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Profane (Word Study)


The Hebrew word ḥll is translated in one of four ways: (1) “pierce” or “wound”; (2) “begin”; (3) “pipe”; and (4) “profane.” The first three translations share the meaning of “opening” or “breaching” something that is intact. In cultic contexts, however, ḥll is most commonly translated differently, using words such as “profane,” “pollute,” and “defile.” It often occurs in opposition to qdš, which is typically translated as “sacred.” Thus, ḥll and qdš are taken to be strict opposites between that which is profane, or ordinary, and that which must be set apart because it is sacred. Arguably, this binary arises only postbiblically, most famously in modern anthropological studies. Recent scholarship extends the broader meaning of ḥll, “to open,” to the cultic context, suggesting a wider range of meaning than is indicated by traditional translations of the word as “profane.”

How should ḥll be translated?

Priests are prohibited from cutting their hair or flesh during mourning, because these acts negatively impact their qdš (sacredness) and ḥll (profane) the name of God (Lev 21:5–6). Susan Niditch argues that priests’ bodies must be whole and that the prohibited actions compromise their bodily boundaries. Jeffrey Stackert and Jeremy Schipper explain further with reference to texts that prohibit blemished priests from sacrificing, approaching the altar, or entering the inner sanctuary (Lev 21:17–23). The problem is not the priests’ lack of wholeness per se, but that they threaten to ḥll God by bringing their lack of physical integrity close to that which is sacred. Priests are also denied contact with the dead, other than direct family members, because such contact is polluting (ṭm’) and ḥll-s the priest (Lev 21:1–4). By analogy with blemished priests, we can posit that pollutants also breach priests’ bodily integrity. Understanding ḥll as “to breach wholeness” accounts for such priestly restrictions in Lev 21. The priest whose bodily wholeness is pierced, blemished, or otherwise breached becomes ḥll and threatens the sacred if he brings his “opened” body close to it.

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, ḥll is also taken to mean “to open” when used in cultic contexts. Jacob Milgrom argues that human work “blemishes” sacred time, which must be kept whole (Lev 23). This is confirmed by Nehemiah’s censuring Judahites for ḥll-ing the Sabbath by selling goods (Neh 13:16–18). Using the word ḥll, God commands a man who makes a vow to not “break” his word (Num 30:2), promises to punish David’s children if they “violate” his statutes, and confirms that he will not “break” his covenant with David (Ps 89:31, Ps 89:34). Just as a covenant can be “opened” in this way, so can a sanctuary (Mal 2:10–11). God’s secret place can be ḥll-d by violent people entering it (Ezek 7:22), and his temple and fortress can be ḥll-d by enemy occupation (Dan 11:31). People ḥll God’s land by introducing idols and abominations into it (Jer 16:18). In all of these instances, ḥll is used to indicate a breach in wholeness.

Broadly speaking, then, to ḥll is to make an opening into that which is whole or to breach its integrity. In the cultic context it is less about being “profane,” as it is usually translated, and more about being “non-intact.” The act of ḥll-ing creates a breach that threatens higher levels of sacredness. The definition of ḥll is thus more complex and nuanced than the distinction between “profane” and “sacred” might imply.

See also the related word study on “sacred.”

  • Carolann Elliott is an undergraduate student in Honours Humanities and Religion at Carleton University, with previous degrees in microbiology and special education. Her research focuses on the ancient Israelite concepts of “sacred,” “profane,” and “pollution,” particularly as they pertain to the status of women.

  • Shawna Dolansky

    Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities in the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of two books and numerous articles on the Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. Her current research focuses on gender and sexuality in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.