The Great Shema (3)

DISTILLATION OF THE COVENANT PRINCIPLES: 6:4-5

Following the brief introduction to the general stipulations (6:1-3), Moses distills the Decalogue, itself an encapsulation of the entire covenant, into just sixteen Hebrew words, providing “the expression of the essence of all God’s person and purposes” (6:4-5).[1]

Named after the first Hebrew word in 6:4 (shéma’, “hear, pay attention”), the “Great Shema” has long been regarded as central to Deuteronomy and to Israelite theology and praxis.[2] However, because of its brevity, the translation of the Shema (particularly 6:4) into English has been the topic of considerable debate. Although the initial imperative and vocative (“pay attention, Israel”) are clear enough, translating the remaining four terms (“Yahweh, our God, Yahweh, one”) into English involves making a decision on the placement of the copulative and the precise translation of ekhad as “one” or “alone.”[3]

On balance, given the statement’s quasi-poetic brevity, it seems best to render 6:4: “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one.”[4] This translation allows for a mediating position between Block’s arguments for rendering ekhad as “alone,” emphasizing God’s uniqueness, and Janzen’s arguments for God’s oneness as internal consistency and faithfulness to Israel.[5] Compared to the gamut of Canaanite and other ancient Near Eastern deities, Yahweh was indeed unique,[6] primarily because of his faithfulness to Israel from the patriarchs (6:3b, 10a), through the exodus (6:12), and into the immanent conquest of Canaan (6:1b, 3, 10-11). That “Yahweh is one” is not so much an ontological statement as it is a historical reflection[7] in remembrance of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to his covenant people.

Therefore, in response to this unique faithfulness, Israel must love Yahweh absolutely (6:5), as seen by the concentric use of lebab (“heart,” the inner being, including emotion and intellect), nephesh (“soul,” the entire being, including desires), and me’od (“strength,” the physical being, including economic and social resources).[8] This is the only proper response to the God who is truly ekhad (6:4),[9] comprising the essential principle upon which the entire covenant rested.[10] Related to the previously mentioned fear of Yahweh and obedience to the covenant stipulations (6:1-3), loving Yahweh involves the epistemic/ontic response of internalizing (with the lebab and nephesh) and embodying (through the me’od) covenant faithfulness.


[1] Merrill, 162.

[2] Daniel I. Block claims that “the Shema’ is as close as early Judaism came to the formulation of a creed” (“How many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5,” JETS 47 (2004): 195). Similarly, most commentators note the Shema’s distinctive importance. Cf. Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, revised (WBC 6a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 142; McConville, 139-140; Merrill, 162; Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (trans. D. Barton; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 64.

[3] These are only two of the numerous proposals for the translation of ekhad. See Block, 195-8 for a full discussion.

[4] J. Gerald Janzen, “On the Most Important Word in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5),” VT 37 (1987): 280-300; Merrill, 162-3.

[5] See Block, 211-2 and Janzen, 300

[6] Carpenter, 456; John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 177.

[7] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 394.

[8] I have here conflated the lexical data provided by Block, 203 and Merrill, 164.

[9] Merrill, 164.

[10] McConville, 139.

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