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Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Deuteronomy 6:4

Shema Israel! Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Aḥad

(ESV): “Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD is one!

(KJV): “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD”

(NLT): “Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”

(NASB): “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!

(Alternative 1): “Listen up Israel! The LORD our God is LORD alone.”

(Alternative 2): “Listen up Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD is unified.”

Deuteronomy 6:4 is one of the hardest verses to translate in the Old Testament. Hebrew has a kind of sentence structure where it’s permissible to leave out all the verbs; and the reader is meant to intuit a good place for a ‘being’ verb (am, are, is, was, were). In almost all other cases, figuring out where to put that being verb is extremely self evident; and where it wouldn’t otherwise be evident, the author inserts the necessary being verb. That this has not been done for Deuteronomy 6:4 in the original Hebrew likely speaks to the true antiquity of the verse, as well as the living history of interpretation this verse has seen going back to before Deuteronomy was written.

There are a number of places, in the Torah especially, where later editors felt the need to clarify references that had lost their timeliness, or would be too vague for their contemporary crowd. The editors of Genesis clarify that the ‘Ur’ Abram is from was ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’ in spite of the fact that the Chaldeans never held ‘Ur’ until long after Abram left. They also include camels in the spoils of Abram’s dealings with Egypt even though he likely lived almost 1000 years before the first domesticated camels made their way over the Iranian plateau, and into the Fertile Crescent. For their contemporary audience, camels were a symbol of wealth and power, so receiving tribute without camels wouldn’t convey the extravagance of Egypt’s gift to Abram.

But even though we see those kinds of small editorial changes throughout the Torah, and parts of the rest of the Old Testament, no editor ever felt the need to, or perhaps the permission to add a similar clarification here. And there are likely two reasons for that. The first is that this verse is one of the most sacred texts in the Hebrew Bible; merely beginning to quote this verse invokes the entire Torah, all its lessons, and all its authority into the conversation when spoken aloud in a gathering of faithful Jews. To alter it would be to diminish it; which is also a major part of the second reason it likely remains unaltered: leaving the verse ambiguous allows for all possible readings to be studied, meditated on, internalized, and brought to bear on our understanding of Scripture and God’s story with us.

Yes, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone; and also, the LORD our God is one, unified LORD. The LORD is our God, there is only one LORD; not a thousand regional iterations of the LORD as is the case with the Baals. All are true, and all are worthy of meditation, because all are meant to become part of our identity; consider the verse in its context: Deuteronomy 6:1–9 (NASB95)

1“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, 2so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. 3O Israel, you should listen and be careful to do it, that it may be well with you and that you may multiply greatly, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.

4“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. 7You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

“Now this is the commandment,” Jesus will call it the first and greatest commandment; “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

It should be noted, we do not use the same anthropomorphisms as Hebrew does, so heart, soul, and might mean very different things to us than their Hebrew counterparts. In the Hebrew concept of humanity, the heart is the seat of all thought, emotional or intellectual. To love the LORD your God with all your heart is to love Him with every thought, to dedicate your emotions, and your intellect to the service of the LORD your God. The word translated ‘soul’ here is the word ‘nephesh’; which more precisely refers to your life’s essences, the breath and force, given to all life by God at creation which animates and drives us. To love the LORD your God with all your nephesh is to love Him with all that animates you, all you essence, all your breath, everything that makes you, you. Finally, the word for ‘might’ here is a curious one. The Hebrew word is not a noun, it’s an adjective meaning ‘greatness’ or ‘muchness’ (and yes, the Oxford dictionary says ‘muchness’ is a real word). In most contexts it is used to describe the entirety of a person’s physical, social, political, and financial influence; all those things which you have power over. To love the LORD your God with all your muchness is to dedicate your power to His purposes; all your power in every sphere of life. There is no compartmentalizing the love of the LORD that meets the requirements of this command; no loving the LORD with your finances, but not your political influence; no loving the LORD with your physical strength but not your wealth and social credibility. To not love the LORD with all of it is to not love the LORD enough.

But the text goes further; it acknowledges that we are too prone to forget, so we are commanded to saturate our lives, and our daily experiences with reminders that we are to love the LORD with all of it, everything, always. Write it at the entrance of your house so you see it on the way out and the way in. Write it on the entrance to your community so that you remember that your actions will be God’s witness to those who come in and go out from your community. Speak about it all the time, waking or sleeping; at home or out and about with your children and grandchildren, so that in the telling you are reminded, and they are taught, and you are each held accountable to one another. Write it on your arm so that whenever you stretch out your hand to do work, you are reminded of the one to whom you have dedicated your labor. Write it on your forehead so that you won’t forget that your actions are a witness to God’s faithfulness for those who see you. But most importantly, write it on your heart.

When Judah is destroyed, and her people taken into captivity, the prophets speak of a hard heartedness, of hearts of stone too brittle to hold the commands of God. They speak of a new covenant that will exchange hearts of stone for hearts of flesh; beating, regenerating hearts that will have the word of God engraved on them, which will heal the broken persons they are placed in as the promises and commands of God beat through their veins. Those prophets were looking forward to Jesus, and the new covenant written in His blood. The death of the heart of stone can be found in the grave which Jesus entered, the grave we enter as we are plunged beneath the waters of our baptism. The heart of flesh, carved with a new covenant, flowing with Christ’s blood, beating with love for God in all our thought life, all our animating essence, all our power and resources; we are born again with that heart pumping renewal through our veins when we rise in a foretaste of the resurrection out of the waters of death, into the new life of Christ. While our new hearts may not need the constant physical reminders anymore, the beating covenant within us delights to be reminded of God’s love, so much so that such a saturation is a light thing to ask, and a joy to fulfill. This one LORD, this unified Godhead, three-in-one, this one God alone who is ours forever; to dedicate everything always to Him, though we give it all away we lose nothing, because the love of God is more valuable than any hidden treasure, or any pearl. Set time aside this week to actively choose to love God in some way; spend time in prayer and meditation seeking out those areas of your life which you may still be withholding, refusing to dedicate in the service of loving God, and find a way and make a plan to hand them over.