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.