“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30).
This “first and greatest command” (Matthew 22:38) was first delivered to the Israelites by Moses during their exodus out of Egypt. Addressed as Israel – our ancestor who wrestled with the Angel of the Lord and with men and prevailed (Genesis 32:24-28) – we are first told to shema (שְׁמַע). Shema is Hebrew for the word hear and as can be expected, it comes up several times throughout the Old Testament. Let us consider some of these passages to fully appreciate the meaning behind this word.
|“But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I shema” (1 Samuel 15:14)||The link that Samuel makes between his ear and his ability to shema confirms that to shema is to listen.|
|“Then she [Leah] conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has shema that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.” And she called his name Shimon [שִׁמְעון]” (Genesis 29:33)||Here, Leah felt that God listened to her and recognised her plight. Therefore to shema is not only to hear with our ears but to pay attention.|
|“I have called upon You, for You will shema me, O God; Incline Your ear to me, and shema my speech. Show Your marvellous lovingkindness by Your right hand, O You who save those who trust in You…” (Psalm 17:6-7).||King David pleads with God to not only hear or pay attention to his supplications but to heed them too – to shema is to respond.|
|“Now therefore, my son, shema my voice according to what I command you” (Exodus 19:5).||Interestingly, shema in this passage is read in our English Bibles as obey or harken my voice. Indeed, the word obey does not have an equivalent translation in Hebrew. To shema is to go beyond responding to what is heard, it is to submit and obey.
During Jesus’ ministry, he would sometimes conclude a parable by saying “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” (e.g. Mark 4:9). Considering the above, that this was not simply to encourage the passive act of listening but was said to urge the people to pay attention, understand and respond to His message. Gregory the Great spoke of this during a Homily on the Parable of the Sower:
“Remember this saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Everyone present then had bodily ears. But he who says to all these people who had ears, “Whoever has ears to hear, hear,” undoubtedly seeks the ears of the heart. So be careful that the word received remains in the ear of your heart. Be careful not to drop the seed at the edge of the path, lest the evil spirit, occurring, removes the word from your memory.” (Gregory the Great, 591)
Hear, O Israel – listen, acknowledge, keep this commandment in your heart and obey, O Wrestlers with God.
Hear, O Israel – this is a call to action.
Mechon Mamre, 2016. A Hebrew – English Bible: According to the Masoretic Text. [Online] Available at: https://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0.htm [Accessed 14 June 2020].
Bible Project, 2018. Shema / Listen. [Online] Available at: https://bibleproject.com/videos/shema-listen/ [Accessed 14 June 2020].
Gregory the Great , 591. Parables of the Gospel XV. [Online] Available at: https://sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/luke-commentary/gregory-the-great-homily-15-on-the-gospels [Accessed 20 June 2020].