Holiness in the Ancient Middle East
The Akkadian word for holiness was ellu, “cleanliness, brilliance, luminosity.” It was related to the Hebrew elohim, which is often simply translated as “god” but originally summed up everything that the gods could mean to human beings. The “holy ones” of the Middle East were like devas, the “shining ones” of India. In the Middle East, holiness was a power that lay beyond the gods, like brahman. The word ilam (“divinity”) in Mesopotamia referred to a radiant power that transcended any particular deity. It was a fundamental reality and could not be tied to a single, distinct form. The gods were not the source of ilam, but like human beings, mountains, trees, and stars, they participated in this holiness. Anything that came into contact with the ilam of the cult became sacred too: a king, a priest, a temple, and even the ritual utensils became holy by association. It would have seemed odd to the early Israelites to confine the sacred to a single divine being.