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The Shema begins with these words: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4).
The verbal imperative that begins this core affirmation for the Hebrews breaks forth from the text like a rosy dawn. Interestingly, the same appeal, “Hear, O Israel,” introduces the recounting of the Decalogue that begins in Deuteronomy 5:1. This indicates the significance of the utterance. Among the 5,845 verses in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), this creedal statement is definitely a keynote, as demonstrated by the significant roles this confession of faith subsequently played in the development of Judaism.
Rescued from the blistering iron furnace of the Egyptians, the newly minted band of wandering pilgrims was soon to settle in the land of Canaan. They undoubtedly felt anticipation, fear, bewilderment, and many other emotions. They were in need of instruction and encouragement in doctrine. God, therefore, gave them what they needed for their new home: a creedal statement with practical ramifications.
This verse, which contains only six Hebrew words (Shema yisra’el Adonai eloheynu Adonai ehiad), can be translated in several ways (the translation with which I opened the article is very literal). Even so, the meaning is essentially straightforward in light of the circumstances of the ancient Hebrews.
In their past, these Hebrews had been exposed to a number of gods (as they would be exposed again in the future). There were wide variations in the status of these deities. The people had seen false religion in Egypt. They knew about a multitude of gods there, but Amon-Re was considered king of the gods in Egypt. Now they were entering Canaan and would be exposed to the Ugaritic-Canaanite pantheon. There, El was regarded as the father of all gods and the creator of all creatures, but he was portrayed as somewhat removed from human affairs. Asherah, El’s wife, was the goddess of the sea; she was portrayed as having evident influence over El and his decisions. Baal was represented as a kingly figure who was the god of the storm and rain, which were so vitally important to the agriculture of the region. Then there was Anat, the sister-wife of Baal, a goddess of love and war. Astarte was a goddess identified with fertility and represented in many statuettes as a naked woman that held her breasts out to the worshiper. Lastly, from the East, on the Mesopotamian side, they would hear of Marduk, also called Bel or “Lord,” with many titles distinguishing him as lord of lords among the deities of the East. There were others, too. The Hebrews, therefore, were exposed to the idea of many gods in the surrounding cultures.
However, the Lord of the Hebrews wanted them to know that He alone was to be their God. Even before the pronouncement of the Shema, God had made known to them that He alone was the one true God (Deut. 4:32–35). With the Shema, He called them to apply this truth, especially since they were about to enter a land filled with people worshiping other gods. Even so, the Lord was to be their God.
Linguists note that small words may convey huge meanings. The translation above declares that “the LORD” is our God. In other words, in the midst of many other gods, the Hebrews were to love, fear, revere, and obey only this God who had revealed Himself to them. They were not to go whoring after the many other gods in the land, as is clear from the injunctions given in Deuteronomy 6:13–14.
In the verses immediately following the Shema, the Israelites are commanded to love God with a full-souled love. This language of love (vv. 5–6) was the customary way by which a vassal expressed loyalty to a suzerain in the ancient Near East. In other words, this relationship entailed gratitude marked by upright behavior.
But the Shema carries not merely demands but also affirmations about the character and faithfulness of God. Recently, scholars have sought to demonstrate that the last word of the Shema (ehiad, or “one”) is an affirmation of God’s loyalty and His own moral unity. This is justified by indirect appeal to the close connections with the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5, mentioned above, and Jeremiah 32:38–41, among other texts. If this indirect claim is correct, then the historical prologue in Deuteronomy 5:6 (“who brought you out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery”) is echoed tersely in the word one at the end of the Shema. Therefore, divine integrity assured the Hebrews at the threshold of their entrance into Canaan.