The “Shema” or “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD” is recited in every synagogue service as the central truth of the Jewish religion. The Jewish faith is defined in its belief in monotheism, and this verse is used to support this belief. Even Jesus quoted this verse as the first of the two great commandments. So this verse is important to Christians also. As Christians believe in the Divine authority and inspiration of the Old Testament as well as the New, then this verse applies to us as well. But exactly what does this verse really mean. Is it primarily a verse about the oneness of God? Let us see.
Exposition of the Text
It is always important to read any verse or passage of Scripture in its context because the context helps give meaning to it. And this is just the case here. The context of this passage is the Book of Deuteronomy which was delivered by Moses (save the last chapter) to Israel at the end of his life. It is written in an ancient treaty form called a “suzerain-vassal treaty.” It this type of treaty, the Lord of the covenant or suzerain spelled out the conditions of the treaty and the rewards for faithfulness and punishment for faithlessness. What was promised by the suzerain and what was expected of the vassal was clearly spelled out.
In this treaty, Yahweh shows his faithfulness to the treaty by reminding Israel of His undeserved goodness and faithfulness to Israel in spite of Israel’s disobedience. Yahweh through Moses reminds them of His great and undeserved deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Israel is reminded of this at the beginning of the Ten Commandments which begin with “I AM the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. The Ten Commandments were first recorded at Sinai in Exodus 20 but are repeated in the previous chapter of Deuteronomy. Israel was reminded again in verse 12 of today’s passage. This gracious release from bondage was in turn a fulfillment of a promise made to Abraham more than 400 years earlier. This shows the absolute faithfulness and devotion of Yahweh to the previous covenant promises He made to Israel. This should assure Israel that the great Suzerain of the universe would continue to abide faithfully to His promise.
If problems should arise in the future to Israel, they could be assured that the problem rested on their faithlessness and not God’s. Their previous record in Egypt and the wilderness showed how faithless Israel had previously been. They had suffered greatly as a result of their lack of faith. From the very beginning of Deuteronomy they are reminded of this by the words “in the 40th year”. Why should have been a journey of 11 days have taken so long? It was because of the lack of faith on the part of the fathers who rebelled at the spies report. All of them had died except Moses who was just about to die and Joshua and Caleb were dead from that generation as a punishment for disobedience.
The necessity of the whole book of Deuteronomy was a warning to the current generation to be obedient to the covenant or else suffer a similar fate as their fathers in the wilderness. They were going to enter into the land which Yahweh had promised Abraham. God was going to remain faithful to his promise which He unconditionally gave to Abraham. So long as Israel was faithful to the conditions of the treaty of Deuteronomy, all would be well. The enemy would be driven out and the people blessed. But if they disobeyed, there would be dire consequences. The previous inhabitant were being vomited out of the land for their idolatry and other sins. Israel would suffer the same fate if they behaved in a similar matter. The fact that there are twice as many curses as blessings stipulated in the covenant shows what the expected outcome would be. There would be no need of covenant curses if Israel was going to remain obedient. God knew better.
This is the context in which the “Hear, O Israel” rests. The word for “hear” is very similar in Hebrew to the word for “obey”. In fact, deciding on “hear” and “obey” is really a matter of interpretation as the original Hebrew text did not contain vowels. An interpretation had to be made which vowels to supply. Even if “hear” is correct, obedience is strongly implied by the context.
The next four words in Hebrew literally reads “Yahweh our God, Yahweh One. There are no verbs here other than the word “Yahweh” itself is a form of the verb “I AM”. The missing verbs have to be supplied as a matter of interpretation. The word “is” is added to make a good English sentence. However, where the “is” is placed makes all the difference in the world. The King James Version and most other English versions place the “is” after the “elohenu” (our God) and then moves the second Yahweh after “echad” (one) to get the reading “The LORD our God is one LORD.” But what happens if the “is” is placed before the first Yahweh and elohenu. This would give the reading “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone (one).” In the first reading, the stress would be on the oneness of God. If the second reading is taken, then it stresses the singularity of commitment that Israel was to have with Yahweh.
I think that the second reading is much more natural than the first. It really fits the context of Deuteronomy much better as has been already described. A statement of the ontological oneness of God stick out too much in the text. This is not the issue of the book at all. The second reading also requires less manipulation of the text order in that it does not require the moving of “one” to a position before the second Yahweh. I do think the “one” here is best rendered in English by “only”. The oneness of Israel’s service to Yahweh is what is being stressed here.
This is not to deny monotheism at all. The Old Testament as a whole, especially Isaiah, teach us that there is no other God but Yahweh. Yahweh is not one god among many. But this verse is not talking about a oneness of substance in the Godhead. This is a Greek misunderstanding of the Hebrew text which has caused havoc in the church for ages. Yes, Yahweh is the only God. And as the only God, He is to be the only God we serve. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity of one God and three persons is a true one. This is indeed a mystery.
So if we take that the shema is a call to absolute devotion to Yahweh, the interpretation of the rest of the passage is pretty straightforward. The obedience if Israel to the LORD of the covenant was to be absolute. They were not to serve any other so-called god(s), like those of the land they were about to possess. But their obedience was not to be out of slavish fear. Rather their obedience was to be out of love for the grace God had showed them. After all, even the Ten Commandments are grounded in the gracious act of God who freed them from Egyptian bondage as we have noted. God did not free them from Pharaoh so that they could be His cringing slaves.. The proper response to the grace showed by God was and is love. Even the later passage in Deuteronomy about the willing bondservant who so loved his master that he did not seek release after seven years is a demonstration of this. This servant was willing to have an awl driven through his ears and remain forever in the house of his master as a servant forever rather than to be released with enough resources to go back to a previous “free” existence.
The totality of this love commitment involved the entire person. It was not just to be a ungrounded emotional response, not an assent of the mind. Israel was to think about the relationship. Love is not just an emotional and mindless response to God’s grace. God’s people were to be thinking people as well.
This thoughtful expression of love was to result in obedience to the covenant. They needed to constantly remind themselves of what God had done for them. The works of God was to be frontlet to their eyes. Everything they thought or did needed to be in the context of what Yahweh had done for them. If they would only fix their eyes upon the faithfulness and lovingkindness of God, all would be well.
As we noted, Jesus cited this verse on several occasions as the first great commandment. If we were to understand this verse in its new meaning, then Jesus is reminding us that the proper response to the grace of God in our lives is a single-hearted devotion to the Triune God. The love for neighbor is how we demonstrate the singleness of this commitment. This is what real biblical holiness is based on. In all of our loving service to our neighbor we are to be reminded to give God the glory. Our service to others in the name of Jesus Christ is a demonstration of God’s goodness to us. This service is to involve our minds as well as our heart. Our service to Jesus is not just an emotional response but an intellectual one as well. When we consider that the word for glory (doxa) is or similar origin to the Greek word for “think” (dokeo), we can see there is a tight connection between thinking and glory. Our word “orthodox” comes from the words for “right” and “glory”. In other words, being orthodox means giving God the poper glory for who He is.
This giving God the glory is more than just intellectual consent. If one truly believes, they will act with all of their heart, all of their mind, and all of their strength. The whole person needs to be engaged in the worship of the one true God.
In today’s church, emotionalism has become an unhealthy stress. It is as though we left our mind at the door and plunged into the irrational. Instead of looking out and up to God, we are looking for the answers from within. By doing this, we are making gods out of ourselves. We wrongly see God. How can we glorify a God that we care to know nothing about? Why is the term “beneficial, therapeutic deism” thrown around as the new view of God in today’s church? The term is an oxymoron as deists believed that God created the universe but left it to fend for itself. The deist god does not care. How is this therapeutic? How is this beneficial? In other words, the god that Most Americans desire is one that might as well not exist at all. Then the idolatrous heart of man can enthrone itself while God is off in a far country.
We must be reminded that Israel failed the covenant and were vomited out of the land as promised. They would be vomited out because they did not offer exclusive worship to the LORD who had graciously freed them. The question I would ask is whether the Christian church could be sent off into exile. What is even worse is that as “beneficial therapeutic deists, they think they have sent God off into exile. We should consider the covenant blessings and curses from the end of the Book of Deuteronomy and ask ourselves in America whether we are being blessed or cursed. Read them for yourselves and ask yourself this question.
We need to be reminded constantly of who we are and whose we are. We have been freed from sin by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sin and rebellion. The atoning death of Christ for sin was also a part of the promise given to Abraham. We cannot be reminded of what Christ has done for us continuously. Instead of literal Scripture boxes on out forehead, we remind ourselves constantly through reading the Scripture and prayer. This is what Paul means in Thessalonians when he says to pray without ceasing. Let us proclaim our love for Jesus in both word and deed to our neighbors and invite them to share in the community of Jesus.