One of the remarkable features of the Bible is the way in which God uses simple words to convey the most profound truth. This point is effectively demonstrated by the single Hebrew word shema’ (English = ‘hear’), which provides us with a central theological text in Deuteronomy chapter 6 verses 4-9.
The basic Hebrew words for ‘hearing’ from which shema’ is derived, have a wide range of semantical meanings. We ‘hear’ the voice of cattle, Jer. 9. 10, the noise of different human emotions, Ezra 3. 13, or the sound of musical instruments preceding worship, Dan. 3. 7. More importantly, this family of words is frequently used to reinforce an instruction so that individuals give careful attention to what is being proposed, e.g., heeding God’s word, Isa. 46. 3, or advice from parents, Prov. 1. 8. What is being stressed in these contexts is that hearing means obeying and doing, Ps. 18. 44. By extension, this principle is the single most important feature of the associated word shema’ that begins the great confessional statement of Israel found in Deuteronomy chapter 6 verses 4-9, which starts with the call to ‘hear’ – ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord’. Thus the Hebrew word shema’ has become the common term – the capital letters single it out (SHEMA) – given to this text. It reflects the covenant obedience required of Israel, and its recitation is a binding legal act in which individuals pledge their commitment to God’s word. Such is the import of this pledge that parents teach it to their children before they go to sleep each night, cp. Prov. 6. 20-22. It is the last utterance that Jews hope to say before they die.
It is possible to translate Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 4 in at least two different ways:
The first emphasizes that God alone is Israel’s God; the second emphasizes the unity and uniqueness of the God that they serve. The first confirms the general teaching of Deuteronomy that Israel should not only be obedient to the covenant, but also show exclusive loyalty to the Lord, Deut. 13. Paradoxically, the assertion that the Lord was exclusively Israel’s God did not deny the existence of other gods. Unfortunately, Israel’s spiritual infidelity is well documented, reminding them of their covenant relationship with the one true God, and of the punishment for their failure to comply, see Isa. 3. 12-15.
This interpretation of the word shema’ is also emphasized in the New Testament. When the Lord Jesus was once asked by a scribe to state which was the most important commandment, Mark 12. 28, He replied by citing the opening two lines from the SHEMA, Deut, 6. 4-5 (LXX). He added a second commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, Lev. 19. 18, and subsumed these texts into one great commandment. Craig Evans suggests that the Lord used one of Hillel the Elder’s seven rules for interpreting scripture – ‘general and particular, and particular and general’.1 So when the Lord replies that the greatest commandment (’the general’) is to love the Lord with all one’s heart, Deut. 6. 4-5, and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, Lev. 19. 18, He had summed up all of the ‘particular’ commandments.
The second translation above suggests that the oneness of God is not only a fundamental Jewish confession, it is also the first commandment, Exod. 20. 3. The Hebrew word for ‘one’ (ehad) in Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 4, is the ordinary Hebrew numeral. The SHEMA therefore stresses that God is all on His own, not merely first among gods, but omnipotent, and thereby denying the existence of other gods. Monotheism forms part of the teaching of the New Testament, especially the apostle Paul, e.g., 1 Cor. 8. 4; Gal. 3. 20; 1 Tim. 2. 5. In 1 Corinthians chapter 8 verse 6, Paul expands on the scope of Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 4, and sets in apposition the one God, the Father and the one Lord, Jesus Christ as being both uniquely God. Gordon Fee describes this as an extraordinary Christological moment, where Paul offers a deliberate Christian restatement of the SHEMA.2 The first aspect of the SHEMA is the command to hear, v. 4, but the second is the command ‘to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might’, v. 5. The command to love is predicated on Israel’s commitment to God’s law, Deut. 5. 10.
‘Love’ here is equivalent to obedience and loyalty, and matters to the extent that it is expressed through concrete action, not emotion or through mere sentiment, but something that is worked out in a practical way through keeping God’s commandments. As Israel had been loved by God, Deut. 7. 6-8, so this love was to be reciprocated. In Deuteronomy chapter 6 verses 6-9, Moses provides a basic practical framework in which obedience and loyalty to God could be expressed in daily life, and ultimately transmitted to successive generations.
Making this confession of faith was not enough, though. To love God meant obeying His commandments, and being loyal to Him. For us as believers today, it is not sufficient simply to hear God’s word; we must obey it and live by it, Jas. 1. 22-25. If this was the requirement under the old covenant, then how much greater should our response be when we hear His voice and seek to obey His word under a new covenant, John 14. 15; 15. 10, 12, ratified by the blood of Christ, Heb. 9. 24-28?
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