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Deuteronomy 6:1-9 – The “Shema”

Summary

Israel is commanded to learn God's words and God's laws and to teach them to their children.

Analysis

The first three verses serve as an introduction. They stress the importance of living one's life in conformity with one's relationship to God--as we might say, of walking the walk and not just talking the talk. In fact, God makes clear to Moses that before it enters the promised land Israel needs to be educated in the following material, not simply informed. Beyond this, each following generation is to be responsible for carrying on the tradition.

The text is very clear about who will gain when Israel learns to live the covenantal life. Surprisingly, it is not God, but Israel. Verse 2 suggests that the intended outcome is "so that your days may be long," and verse 3 says "so that it may go well with you" (emphasis added). In addition, the promise of numerical growth reminds us of the earlier promise to Abraham in Genesis 12.

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone" (v. 4). These words are the beginning of the Shema. Shema means "hear" in Hebrew. This is the classic formulation of Israel's faith. Even today, observant Jews pray these words twice a day as an act of faith. Then, as now, the essence of that faith is that there is only one God, the Lord.

But what, exactly, does this mean? The wide variety found in English translations of the Bible suggests that we may never know for certain. The text is ambiguous. One translation might be "The LORD our God is one LORD," as in the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version, with the New International Version being very similar. This reading suggests that the oneness of God is being emphasized in contrast to the multiple manifestations of Baal, the primary challenger for Israel's allegiance. It seems that every town and village worshiped its own version of this chief god of the surrounding Canaanites.

A second way of translating this passage might be "The LORD is our God, the LORD alone," as in the New Revised Standard Version. Here, the emphasis is placed upon relationship. Only the LORD is Israel's God. This God walks with Israel in a covenantal relationship and needs no other assistance to be Israel's God. Since both translations are important we should probably try to keep them both in mind.

This ambiguity of meaning in which several things seem to be said at the same time is characteristic of Deuteronomy as a whole, and it continues in the following verses from chapter 6. We will look at four words:

  • The first is love. It is tempting to read an emotional significance into this word that would be somewhat foreign to its original hearers. We know from other ancient Near Eastern texts, however, that this word has the general meaning of "obedience," not affection, especially the obedience that a ruler might expect from his subjects. This fits well with the covenantal relationship that lies at the heart of these passages. The problem is, do we really think that God wants us to "obey" in that sense? Is our love an imposed, political allegiance that we somehow owe to God as our overlord? Here is where the text comes into its own. The rest of this passage, as elsewhere in Deuteronomy, urges us to see that this love is not merely allegiance. "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might," it says in verse 5. God's oneness and totality is to be matched by a total commitment that responds to God's prior love for us. Again, the simple words heart, soul, and might signify different aspects of the human experience in the biblical world than they do in our modern culture. We will not understand this text if we let our experience govern its interpretation.
  • In the world of the text, heart had to do with the intellect or the decision-making process. We tend to understand the heart as the seat of feelings and emotions. Thus, the Hebrew heart corresponds with our notion of the "mind" or the "will."
  • The Hebrew word translated soul refers to all the inner emotions, hopes, desires, and individual characteristics that make us who we are. To love God with all one's heart and soul, then, means to love God with one's entire being: physical and mental, intellectual and emotional, in all our decisions, choices, and desires.
  • The last word, might, is also tantalizingly obscure. It is the source of the adverb "very, exceedingly," and this is actually how it is translated elsewhere. Essentially, it has to do with strength, whether that is measured by physical brawn, intellectual prowess, or material possessions.

Whether we capture the intention of our author with phrases like "to the nth degree" or "to the max," the point should be clear. The love that we show God is, first of all, a response to God's prior, overpowering love for us. Second, it is a total response that emerges from every aspect of who we are. It is a fundamental decision that involves every aspect of our lives and holds nothing back.

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

The Great Commandment

6Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.* 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem* on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

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10 February 2011

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