Summary: We have heard the "shema" of "Hear O Israel many times. Jesus quoted it several times. But what does it mean?
Hear, O Israel
The “Shema” or “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD” is recited in every synagogue service as the central truth of the Jewish religion. The Jewish faith is defined in its belief in monotheism, and this verse is used to support this belief. Even Jesus quoted this verse as the first of the two great commandments. So this verse is important to Christians also. As Christians believe in the Divine authority and inspiration of the Old Testament as well as the New, then this verse applies to us as well. But exactly what does this verse really mean. Is it primarily a verse about the oneness of God? Let us see.
Exposition of the Text
It is always important to read any verse or passage of Scripture in its context because the context helps give meaning to it. And this is just the case here. The context of this passage is the Book of Deuteronomy which was delivered by Moses (save the last chapter) to Israel at the end of his life. It is written in an ancient treaty form called a “suzerain-vassal treaty.” It this type of treaty, the Lord of the covenant or suzerain spelled out the conditions of the treaty and the rewards for faithfulness and punishment for faithlessness. What was promised by the suzerain and what was expected of the vassal was clearly spelled out.
In this treaty, Yahweh shows his faithfulness to the treaty by reminding Israel of His undeserved goodness and faithfulness to Israel in spite of Israel’s disobedience. Yahweh through Moses reminds them of His great and undeserved deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Israel is reminded of this at the beginning of the Ten Commandments which begin with “I AM the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. The Ten Commandments were first recorded at Sinai in Exodus 20 but are repeated in the previous chapter of Deuteronomy. Israel was reminded again in verse 12 of today’s passage. This gracious release from bondage was in turn a fulfillment of a promise made to Abraham more than 400 years earlier. This shows the absolute faithfulness and devotion of Yahweh to the previous covenant promises He made to Israel. This should assure Israel that the great Suzerain of the universe would continue to abide faithfully to His promise.
If problems should arise in the future to Israel, they could be assured that the problem rested on their faithlessness and not God’s. Their previous record in Egypt and the wilderness showed how faithless Israel had previously been. They had suffered greatly as a result of their lack of faith. From the very beginning of Deuteronomy they are reminded of this by the words “in the 40th year”. Why should have been a journey of 11 days have taken so long? It was because of the lack of faith on the part of the fathers who rebelled at the spies report. All of them had died except Moses who was just about to die and Joshua and Caleb were dead from that generation as a punishment for disobedience.
The necessity of the whole book of Deuteronomy was a warning to the current generation to be obedient to the covenant or else suffer a similar fate as their fathers in the wilderness. They were going to enter into the land which Yahweh had promised Abraham. God was going to remain faithful to his promise which He unconditionally gave to Abraham. So long as Israel was faithful to the conditions of the treaty of Deuteronomy, all would be well. The enemy would be driven out and the people blessed. But if they disobeyed, there would be dire consequences. The previous inhabitant were being vomited out of the land for their idolatry and other sins. Israel would suffer the same fate if they behaved in a similar matter. The fact that there are twice as many curses as blessings stipulated in the covenant shows what the expected outcome would be. There would be no need of covenant curses if Israel was going to remain obedient. God knew better.
This is the context in which the “Hear, O Israel” rests. The word for “hear” is very similar in Hebrew to the word for “obey”. In fact, deciding on “hear” and “obey” is really a matter of interpretation as the original Hebrew text did not contain vowels. An interpretation had to be made which vowels to supply. Even if “hear” is correct, obedience is strongly implied by the context.
The next four words in Hebrew literally reads “Yahweh our God, Yahweh One. There are no verbs here other than the word “Yahweh” itself is a form of the verb “I AM”. The missing verbs have to be supplied as a matter of interpretation. The word “is” is added to make a good English sentence. However, where the “is” is placed makes all the difference in the world. The King James Version and most other English versions place the “is” after the “elohenu” (our God) and then moves the second Yahweh after “echad” (one) to get the reading “The LORD our God is one LORD.” But what happens if the “is” is placed before the first Yahweh and elohenu. This would give the reading “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone (one).” In the first reading, the stress would be on the oneness of God. If the second reading is taken, then it stresses the singularity of commitment that Israel was to have with Yahweh.