“Jesus answered, ‘The first is: ‘Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord, your God, the Lord is one!’’”
To answer this question, Jesus quotes what is known in Hebrew as the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Shema is easily the single-most important text in the Hebrew Bible; it defines the Hebrews as a people and perpetually reminds them of their place in relationship to God. Many scholars have argued that the book of Deuteronomy itself is essentially a constitution for the Israelite nation when they enter into the promised land, and if this is the case, the Shema is the Preamble to that constitution. It is the first prayer that a Jew prays in the morning when he awakens and the last prayer that he prays before bed; in times of distress, like during the oppression of the Jews in Nazi Germany, it was the Shema that was used as a means to identify oneself as a Jew to the Jewish community in hiding. It is also the first prayer that is prayed (normally sung or chanted) at the beginning of a typical synagogue service. And here, Jesus uses this prayer, this statement of faith, to sum up what it means to obey the law.
The Shema begins with an imperative statement: “Hear!” The word in Hebrew that this is derived from is the term [m;v. (shema), which is where it gets its name. More importantly, though, the term [m;v. (shema) does not simply mean “to listen,” but it also carries the connotations of obedience and submission to what follows. It is a command to the people to hear the words that are being said, to internalize them, to submit to their authority, and then to live in obedience to what is being commanded of the listener. There is no room for ambiguity in this command—you must hear is the idea that this command is conveying.
The second word that is found in the prayer tells us to whom the prayer is addressed: Israel. We, as Christian believers, must be reminded here that the name Israel applies to us today. Paul reminds us in Romans 9:6-8 that one is not a member of Israel simply because of genealogical descent, but through the promise of God—through faith. In Galatians 3:29, Paul also reminds us that we are counted as Abraham’s offspring—heirs according to the promise and members of true Israel—through faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, this command of “hear, O Israel,” is a command that is set before our very ears today and must be laid upon our own hearts as well.
Yet, what is significant about this language of “Israel” is not simply that we are part of the promise (though that is a great and a wonderful thing), but it is a reminder that we are bound together as one people in Jesus Christ and we have been given a name. Israel was not a name that Jacob chose for himself, but it is a name that was given to him after he wrestled with the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 32:28). The name means, “One who has striven with God.” Now, we usually think of striving as a totally negative thing, yet let us never forget that while striving against God is not an act of submission, it does mean that God’s hand is upon your life. The reprobate and pagan who has rejected the things of God does not need to worry about striving with God in his or her life—Paul reminds us that God has given them up to their sinful ways—allowed them to pursue the sinful things that will destroy them (Romans 1:24-25). God’s hand is only upon his people, rebuking us when we sin, drawing us toward himself in righteousness. In our sin we strive against God; we wrestle with his calling upon us, yet his calling is upon us; his hand is in our lives. Israel is a name given to us as God’s people to set us apart from the rest of the world, to remind us of our corporate unity as God’s people, to remind us that it is a name given to us by our God (only the Master has the authority to give a name to those in his service), and it is a reminder that God’s hand is upon our lives. It is a reminder that we should rejoice in as gentiles, for once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people—once we had received no mercy, and in Christ Jesus we have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10—a fulfillment of Hosea 1:23).
The next words that are pronounced are, “the Lord,” or kurio/ß (kurios) in Greek. In Hebrew, this would be pronounced, “Adonai,” which means “Lord of Lords.” Yet, Adonai is not the Hebrew word that is used in Deuteronomy 6:4, hwhy (Yahweh) is. Yet, out of reverence for God’s covenantal name, the Hebrew people developed a practice of never pronouncing it and saying “Adonai” instead. That practice carried over into the Greek writing, and thus, kurio/ß (kurios), or “Lord,” was used instead. What is important about this language is that this is the covenantal name of God that he gave to Moses in Exodus 3:14, which is a statement of his eternality and uniqueness. “I am who I am,” is how we often translate this name into English; that God is, he always has been, and he always will be. God is eternal and there never was a time when God was not—nor will there ever be a time when God will cease to be. All things that are had a beginning and this beginning is found in the creative work of our God. Yet, this God, as great and mighty as he is, chose to condescend to fallen man and have a relationship with them, and in doing so, has given us his name that we might know him by that name for all generations (Exodus 3:15). He is a God that is knowable, and is ultimately knowable in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, who is answering the scribe in this case.
Jesus continues his quote of the Shema with the words “our God.” In the Hebrew, this is one word, Wnyheloa/ (Elohinu), which is the Hebrew word, “Elohim” with the first person plural pronoun as an ending, thus, it does not read, “the Lord God,” but it reads, “the Lord, our God.” This is important on a number of levels. First of all, we must remember that these words were recited by the Hebrew people at least twice daily. Thus, every day men and women were professing that this Yahweh was their God, personally and individually. To call Yahweh, “our God” is also a reminder that we are bound as part of a covenantal community and not isolated, “Lone Ranger,” believers. We are in a covenantal relationship as the church with one another and with God himself, and these words form a concise reminder of that fact.
In addition, the name, “Elohim” carries with it a variety of connotations. We must remember that there are many names for God used in the Old Testament, and these names all are designed to reflect different aspects of his character. The name Elohim reflects two ideas: God as creator and God as lawgiver. To speak of God in this way, then, reflects the idea that the people are confessing God to be their creator and their lawgiver. A creator has ownership over that which he has created and a lawgiver has the right to establish the rules and guidelines that his creations must live by. These are words that remind God’s people of our submission to his authority and to his laws. It is God who defines who we are and sets up the parameters as to how we go about doing what we do.
Finally, the Shema ends with the language, “The Lord is one.” This reflects not only that God is one, monotheistic, God, but that he is alone in his Godhead. God has no rivals, he is unique and infinitely wonderful. Nothing in creation even comes close to his perfection. This reflects the immutability of God’s perfections, and as the great and wonderful God, he is the source of all true wisdom and knowledge. This language also reflects the language of the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” God is God alone in our lives; he will not share his authority or place with any other. There is no room for idols of any kind (even modern ones like our careers, wealth, status, etc…) in the lives of God’s people. God is God alone.
And this is how the Shema closes, although the language of the larger passage explicates how the believer is to go about living this out. Jesus will touch on this as he continues, but let us not overlook the importance of this first statement. It is the credo, if you will, of God’s people; it establishes our identity and reminds us of our proper relationship with God. In fact, in most traditional editions of the Hebrew Old Testament, the last letter of the first and last words are written in bold case and a larger font. These two letters spell the Hebrew word d[e (ed), which means testimony or witness. How often we are guilty of seeking to distort that relationship. How often we are guilty of trying to set ourselves up as lawgiver in our own lives. Oh, beloved, we are men and women in submission, but we are in submission to a good and wonderful God; let us live happily in submission to God’s laws and God’s providence in our lives, and let these words always remind us that we are God’s people and he is our covenantal God.