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We come today to one of the most famous passages of the Jewish Bible (that is, what Christians usually call the ‘Old Testament’). It is recited twice daily in Jewish morning and evening prayer services, taught to children, and traditionally spoken as the last words before dying. The shema, Israel’s creed, is one of the first sentences Jewish people learn to say in Hebrew. The preface comes in verses 1-3, as Moses tells the Israelites that these are the commandments which Yahweh has told him to teach them to follow in the land which flows with milk and honey.
Verse 4 is the famous verse: Shema Israel, ‘adonai’ elohenu, ‘adonai’ echad. Literally, we would translate: ‘Hear Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh one’. You may notice there is no verb ‘is’, but it may be understood from the context of the sentence. The other peculiar thing to note is that although we say ‘adonai‘, which means ‘Lord’, in fact the consonants printed in Hebrew form the name of God, which I have been writing as ‘Yahweh’ in this blog. For some Jewish people, the divine name is so sacred that they neither say it nor write it. (In some Bibles, it is written as ‘Jehovah’, but I prefer ‘Yahweh’, or just the consonants: ‘YHWH’.) In most Bibles, the divine name is represented with the capital letters ‘LORD’ (as distinct from the actual word for ‘lord’ in Hebrew, which is adon and is also used in many places). When we read with our eyes the Hebrew YHWH, we say with our lips ‘adonai‘. That may all sound super confusing, but it is quite important for understanding the text of scripture. Simply put: LORD is not the same as Lord; it is Yahweh, God’s own name. Reading the Old Testament with that knowledge will help you understand it better.
So, back to our text. Yahweh is Israel’s God. That is clear and easy. What does it mean that he is ‘one’ (echad)? For many Jewish people, this creed is why Christianity is impossible to consider, with its three persons in the trinitarian Godhead. ‘One’ could also mean ‘alone’ or ‘unique’, which fits our understanding of Deuteronomy and its disavowal of any rival god (cf Isaiah also). Echad also means ‘first’ in many parts of scripture (eg Gen 8:5,13), but I’m not sure we should push for that translation, unless we stress the meaning of having first place, or number one priority.
Nevertheless, this interpretation fits the following verse, which is also part of the creed and is repeated by Jesus: “Love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Matt 22:37). Note that for Hebrews, ‘heart’ is not the seat of affection (which would be the bowels!) but is your mind and will. What is translated as ‘soul’ means the essence of a person, her or his ‘beingness’, what makes you you and not someone else. Finally, the word translated as ‘strength’ doesn’t mean strength at all (!) but is a very common word which normally means the adverb (adverbs describe adjectives and verbs) ‘very’ or ‘much’. But how would we translate this into English? Your ‘very-ness’? Your ‘muchness’? How about your ‘all’? Now try it on for size: “Love Yahweh with your mind, your self, and your all”.
This was so important for the Israelites that they had to keep it in mind always and let it control every behavior, at home and on the road, resting and working, doing and thinking. The phrase that is translated as ‘teach’ is actually a word for the sharp tip of an arrow; Moses does not only command them to teach it, but to drive it into the flesh of the children (figuratively of course!) and write it where they would always see it, going out and coming in. Many Jewish offices and homes have a symbol of the creed literally stuck to the doors so that people remember it wherever they go; whether they do or not, as they touch or kiss it, is another question! The mezuzah (pictured below) is a sign you are entering a Jewish household and is simply the word for ‘doorpost’ but represents a lot more.
I feel like we are just scratching the surface, and yet going to the depths of detail. Do I need to spell out an application? It is this: Love Yahweh, your God, with all that you are, wherever you are, and teach others to do likewise.
Prayer: LORD, you alone are my God. Remind me daily of your grace and power, of being obedient to your word. Enable me to love you with everything that I am and everything I have, wherever I go, and wherever I stay.