Shema Basics

"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.

- "Enter The Bible" website, Luther Seminary


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