Summary: Israel’s "Shema" is not only an exhortation for Jews to make God’s teaching an integral part of their lives, but it serves as a good reminder for Christians to internalize the Word as opposed to merely using it for "adornment."
I think I lasted three practices with the freshman high school basketball team. What good is a 4’ 10” guard with limited vertical leap, so-so jump shot skills, and only a slightly above-average ability to steal the ball? But I well remember those three practices. We would change into gym clothes and head out for the shoot-around, trying to outdo one another until such time as the coach would come out, clipboard in hand, wave us over to the bench and say, “Listen up!” At that point he’d tell us a little about the plan for the practice and divide us up into groups, if necessary. It was the critical moment when practice really started.
I had another experience like that, even though I was merely an observer. I served in a volunteer capacity as an unofficial chaplain to the Redondo Beach (California) police force. About seven or eight of us who were ministers would rotate so that we rode entire shifts with some of the officers. Police work is a contrast between tedium and emergency, boredom and adrenaline-rush. It is mostly tedium and boredom. We rode with the officers so that they could use some of those dead hours on patrol where nothing was happening to talk about what was bothering them or gain some spiritual insight. We went to occasional county-wide meetings in order to gain more insights into the law enforcement psyche and, of course, we attended the pre-patrol briefings along with the officers with whom we were to ride on a given day or night. I well remember some of the raucous joking and harassment that went on prior to the lieutenant coming in and saying, “Listen up.” At that point, the talking ceased except for the occasional irreverent comment and nervous laughter after the supervisor read an incident report or watch bulletin.
We don’t say, “Hear, O Israel!” anymore. But as I just noted, we do use the idea of “listening up.” Both phrases mean to pay attention. So, after Deuteronomy retells the giving of the commandments in Chapter 5, we run into this paragraph on how to make the commandments integral to our lifestyles. Here’s the way I translate the first few verses in the text.
4) Listen up, Israel. Yahweh, our Lord, [in fact] Yahweh is ONE. 5) And, [as a result,] you shall love Yahweh, your God, with all your will (lit. "heart"), with all your being (lit. "soul"), and with all your resources (lit. "abundance"). 6) And these words which I am commanding you on this day shall be for your will (lit. "heart"). 7) And you shall repeat them to your children (lit. "sons") and speak them when you are living in your house or walking along the way, in your lying down and your standing up.
A lot of people don’t like it when I translate (or more accurately, transliterate) God’s personal name. I do it because the actual name in the Bible is unpronounceable. Most rabbis pronounce it by means of the vowels as “adonai” or “LORD.” Most Jewish translations simply translate it as the ETERNAL, all in capital letters. The reason for this is that God’s personal name (as God gave it to Moses in Exodus 3) means, “He causes to be what He causes to be; I am Who I am; and I will be Who I will be.” [Of course, it is actually revealed in the first-person in Exodus 3 because God says, “I cause to be what I cause to be; I am Who I am; and I will be Who I will be.”]
So, what does it mean that “Yahweh is ONE?” Does it mean that our God is the only real God? Yes, it does. But there is another option. The rabbis interpret this as meaning that out of all the false gods it would be possible to worship, Yahweh is the only ONE that is truly worth worshiping. Technically, that is “henotheism” instead of “monotheism,” sometimes called “practical monotheism.” The fact is, we believe, as do the rabbis, that there is really only ONE God. As Christians, we believe that ONE God shows Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But that doesn’t mean that God is the only choice out there. To be sure, God is the only valid, authentic choice, but that doesn’t mean that God is the only choice that people make. People choose fame, fortune, pleasure, pride, intellectual arrogance, and various personal causes over God. And, too often, we who call ourselves believers find ourselves choosing wrong. In much the same way that Israel would turn to the Baals, we sometimes find ourselves choosing our personal ambitions or actions of convenience instead of God’s will. We sometimes find ourselves choosing temporary pleasure or our own ideas of intellectual consistency over the difficult path of faith. Deuteronomy 6:4 calls us to attention and reminds us to focus on choosing God—the only REAL choice we should want to make, in spite of our frequent self-destructive errors.