The final words of the Shema contain Moses’ command to the Israelites to bind the words of God as signs on the hands and between the eyes (Deut. 6:8). He also commands them to write these words on the doorposts of their houses and on their gates (v. 9). In previous verses (vv. 6, 8), Moses calls for God’s words to be “on the heart” of each Israelite, and that they be considered and discussed daily as a part of ordinary family life. Given this context, his commands to bind these words to our bodies and to write them on our homes are to ensure that God’s people never forget His Word (see Deut. 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11, 14; 25:19).
We should have no trouble understanding the rationale behind such commands, even in our own day. Consider, for example, the contemporary custom of wearing a cross around the neck. It serves much the same purpose—to remind us of Christ’s work on our behalf, to keep us from forgetting something that has defining importance in our lives.
It is interesting to note, then, that most Israelites never took these commands literally (though some did and still do). We simply lack any biblical evidence that these commands were ever carried out in a literal sense. There is no record of Samuel, David, or Solomon ever wearing armbands or headbands as described in these few verses. We never read of Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, or the prophets either enjoining or following these commands. And what about Jesus? He was the very embodiment of true Israel, yet it is never recorded that He followed this practice. So, if these commands did not require wearing Torah scrolls around the arm or between the eyes, what did Moses intend?
We may be helped by considering the appearance of a similar command in Exodus 13:9: “And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt” (see v. 16). Some forty years earlier, Moses commanded that Israel’s redemption and deliverance from Egypt be bound to each Israelite on hand and forehead, just like the commands in Deuteronomy 6, so that it might be carefully remembered and passed down to succeeding generations (vv. 8, 14). In the case of Exodus, however, commandments or statutes were not bound to each Israelite, but rather the Lord’s redemption of His people from Egypt—not words, but events. Thus, some type of literal observation would have been almost impossible— unless each Israelite had worn the image of a dead firstborn child or an Egyptian drowning in the Red Sea.
The only other instance of this type of command is found at Deuteronomy 11:18: “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” In this instance, we are back to binding words to the body, similar to the injunction in 6:8–9. But carefully observe the preceding context, where Moses says God’s Word is to be laid up “in your heart and in your soul.” Thus, it appears once again that Moses is using an outward, physical reality in order to illustrate an important inner reality. In other words, Moses desires that God’s words should be bound to the hearts of each Israelite, just like bracelets and headbands are bound to their owners, out in the open, in plain view, never to be forgotten or neglected.
Remember that jewelry and articles of clothing are often symbolic of nonphysical realities in the Bible. One excellent example is found in Proverbs 1:8–9, where the instruction of one’s parents is to be worn on the head and around the neck like jewelry (see also Prov. 3:3). In Isaiah 62:3, Jerusalem is described as a “crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord.” In Song of Songs 8:6, the woman desires to be placed like a seal upon the heart and arm of her beloved, representing the strength of their love (see also Prov. 3:3; 4:9; Isa. 11:5; Job 11:5). Sartorial accoutrements of these types communicate the special value of an intangible possession, and like their tangible counterparts, they also should identify, typify, and define the possessor.
In addition to the crucifix mentioned above, our modern culture is filled with items of clothing or jewelry that characterize the wearer. The wedding ring is a reminder of our marriage vows and a particular status. The number on our favorite jersey connects us with our favorite athlete. The logo on a shirt may communicate brand loyalty or someone’s place of work. We wear these things to remind us about what is important and, to a certain degree, what defines us. Since this is almost universally true, then let us forever put on Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27)—the very Word of God (Deut. 6:6–9) and perfect redemption (Ex. 13:9, 16).