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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).

In the previous two instalments of this study into the Shema, we looked at what the command is and why it is so significant that we hear it. In continuation of our study, we will consider who the LORD is and why the declaration that the LORD is one is so profound.

 

Hear, O Israel – listen, acknowledge and obey, O Israel – the LORD our God, the LORD is one.

Have you ever read the Bible and noticed the word Lord is sometimes written in all capitals letters? No, this was not a typo that has been mistakenly replicated – when Lord is capitalised, it refers to the personal Hebrew name for God, Yahweh i(יהוה). Although Yahweh is mentioned throughout Genesis, the meaning of His name is first known to us in the second book of the Bible, Exodus. During Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, Moses asked God who he should say had sent him and God replied,

I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Moreover God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.’” (Exodus 3:14-15).

I AM is translated in Hebrew as EHYEH (אֶהְיֶה). Now, when Moses had to speak of the encounter to the people of Israel, it did not make grammatical sense for him to say ‘I AM has sent me’. Instead, Moses would have said, ‘HE IS has sent me’ and this is translated in Hebrew as Yahweh.

Let us consider the depth of the meaning of His name.

Yahweh is not who He is sometimes, or who He feels like being with certain people – He just is. He is love, He is grace, He is truth, He is mercy – HE IS. Equally, Yahweh is not who He once was, or who He will be, but who HE IS – the is of our fathers, the is of us, and this is of our future generations. He is ever present and unchanging.

What’s really interesting here is that God does not refer to Himself as Pantocrator, the Almighty who made heaven and earth [1]. Instead, He calls Himself the God of Israel’s forefathers, illustrating that He is the personal God who knows and cares for each of us with such intimacy and love that even the very hairs on our heads are numbered (Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7). The LORD is truly our God.

To revere and honour God and to avoid taking His name in vain, the Jewish people never said His name, Yahweh, aloud. Instead, the use of euphuisms were favoured, such as Adonai (My Lord or Master), HaShem (The Name) or Elohim (God) [2]. Indeed, the word Adonai can be heard in this recitation of The Shema (click here to listen). This was taken so seriously that, to prevent His name being accidently said aloud when reading, Yahweh was rarely written in the Torah. Instead, an amalgamation between Yahweh and Adonai would be written so as to remind the reader to recite the word Adonai. This custom was so widespread that when Bibles were translated into English, LORD was always written instead of Yahweh.

Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God – the creator of heaven and earth, who is omnipresent, omnipotent and benevolent, the same God who spoke to our forefathers, who heard the affliction of His people in Egypt and by His mighty hand, delivered them from enslavement under Pharaoh – this LORD is our personal God, the LORD is one.

 

Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.

In the Hebrew text of this verse, the Hebrew word ekhad (אֶחָד) is translated to the word one. When this command was first delivered to the people of Israel through Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4, they had just left the land of Egypt which had polytheistic beliefs. Therefore, on face value, the command appears to teach the Jews that their God, Yahweh, is not several deities but He is the one true God.

Beyond just the numerical value of the word, ekhad also means oneness and unity. Genesis 2:24 says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one (ekhad) flesh”. This verse does not mean that a man and his wife become joined into a single person but rather that they become united together through the Holy Spirit.

Notice how the names of God are repeated three times in this part of the Shema – the LORD our God, the LORD is one. This reflects the trinity – The Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Who are distinct Persons but of one essence together in the Godhead [4]. Jesus spoke of His unity with the Father multiple times in the gospels; “I and My Father are one” (John 10:30), “believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me” (John 14:11). Thomas the disciple recognised the oneness of the Godhead when he saw Christ after His resurrection and declared, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). The unity of the Godhead is seen in the Baptism of Christ where the “Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”” (Matthew 3:16-17). St Paul spoke of the oneness of God at length in his epistle to the Ephesians:

Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

Putting together what we have studied, the first line of the Shema may be understood as follows: Listen, acknowledge and obey, O Israel, HE IS our personal God, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirt.

References

[1] H.H. Pope Shenouda III, 1993. Contemplations of the Ten Commandments: Volume 1 The First Four Commandments. Cairo: Dar El Tebaa El Kawmia

[2] Samuelson, N., 2006. Jewish Philosophy: An Historical Introduction. London: A&C Black.

[3] Knight, D. A. & Levine , A.-J., 2011. The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us. New York: HarperOne.

[4] Fr. Tadros Y. Malaty , 2005. The Book of Deutronomy: A Patristic Commentary. California : Coptic Orthodox Christian Centre.

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].

 

i Yahweh is a proposed transcription of the word YHWH which is constructed of consonants only. YHWH is the literal translation of the four Hebrew letters which make up the word, יהוה. YHWH is also referred to as the Tetragrammaton, which is derived from the Greek word, τετραγράμματον, meaning ‘consisting of four letters’ [3].

 

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