“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-5
This is a prayer called the Shema. Shema Israel or Sh’ma Yisrael is Hebrew for Listen Israel or Hear Israel. It is a prayer that is said twice a day in the Jewish religion. Deuteronomy is Moses’ last speech to the Israelites before they enter the promised land and before he dies. These are his last words. He has a lot of last words. Thiry-four chapters, in fact. As always, I encourage you to read the whole chapter and the whole book.
Moses starts off Deuteronomy reviewing what God has done for them, bringing them out of Egypt and through the wilderness. Chapter four begins Moses’ review of what God has commanded of them, how they should live.
“Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 4:1
I loved how God laid out exactly why He was saying all these things. So that you…
- May live (4:1)
- Go in and take possession of the land (v1)
- Follow the decrees in the land you are entering (v5)
- Learn to revere me (v 10)
- Teach them (God’s words) to their children (v10)
- Do not become corrupt and make an idol (v16)
- Know that the Lord is God (v35)
- It may go well with you and your children after you (v40)
- May live long in the land the Lord God gives you for all time (v40)
He is not a God of ambivalence. He answered all the “why” questions his children could have. And the “why” He laid out his commands are all for their good. So they may live, take their land, follow His decrees, revere Him, teach their children His ways, stay true to Him alone, know that He is God, that it may go well for them and that they may live long in the land the Lord gave them.
It is easy to look on the law as a dirty list of rules. Phew! Thank God we are out from under the law and don’t have to live by all those standards!
But the law was – is – a beautiful thing. Yes, we live in Jesus, but when studying God’s parameters for life, they show us how much He loves His people. The Israelites and God’s law for them is a demonstration of His great love. Some of His laws were literally for their physical health. Many were to train them in how to love others, how to live together well, how to love Him. These are all the things we strive to teach our own children.
God’s Chosen People
We know that the Jews are God’s chosen people. He declared they would be so when He called Abraham in Genesis 12:2 telling him he will become a great nation, a blessing. And He fulfilled His promise. The Israelites became a great nation, but through hardship. All through the Old Testament we can follow them through enslavement, freedom, confusion, redemption and blessings.
God’s chosen people are blessed and they are a living metaphor for how He loves each of us individually. Through Christ, we are all His chosen people.
“…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:3
All peoples. Even you.
How does this relate to the Shema?
Why are we talking about Abraham, about the Jewish nation? Because while Jesus freed us from the life-saving commands of the law through His one sacrifice, the heart of God is the same then, today and forever.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”
This is the basis of monotheism. The Israelites were coming out of Egypt, a nation who worshiped many gods. The Lord was leading them to take possession of a land filled with people who also worshiped many gods.
In his book Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton writes:
“Instead of dividing religion geographically and as it were vertically, into Christian, Moslem, Brahmin, Buddhist, and so on, I would divide it psychologically and in some sense horizontally; into the strata of spiritual elements and influences that could sometimes exist in the same country, or even in the same man. Putting the Church apart for the moment, I should be disposed to divide the natural religion of the mass of mankind under such headings as these: God; the Gods; the Demons; the Philosophers.
There is the monotheism of the Jews, the gods of the pagans, philosophers of ancient Greece and the cultures that consorted with demons. The cultures that consorted with demons were involved in child sacrifice. The command against this is strongly embedded throughout God’s laws, it disgusts Him.”
Polytheism didn’t always begin with the kind of avid worship to many gods that we find in our hearts in the worship of the one, true God, but rather a kind of “getting along with everyone” idea. Welcome to our land, this is who we worship, you worship that god? Ok, we will add him too and everyone gets along. This is the idea of choosing to break bread than raise a sword. No one was being martyred for Jupiter or Zeus. Rather, they created a pantheon of gods to ensure they could live together in peace.
Before we condemn and judge the pagans who worshiped many gods, let us view how we might find those similar thoughts in our modern culture today. Have you ever heard someone say “You do you?” It sounds innocuous but that is the same attitude. “You do, think, act, believe however you want. I won’t interfere or disagree. In return, you will let me think, act, believe however I want and you won’t disagree. We will all live harmoniously (even though we actually disagree).”
But God was commanding His people to enter a land and not conform. Do not accept their gods, do not do, think, act, believe as they do. He commanded them to remember that He alone is God.
That command is true for us today. All roads do not lead to God no matter what any popular author may tell you. Jesus is the only way to God. But more on that next month.
In Jesus’ Words
This study has given relief to a nagging insecurity that I’ve always had a hard time memorizing “the Greatest Commandment”.
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Mark 12:29-30
Wait, did Jesus just add the word ‘mind’ to the command? Not really. The Old Testament was written to the Israelites, the Jews, the Hebrew people. Our YAWEH is a Hebrew God, so the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Jesus spoke Aramaic. By the time the New Testament was being written, it was understood that it was for Jews and Gentiles. To reach a broader audience (all the nations as per Jesus’ command), it was written in Greek. This is the language the people were speaking.
Why does this matter? Jesus’ words were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This is not a contradiction from what He commanded in Deuteronomy. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
The command is to love God with your whole self. The Hebrews understood the heart as an organ that commands the whole body. We understand that the mind gives the commands and the heart keeps us alive. It is one being.
Practicing the Shema
I respect the reverence Judaism gives to the scriptures and will be imitating their practice of repeating this twice a day throughout February. God calls his people to meditate on his scriptures. There is no need to empty our minds but rather to fill our whole soul with His being. I know I am more full of Him when his words emanate through my mind, heart and soul morning and night.