The Numinous As the Holy One in Biblical Worship

The worshiper encounters God as the Holy One, who is beyond rational comprehension. There is a quality to this encounter that transcends revelation in terms of language, symbols, or concepts.

The Sense of the Numinous

The biblical worshiper experiences the holiness of God—holiness, not in the moralized sense of that which is perfectly good, but holiness in the primitive, generic sense of that which is “separated, set apart.” This is the underlying meaning of the Hebrew root q-d-sh as the basis for qodesh, “holiness”; qadosh, “holy”; qadash, “be consecrated”; and miqdash, “sanctuary.” As applied to the Lord, his holiness means that he is unlike anything pertaining to the common or mundane. He is overpowering, majestic, fascinating, mysterious. He is beyond the grasp of rational comprehension yet directly sensed in his dreadful and awesome aspect. His presence compels a spontaneous and intuitive response of worship.

For this original and basic element of the holy, in 1917 the historian of religion Rudolf Otto coined the term the numinous, from the Latin numen (Das Heilige; English translation, The Idea of the Holy [New York: Oxford University Press, 1923], pp. 5–7). Confronted by the numinous, the worshiper experiences the mysterium tremendum, the wonder, dread, or trepidation in the presence of the incomprehensible and the uncanny, the sense of creaturehood and nothingness before the Creator, who is all. The numinous overwhelms with its mass and unconditioned majesty; the Hebrew word translated “glory” (kavod) means “mass, weight.” The holy pulsates with life and energy; it can break out in wrath or fury. Before its sublime radiance and commanding worth, the worshiper is rapt, in a state of transport.

The confrontation with the numinous is a direct apprehension in the inward being of the worshiper; the intellectual, moral, and even psychological categories that describe and define it are secondary to this intuitive encounter. Awareness of the numinous issues from the deepest level of apprehension in the human soul, transcending the rational mind. Otto writes that “though it of course comes into being in and amid the sensory data and empirical material of the natural world and cannot anticipate or dispense with those, yet it does not arise out of them, but only by their means” (Otto, p. 113). In other words, for the biblical worshiper, God is not an idea; he is a compelling reality encountered at the deepest level of being.

It is typical of biblical faith (in contrast to faith of other religions, such as Islam) that the numinous is usually qualified through the word of revelation, which makes it possible to speak of the Holy One and his purposes in rational terms. However, this is not always the case, even in the Scriptures.

The Numinous, Interpreted

When the numinous appears in Scripture, the awesome confrontation at the direct, intuitive level is almost always accompanied by some form of interpretation in categories that can be grasped by the mind and communicated in language. At Mount Sinai, the Lord appears not only in the compelling phenomena of thunder, lightning, smoke, fire, and the sound of the trumpet (Exod. 19:16–19), but also in the declaration of his identity—“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt”—and in the declaration of his will—“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:2–3).

Such interpretive revelation usually comes through the word of gifted prophetic voices, as “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). The person who has been overwhelmed and captivated by the holy, although perhaps brought to trembling silence during the encounter, frequently emerges from it as a speaker anointed with a message, a vision, a proclamation of judgment, a declaration of divine purpose. In Amos’s words, “The lion has roared—who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken—who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). If the more introspective Jeremiah is at all typical, the revelation is formed in the crucible of inner psychological processes, as the numinous impinges on the prophet “like a fire … shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed I cannot” (Jer. 20:9). The revelation that accompanies the manifestation of the holy forms the basis for the covenant relationship between the Lord and the worshiping community, which may be summarized in the prophetic formula, “I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Ezek. 37:27; Isa. 51:16; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 11:20; Zech. 8:8). The covenant, with all its theological ramifications, forms the rational content of the encounter with the holy.

The Numinous, Noninterpreted

The rational content of the encounter with the Lord is secondary to the basic confrontation, which occurs at a deeper level. Hence the Bible records numinous encounters in which little or no interpretation is provided. One instance is found in the account of Jacob’s night at Penuel, where “a man wrestled with him till daybreak” (Gen. 32:24). The identity of this presence remains an enigma; even when pressed, Jacob’s mysterious adversary refuses to identify or explain himself in any way. It is left for Jacob, and those who transmitted the story to infer the meaning of this event: “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (Gen. 32:22–32). Another such incident occurs in the account of Moses’ return to Egypt, during which “the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him” (Exod. 4:24); his wife Zipporah’s response in circumcising her son and touching Moses’ “feet” (that is, his male member) with the foreskin does not really clarify what was happening here (Exod. 4:24–26).

The holy, in its aspect as the numinous, can break out in wrath on the careless worshiper. The priests on Mount Sinai are warned to “consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them” (Exod. 19:22). In the incident recorded in Leviticus 10:1–3, Aaron’s two eldest sons offer “strange” or unauthorized fire before the Lord; as a result, “fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2). Moses interprets their death as the consequence of their failure to regard the Lord as holy. The saga of the ark of the covenant also recounts outbreaks of the fury of the numinous resident in a holy object. When placed in a Philistine sanctuary, the ark causes the image of the god Dagon to fall over and shatter into fragments (1 Sam. 5:4); while the ark is being transported in an oxcart, an outburst of energy kills Uzzah as he reaches out to steady it (2 Sam. 6:6–7). These incidents depict the numinous almost as a kind of impersonal electricity, manifesting itself in wrath with no revelation of rational content.

Some relatively unexplained numinous encounters are described also in the New Testament. In particular, the Transfiguration of Christ (Matt. 17:1–8) is enigmatic. In the presence of Jesus’ three closest associates, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matt. 17:2). Obviously, this is a manifestation of the Son of God, perhaps as a confirmation of Peter’s recent confession of Jesus as the Christ (Matt. 16:16). But except for the voice from heaven that repeats the declaration of divine sonship, no further explanation is provided; the disciples are left wondering about the meaning of what they have witnessed, including the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. Jesus orders them to say nothing about the incident until after the resurrection, a concept that also, for the moment, remains unexplained (Mark 9:9–10).

The Holy As the Unrevealed

Since the biblical confrontation with Yahweh as the Holy One is not confined within the rational, moral, or sentimental categories of the human mentality, to a great degree the holy always remains the unrevealed. There is always that quality in the encounter with God which transcends the ability to comprehend or communicate it in the symbolism of meaningful language. The experience of the prophet Elijah on Horeb (1 Kings 19:1–18) is a case in point. As the prophet stands upon the mountain, Yahweh passes by in the violent manifestations of wind, earthquake, and fire, similar to the phenomena that accompanied the Sinai covenant. Yet, the narrative states, Yahweh is not in any of these things. He is there, yet he is not there! But now the prophet senses something else: an eerie stillness, a silence so silent it could be heard, as though some tremendous pent-up energy were present, ready to burst forth again in overpowering force. And out of this stillness, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord of hosts, renewing his commission as the spokesman for the God of the covenant, the Holy One of Israel. No revelation of hidden truths about the Lord has taken place, yet in an experience of the numinous, Elijah has met with God with a life-changing impact.

There is ever the tendency to mistake the biblical revelation or the Christian system of knowledge that is theoretically based on it for a complete revelation of God. This is understandable, since Scripture speaks of Christ as the “Word of God” (John 1:1–14; Rev. 19:13), and throughout the Bible God’s self-revelation is usually accompanied by a prophetic word of explanation or command, sometimes greatly extended. What is often forgotten, however, is that God’s self-revelation is at the same time his nonrevelation, for there is that aspect of his being which surpasses our ability to grasp it in terms of human reason or communicate it in words. “Who has known the mind of the Lord,” wrote Paul, “or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34, quoting Isa. 40:13). “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isa. 55:8). Human language can only hint at the meaning of the divine encounter through the use of “ideograms” (Otto’s term), intellectual transforms of the divine self-revelation that can point to it and explore its implications but cannot encompass it. God is one, he is eternal, he is good, he is just, he is love, he is Spirit, he is light. The concept of the holy or sacred is itself one of these ideograms, an attempt to categorize the most fundamental and distinctive aspect of the divine presence as it impacts our consciousness. But not even the idea of the holy can fully convey the impact of the meeting with God. On the mountain Elijah received a word out of the “voice of stillness,” whether inwardly or outwardly we cannot tell. But there was more. There was the stillness itself, a silence that spoke of that which cannot be expressed—a silence pregnant with the mystery of the unrevealed, a silence before which people must also keep silent in reverential dread, for the Holy is in his Holy Place (Hab. 2:20).

This appears to be the point of Job’s extended dialogue with his three friends, together with the final interruption by Elihu and God’s answer to Job. Initially, Job demanded an explanation of the ways of God in terms he could comprehend—a futile quest. What was to his credit, however, was his insistence on holding God personally to account and his refusal to be content with the secondhand arguments of God’s defenders. Job did receive an answer from God, but when it came, it did not convert him with its logical coherence. As a rational argument, God’s speech is not noticeably more impressive than that of Elihu, who spoke before him and of whom neither Job nor God seem to take any notice. What moves Job to repentance is a realization of quite another order. He and his friends have been exchanging their arguments, their “ideograms,” as though these could somehow encircle God and tame him. But now God has spoken to Job, confronted him in his majestic mystery, and Job is brought to silence in the face of the holy. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). Job’s questions are not answered, but the unrevealed has met him, not in the sterility of intellectual arguments, but in the depth of direct encounter, and so purged the darkness from his soul.

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