Tuesday

03 January 2012

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (vv. 4-5)

Background

The first part of today's reading is one of the most widely read passages of Scripture. Verses 4-9 form the main part of a daily set of readings known in the Jewish tradition as the Shema. In Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are encamped on the Plains of Moab waiting to cross the river Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses speaks words of prophecy and encouragement and, most prominently, a firm reminder of the law, with the urgency and pressure of a powerful old preacher; the immanence of his foretold death hanging over his every word. Deuteronomy is therefore 'the second giving of the law'. The people must not forget what their God has commanded them, even though many in the camp were not born when the law was originally given.

The Shema is a reminder and expansion of the first commandment: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2-3, which Moses recites in Deuteronomy 5:6-7). It concerns specifically the God of Israel, known as Yahweh (or usually written as 'the LORD') over and above any other gods that might be around. The verses themselves instruct that the words be retold and remembered from generation to generation, and that's what the Jewish people have done over thousands of years. Jesus cited verses 4-5 as being the most important commandment (Mark 12:28-31).

The first commandment - and its concern with "other gods" - is not often discussed in churches today. The assumption perhaps is that while some worship gods by different names, they are either 'all the same anyway' or are simply 'not real'. And yet this is not always the assumption of the Old Testament, or the experience of the people of Israel, whether in Egypt or as they entered into the Promised Land. The other supernatural beings (gods) in the Old Testament should not be discounted as imaginary, and they certainly should not be seen as alternative ways of viewing the same God. There is much more to the divine realm than meets the eye. What's important, however, is that Yahweh, the creator God of the Israelites who has revealed himself through the fathers of the faith (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), the Exodus rescue, and the law, is one on his own above anything else.

Moses next looks forward to the Promised Land, and the wealth and prosperity that will be theirs. While this is to encourage them in their task of conquering, it serves the dual purpose of reminding them that whatever comes their way will not have been theirs by right, but only what God has given them. In faith, they are to show gratitude for that which they have yet to receive!

The passage finishes with an angry tone. The reader should note that this is still the rhetoric of Moses, describing God, and not actually God speaking, but at the same time be aware that God chooses on a number of occasions to be described as jealous. Perhaps in the same way as a man who truly loves his wife would be jealous and angry if she slept with another. Would Yahweh be so jealous if the other gods in question were simply imaginary or irrelevant?

But the overall scope of the passage is a reminder to love God and put God first. The word "love", in this context, shouldn't be limited to a purely emotional response. As Jesus showed, the love God expects from us involves our whole self. Professor of Old Testament at the Fuller Theological Seminary John Goldingay suggests verse 5 should be translated: 'You are to give yourself to Yahweh your God with your whole mind, your whole person, your whole might.' It's about loving God with all we've got.

To Ponder

What 'gods' do you think are prevalent in your culture or society? How difficult is it to live for one God alone? How does your faith help?

How do you understand 'one God' in the light of the Christian belief in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Read the other parts of the Shema, Deuteronomy 11:13-21and Numbers 15:37-41. See what they have in common and notice the lengths the Jewish people would go not to forget.

Bible notes author: The Revd Andrew Murphy

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