the wording matters and may determine whether you get the right answer. The words designated as holy especially matter. 

Again, who or what is designated as holy in the Bible first? Is it a) the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters, b) the desert dirt where Moses encounters a burning and yet unburnt shrub, c) the seventh and final day of the creation week, or d) the crown-like turban worn by the tabernacle-tending High Priest? Which of these four is the first thing designated as holy in the Bible?  

This is a tricky question because someone who knows the Bible well will recall that the Spirit of God appears from the get-go. In the second verse of the Bible, the Spirit of God hovers over the face of the waters. And yet the Spirit of God is not actually called the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1:2. We (correctly) infer the word holy from what we know the Bible teaches subsequently about the Spirit.

Interesting enough, but already what is the answer to the quiz? The answer is actually c) the seventh and final day of the creation week, otherwise known as the Sabbath Day. The first thing that is designated as holy in the Bible is the seventh day of the (creation) week. If you have any doubt as to whether I am right about that, feel free to go fact-check. (It’s right, though.)

As you might expect, the word holy appears a lot in the Holy Bible. But I was surprised to learn that the word holy only appears once in the opening book of the Bible — just once in Genesis. The only occurrence of the word holy in the Book of Genesis comes at the end of the initial creation account. If you happen to have the most popular English version of the Bible, the New International Version (abbreviated as the NIV), here is the translation you will find: 

And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done.     

Genesis 2:3

That is how the translation committee for the NIV rendered Genesis 2:3. It is not a bad translation. But they made a few interpretive decisions that broke from translation tradition. More about that in just a bit. But first I want to talk about chapter breaks in the Bible. 

Page space used to be a big concern for scribes, who worked by hand and not by keyboard. Nowadays, unless someone is a bit neurotic, hollow page space concerns us little, if at all. I do not care if I leave empty, hollow space on a virtual page. I do not feel the need to fill it. However, way back when, writing materials were prohibitively expensive and hard to come by. To be economical, scribes would often try to fill as much parchment space or vellum (that is, animal hide) space as possible. As a consequence, words and sentences were “smashed together,” that is, written with the least amount of empty, hollow space possible; and paragraph breaks were sometimes non-existent. Examples of compacted sentences in early New Testament manuscripts can be found relatively easily online. This was especially true of manuscripts that needed to be easily concealable. Empty, hollow page space meant unhelpful additional volume and bulk to a manuscript. Many early Christians wanted to be able to hide their copies of sacred writings, so the more compact, the better. Substantial sectional and paragraph breaks would thus come only later, and especially after Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press led to the establishment of the printing industry in the 1500s. At that point, most literate Christians in Europe no longer needed to bother hiding their Bibles. Compactness was no longer a concern.

An important corollary to this brief history of manuscribal space-usage is that our new-fangled spacious and neatly arranged biblical pages can potentially mislead us. Our current sentence (or verse) breaks, paragraph breaks, and chapter breaks can be somewhat misleading at times. Those breaks may well have come later and as a result of questionable or erroneous editorial decisions. The various breaks you have in your nearest and dearest copy of the Bible should not necessarily be seen as inerrant and inspired by God. Sometimes those breaks can even get in the way of good interpretation. Sectional titles can be especially misleading, because such titles are often interpretive. They are only as good as the inherent interpretation.   

With all that as background information, I want to point out that Genesis 2:3 could possibly be understood as the end of Chapter One. Could possibly be, maybe. In the minds of some interpreters, Genesis 2:3 could have and should have been Genesis 1:34. Again, this is all tentative: possibly, maybe. Rightly or wrongly, someone way back when made the editorial decision to make the chapter break where we find it and have it now. And that editorial decision became set as tradition. And that set tradition, though rather dubious, has held fast. After all, it is often too confusing to abandon a tradition after it has been long established. Similarly and analogously, the metric system has failed to take hold here in the United States, even if the metric system is mathematically easier to use than the old imperial system of measurements. Traditional methods of measurement have too strong of a hold here. By virtue of habituation, miles just make more sense to Americans than kilometers. So we are sticking with miles, and with long-established Bible chapter endings.    

Alternatively (and patriotically?), the traditional chapter break between Genesis Chapter One and Genesis Chapter Two might be correct. The first three verses of Genesis Two might merely serve as a somewhat independent bridge between the creation account in Genesis One and the creation account in Genesis Two. Perhaps the first three verses of Genesis Two are meant to stand alone in some way. It might all seem like an entirely trivial matter, though. It might seem like no big deal, one way or the other. But it is on basis of this question and these sorts of questions that scholars attempt to figure out how the Book of Genesis was once cobbled together (or not cobbled together). You just ought to be aware that interpreters are a bit uncertain (or rather, overly certain) as to the structural placement of the first three verses of Genesis Two. An informed reader has to make an interpretive choice, though. You can choose to attach those three verses to the end of Chapter One, or leave them to stand alone as a kind of bridge between the two chapters. So you might want to re-read the section in context and decide for yourself. I lean towards the option of attaching those three verses to the end of Chapter One. But I might be persuaded otherwise.

Oh yeah, now I remember. I am supposed to say something about how the translators of the NIV diverged from tradition with their translation of Genesis 2:3. With one key word, the NIV translators decided against a one-for-one translation and went with a dynamically equivalent phrase instead. In Genesis 2:3 God designates the seventh day of creation as holy. But really, the Hebrew says that God “holy-ized” or “holy-fied” it. We do not have a good verb for holy in English. The closest verb we have in English is now archaic. It is not used much anymore. That verb is hallow, as in “hallowed be thy Name.” So if and when English Bible translators do choose a one-for-one interpretation, they have but three words to choose from: hallow, sanctify, or consecrate. Hallow has fallen out of contemporary use, so they almost always go with sanctify or consecrate. The main problem with that choice is disassociation. English speakers might not immediately associate the words sanctify or consecrate with the word holy. Apparently, the NIV translators wanted people to make just that connection, so they stuck stubbornly with the word holy. To catch the verb’s presence, they just added the word made. God made the seventh day holy. And I suppose their translation works just fine. What might work even better, though, is if the word hallow were resuscitated. 

The primary strength of a one-for-one translation approach is transparent precision. It gives the reader a more precise sense of the wording of the original language. In much of the Old Testament, the word holy is even more common than English speakers might realize. It is just hidden behind the English words sanctify and consecrate. If hallow were resuscitated, transparent word-for-word precision is easier to follow and maintain. But fat chance. It is never going to happen. And I know that. However, for my purposes, I am going run with the word hallow here in my blog because I want to trace the use of the verb form of holy through the Old Testament. It makes for an interesting study, and helps us understand holiness as a concept more thoroughly.

The very first time holiness appears conceptually in the Bible, it appears as a verb. God hallowed the seventh day. We might shrug at that and ask, “so?” because we are altogether familiar with having one or two days a week off from work. But it is stranger than it first seems. It prompts a bunch of questions. At least it does for me. Here are some of my questions: 

Of all the possible items and individuals that could appear first on the biblical holy list, why is it that one day of the week is singled out? Why is it specifically the seventh day, as opposed to the first day, the fourth day, or an eighth day? And how exactly is the seventh day hallowed? And does the hallowing of the seventh day have any practical significance for you and me today? Is it a binding requirement for us? And why did Jesus get in so many arguments with religious leaders about the correct observance of the Sabbath Day? Is the Sabbath Day merely an arbitrary (albeit desirable) social convention that was for whatever reason sacralized by the Ancient Hebrews? Or is there something more to it than mere religious convention? And might a study of the Sabbath Day help us understand the biblical concept of holiness any better?

Each one of these questions could become a separate blog post. At some point, I do want to explore the significance of the Sabbath Day more, especially since Jesus disputed with the Pharisees over proper observance of the day. And at another point, I hope to trace the concept of holiness through the Bible, especially the Old Testament, because we really ought to understand holiness if we are going to obey the command to be holy. If and when possible, I will incorporate these topics into a broader discussion of the Book of Revelation, which will continue to be my primary (but not sole) focus.