THE GROUND OF HOLINESS
2008 John H Mattox

"Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush and said, Moses, Moses. And he said. Here am I. And he said. Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God. And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land, and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them. Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt. And Moses said unto God, Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? And he said, Certainly I will be with thee, and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain."
Exodus 3:1-12.

    In reading the above passage, we are usually so much engrossed by the divine phenomenon of the burning bush that we pay scant attention to the other details of the occurrence. In this study, however, our attention will be focused, not so much on the burning bush, as upon God's command to Moses:

"... put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."
Exodus 3:5b.

Several questions suggest themselves in connection with this passage: Why was the ground mentioned in the text holy? Why should Moses take off his shoes on holy ground? The usual answer to these questions is that the ground was holy because it was the locale of God's manifestation of himself to Moses in the burning bush, and that Moses was required to take off his shoes lest he profane this holy ground. The Pulpit Commentary explains it thus:

"The practice of putting them (shoes or sandals) off before entering a temple, a palace, or even the private apartments of a house, was, and is, universal in the East - the rationale of it being that the shoes or sandals have dust or dirt attaching to them."
Pulpit Commentary, loc. cit.

It appears to the writer that this universal custom of the East is not applicable to our text in any respect. The custom mentioned pertained to all buildings, not merely those that were holy and was designed to prevent the dust and dirt of the outdoors from being carried indoors, where it would have to be swept out. Since Moses, on the occasion mentioned in our text, was outdoors, as was also the burning bush, it is obvious that the custom referred to by the Pulpit Commentary did not apply. Moreover, Moses was certainly familiar with such a universal custom, yet he had to be told, on this occasion, to remove his shoes.
 
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The Ground Of Holiness (cont)

    In seeking a more satisfactory answer to our questions, let us begin by observing that another custom, strongly implied in the Bible, if not openly taught, was to take formal possession of a piece of ground by walking upon it barefoot. Several passages of Scripture indicate that such was the custom:

"Every place whereon the soles of your feet shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the uttermost sea shall your coast be."
Deut. 11:24.
 
"Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses.
Josh. 1:3.
 
"And Moses sware on that day, saying, surely the land whereon thy feet have trodden shall be thine inheritance, and thy children's forever, because thou hast wholly followed the LORD my God."
Josh. 14:9.
 
"Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands, thou hast put all things under his feet."
Psa. 8:6.
 
"And he said unto me, Son of man, the place of my throne, and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever, and my holy name, shall the house of Israel no more defile."
Eze. 43:7.

(See also Rev. 1:15 and 2:1). The word translated sole in the above passages is the Hebrew word koph which refers to the hollow part of the foot. It is also the word commonly used for the palm of the hand. It is derived from the verb kaphaph, to bend, to bow down, to be hollow, or arched. It obviously refers to the sole of the bare foot not the sole of a shoe or sandal. In fact, there seems to be no instance in the Old Testament of the word koph being applied to the sole of a shoe or sandal.
    This apparent practice of taking formal possession of a piece of ground by walking on it barefoot may shed light on several questions, which, though perhaps of minor importance, are not entirely devoid of interest: Why did God specifically command the Israelites to go out of Egypt with their shoes on their feet? Was it necessary, from the practical point of view, to warn them to wear their shoes on this long and arduous journey which they were undertaking? Or was this God's way of warning them, by an object lesson, that the wilderness through which they were to pass was not to be their home, and that they were not, therefore, to walk on it barefoot, lest the idea of possession enter their minds? This custom of appropriating land by walking on it barefoot may also explain why the Edomites and the Amorites were so inflexibly opposed to the Israelites' marching through their lands on their way to the land of Canaan. In both cases the Israelites promised not to harm anything in their passage through those lands, but merely to go through on my feet. See Num. 20:19 and Deut. 2:26-28. This would seem to be a reasonable proposal, but the Edomites and Amorites may have feared that to allow Israel to go through their lands on their feet might turn out to have unpleasant consequences. This practice may also explain why Jael's hand was strengthened to perform so unwomanly a task as driving a tent peg through Sisera's head, after he had fled to her tent on his feet. See Judges 4:15-17; 5:27. It may also explain why the priests bearing the ark seem to have walked barefoot through the Jordan. The river was the border of the land that Israel was to possess; therefore, the priests, as the representatives of the people, seem to have taken judicial possession of it in the name of the people. See Josh. 3:13, 4:18. Finally, the knowledge of this custom enables us to understand why the disciples were to shake off from their feet the dust of any city which rejected their message. It was God's way of showing that he was renouncing any claim to that city and was abandoning it to judgment.
 
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The Ground Of Holiness (cont)

    This custom of taking possession of land by setting the foot on it, was transferred to personal relationships also. A subordinate would show his allegiance to his master by bowing down at his feet and, in some cases, taking the master's foot and placing it upon his head or neck. This practice is illustrated in the Tell-el-Amarna letters, e.g. No. 288, lines 1 through 4:

"To the king, my lord, my Sun-god, say: Thus says Abdiheba, thy servant. At the feet of the king, my lord, seven times and seven times I fall."

Note also Isa. 60:14:

"The sons also of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee; and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet, and they shall call thee, The City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel."

This custom further explains why Ruth was instructed by Naomi to lie down at the feet of Boaz and request that he spread his skirts (lit. wings) over her. It was a way of asking him to take judicial possession of her through the provision of kinsman-redemption, and the levirate marriage. Boaz needed no explanation as to what was desired, and immediately took steps to bring it about.
    This custom was often symbolized by merely taking off a shoe and casting it down upon the land to be appropriated. Note, for example. Psalm 60:6-8:

"God hath spoken in his holiness, I will rejoice, I will divide Shechem, and mete out the valley of Succoth. Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine, Ephraim also is the strength of mine head, Judah is my law giver; Moab is my washpot, over Edom will I cast out my shoe; Philistia, triumph thou because of me."

Here, casting out the shoe over Edom is clearly an act of appropriation, since possession is the keynote of the context. The taking off of a shoe by a goel, or kinsman-redeemer, who did not wish to exercise his right of redemption, was an entirely different matter; and was carried out, if possible, in the city gates in the presence of the elders of the city. The central idea in this case, was not the casting down of the shoe, but the act of loosing it. The word for shoe in Hebrew denotes something fastened or bolted, hence something locked-up or inaccessible. The verb for loose is chalats which means to deliver, to set free or to disencumber. That which was eligible for redemption could be redeemed only by the nearest kinsman - the goel. It was inaccessible to anyone else. But if the nearest kinsman did not wish to exercise that right, he could relinquish it to the next kinsman, and to symbolize the fact that the redemptible property was now loosed or freed of encumbrances, he loosed his shoe.
    When God commanded Moses to put off his shoes, the command was literally to cast them down or out. The verb is nashal, and is translated in various passages as follows:

"And hath cast out many nations."
Deut. 7:1.
 
"And the LORD thy God will put out those nations."
Deut. 7:22.
 
"And the head slippeth from the helve."
Deut. 19:5.
 
"...for thine olive shall cast his fruit."
Deut. 28:40.
 
"And drave the Jews from Elath."
II Kings 16:6.

The basic idea of the verb, therefore, seems to be casting out. Thus by casting out his shoe over the land, and walking upon it barefoot, Moses, at God's command took judicial possession of the wilderness of Sinai, which was according to God's word, holy ground. But why was Moses commanded to take possession of that barren piece of real estate, and what made it holy? Was it the fact that God had appeared to him there? This is not likely, for other men were also honored by a personal manifestation of God's presence, yet in only one other case (which we will consider presently) did God pronounce the ground to be holy and command that the shoes be removed. Rather, it would appear that Moses was commanded to take possession of that land because it was to be the locale of his service to God. Let us remember that Moses never entered the promised land. Outside of Egypt, his sphere of service was the wilderness, and because it was his sphere of service, it was to him, holy ground; for to the servant of God, holy ground is the ground whereon his service to God is performed. When Noah came forth from the ark, his first act was one of service and worship of God. And on that renovated earth his place of service was Mount Ararat, which is the Hebrew form of a Sanscrit word meaning holy ground.
    The only other man to whom God appeared and instructed him to cast off his shoes because he was upon holy ground was Joshua. Immediately after the Israelites had entered Canaan, God appeared to Joshua and gave him the same instructions he had given Moses. Let us remember that at this time Joshua was standing upon the soil of the land of Canaan, which was to be his peculiar sphere of service. Moses' place of service, and therefore his holy ground, was the wilderness; while Joshua's was the land of Canaan. To the Christian today, holy ground is that ground that his feet walk upon in serving God. There can be no holier ground on earth than that.

John H Mattox

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