4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Dt 6:4–5). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
The focus and essence of allegiance (6:4–5)
4–5 Verse 4, known by Jews as the Shema, is “as close as early Judaism came to the formulation of a creed” (Block, 195). The call for Israel to “hear,” a common form of address in Deuteronomy (5:1; 6:3; 9:1; 20:3; 27:9), draws attention to the rest of the Hebrew line, which focuses on God himself as the object of Israel’s allegiance. Scholars have often debated whether v. 4 teaches the singularity (one as opposed to many) or unity (internal consistency) of Yahweh or his uniqueness (incomparability) or exclusivity (the only one for Israel). A key interpretive problem is the unparalleled nature of this line in Hebrew. After the summons, “Hear, O Israel,” four Hebrew words occur without any verbs. Although verbless clauses occur throughout the Hebrew Bible, the construction found here has no counterpart.
Space precludes giving attention to many of these details, but certain key affirmations deserve mention. Regardless of where one places a form of the verb “to be,” at least three truths arise from the divine names used in these verses. (1) This God is Yahweh, the faithful, covenant-making, and covenant-keeping God. He is God, the sovereign Creator. (2) He is also “our God,” the God who entered into an intimate and special covenantal relationship with his nation, Israel. (3) Although the OT makes it clear that Israel’s God is singular, in stark contrast to the pagan gods, another idea seems prominent in this context (cf. 4:35, 39; 5:7) and in this verse. One of the realities that sets Israel apart from the world is the exclusive relationship they have with this remarkable God. He is Yahweh alone! Not only is he incomparable, but he is the only God for the Israelites and they are the people on whom he has set his love. Yahweh and only Yahweh is to be the object of Israel’s wholehearted and undivided loyalty. A potential translation of v. 4 is, “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone!”
In v. 5 Moses develops the essence of covenantal allegiance, i.e., loyalty or obedience. He demands that Israel “love” Yahweh with their entire being. In covenantal settings, “love” connotes a commitment that “seeks the well-being and the pleasure of one’s covenant partner, often without regard for oneself” (Block, 201). Love described the loyalty rendered by a vassal on behalf of his suzerain (Els, NIDOTTE, 1:278, 287–88). Moses correlates this duty to “love” Yahweh with the demand that God’s covenantal nation fear him (10:12), walk in his ways (10:12; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16), serve him (10:12; 11:13), keep his commands (10:13; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16), hold fast to him (11:22; 30:20), and listen to or obey his voice (11:13; 30:20).
The second part of v. 5 delineates the extent or intensity of the love God demands his people to have for him: “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Moses does not mention these three nouns primarily as attributes of human personality but to demonstrate the far-reaching nature of this demanded commitment. The heart often signifies the seat of a person’s intellect, emotion, and will (4:29; 10:12; 11:13; 26:16). The soul designates one’s entire being or person (Ps 103:1). The word translated “strength” or “might” usually signifies the adverbial idea of “very” or “much” and only here and one other place (2 Ki 23:25) connotes “might.”
Moses piles up relatively synonymous terms to emphasize the totality of this allegiance. The task of expressing this love for Yahweh (in loyalty) encompasses one’s entire person. These three phrases do not express three precise modes of expressing love or refer to three distinct spheres of life. They combine together to serve as an intense affirmation of absolute commitment. In summary, vv. 4 and 5 make a statement about God as well as demanding absolute commitment to God.
Jesus taught that the truths contained in these two verses constitute the foremost or central demand of the OT law (Mt 22:37–38; Mk 12:29–30; Lk 10:27). Minor differences between the gospel quotations and Deuteronomy include Matthew’s replacing “might” with “mind,” while Mark and Luke include both (with “mind” and “strength” in different order). Regardless, the NT writers do not subtract anything from the meaning of the passage in Deuteronomy. As with Moses, Christ sought to emphasize the life-invasive extent of this commitment to allegiance.
6:4–5 / Just as the Decalogue is both statement (Deut. 5:6) and command (5:7ff.), so this most fundamental of Israel’s “credal” traditions, the “Shema” (Deut. 6:4–5), is both an affirmation about God and a call for commitment to God. Its Jewish name, “Shema,” is the first Hebrew word of the summons, Hear, O Israel, a favorite form of address in Deuteronomy (cf. 5:1; 6:3; 9:1; 20:3; 27:9) that is similar to the Wisdom tradition’s portrayal of parents calling a child’s attention to their teaching for the child’s own good (cf. Prov. 1:8). It is also a constant reminder that Israel was a people summoned by God to hear God’s word. They were not merely spectators at a divine “show,” but the recipients of divine revelation in words. They were to hear the truth and to respond to it. Even at a formal level, therefore, these two verses expose the falseness of the view that religious truth and revelation are “personal, not propositional”—i.e., the view that God does not reveal timeless truths propositionally, but simply acts in love and leaves to each individual his or her own interpretative conclusions as we respond in personal relationship to him and one another. Such reductionist views of revelation ignore the reality that truth in human experience is both propositional and personal and deny the biblical emphasis on both. Deuteronomy 6:4–5 is one whole sentence; nothing could be more “propositional” than 6:4 and nothing more “personal” than 6:5.
The Lord our God, the Lord is one. The niv is most probably correct in its translation of verse 4 (see the niv’s footnotes and the additional notes for other possible renderings stemming from the absence of an explicit “is” in the Hb.). In the first half of the declaration, the Hebrew word “our God” is a qualifier, functioning like a relative clause: “Yahweh, who is our God, this Yahweh is one.” But what does this mean?
An exegetical understanding would be that the second two Hebrew words mean “Yahweh is one,” rather than “Yahweh alone.” The uniqueness and incomparability of Yahweh are a major affirmation of the context, as we have already seen (Deut. 3:24; 4:35, 39; cf. 32:39; Exod. 15:11; Ps. 18:31), and there is doubtless a lingering flavor of that uniqueness in this text (note how Mark 12:32 adds the uniqueness formula to the great commandment). A problem with this contextual approach is that the verbal forms that usually express the uniqueness and incomparability of Yahweh are quite different from the expression in verse 4, which seems to suggest the oneness or singularity of Yahweh. There are various suggestions as to how this is to be understood.
One possibility is that there is a polemical intent to define God as wholly different from the multitude of gods that surround Israel, perhaps especially from the multiple manifestations and forms of Baal in the Canaanite cults. Yahweh is not the brand name of a cosmic corporation. He is one God, our God, and Yahweh is his personal name. On this understanding, the emphasis lies on Yahweh’s singularity.
Another possible understanding is that the oneness of Yahweh implies a unity of will and purpose. Yahweh is not inwardly divided, despite the fact that in the ot text Yahweh sometimes appears to act in contradiction to the declared purposes and character of God (e.g., Moses’ intercession in Exod. 32–34; Num. 14; cf. Deut. 9:7–29; Ps. 73; Job; Hos. 11). But, whatever the appearances, at the deepest level Yahweh is one, consistent, faithful, and true within. The idea here would be the same as when we say of a particular individual, “There is only one John.” We imply he is not two-faced or inconsistent; you can rely on John to be the same whatever happens. Likewise, to say “Yahweh is one” is to affirm unchangeableness and consistency. There is no divine schizophrenia. The harmony of God’s purpose for the world and its people is grounded in the ultimate unity of God’s own being. On this understanding, the emphasis lies on Yahweh’s integrity.
Whether, then, we read the verse in terms of Yahweh’s incomparability (from the context, but not the text itself), his singularity (explicit, and probably the most likely meaning), or his integrity (implied, but not directly stated), it is clearly a most important text in relation to Israel’s monotheism. It is beside the point to insist that the verse is not explicitly monotheistic in the philosophical sense of categorically denying the existence of other deities than Yahweh. The incontrovertible emphasis was that Yahweh (alone) was God in covenant relationship with Israel; that Yahweh had done what no other god had done or could do; that Yahweh was one, not many.
Whether the full implications of all this were understood from the start may be impossible to verify, but such convictions certainly generated a hope that was missiological, universal, and unquestionably monotheistic. The Deuteronomistic historian records prayers of both David and Solomon that express the wider vision and hope of other peoples coming to recognize what Israel already knew regarding Yahweh (2 Sam. 7:22–26; 1 Kgs. 8:60; cf. 1 Kgs. 8:41–43, and the reflection of Deut. 6:5 in 1 Kgs. 8:61). And the only clear quotation of Deuteronomy 6:4 in the rest of the ot is both eschatological and clearly monotheistic: “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name” (lit. “Yahweh will be one and his name will be one,” Zech. 14:9).
Finally, it is worth repeating the point made in relation to Deuteronomy 4:35, 39. The declaration at the heart of the Shema, and especially in its eschatological form in the text just cited (Zech. 14:9), is made about Yahweh in particular, not just about deity in general. That is why a preoccupation with abstract monotheism can lead us to overlook the primary challenge of the text. It is not being said simply that there is ultimately only one divine reality. Such a claim would certainly not be unique among the religions and philosophies of humankind. Nor is the eschatological hope of Zechariah merely that some day all human beings will profess monotheism of some sort per se. A philosophical monotheism that leaves the divine reality unnamed and characterless is alien (both unknown and hostile) to the ot faith. It is vital to see that, in ot terms, it is Yahweh who defines what monotheism means, not a concept of monotheism that defines how Yahweh should be understood.
This has very serious implications for the so-called “theocentric” theory of religious pluralism, according to which the ultimate divine reality at the center of the religious universe cannot be definitively or absolutely named in terms of any of the great divine names of human religions, including Yahweh or Jesus Christ or Allah or Brahman, etc. These are described as penultimate “personae” or “impersonae”—masks of human creation that attempt to express the inexpressible “noumenon” of the divine reality. The “theos” at the center thus becomes abstract, impersonal, and finally ineffable (nothing at all can be said about him/her/it). But the sharp precision of the Shema cannot be evaporated into a philosophical abstraction or relegated to a penultimate level of truth. Its majestic declaration of a monotheism defined by the history-laden, character-rich, covenant-related, dynamic personhood of “Yahweh our God,” shows that the abstract and definitionally undefinable “being” of religious pluralism is really a monism without meaning or message.
“And you shall love the Lord your God.” Statement and response is the typical form of Deuteronomic exhortation, characteristic indeed of the biblical faith. “We love, because he first loved us,” is a nt text that could as easily have been at home in Deuteronomy. So here in verse 5, the affirmation about Yahweh is followed by the claim upon Israel’s total allegiance. The two halves of the Shema thus mirror the opening of the Decalogue, with the declaratory preface followed by the exclusive claims of the first two commandments (5:6–10).
The command to love God is one of Deuteronomy’s favorite ways of expressing the response God expects from the people (10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20). It features also in the covenant renewal texts, Josh. 22:5; 23:11, which draw so much on the Deuteronomic model. In the context of a broken covenant, it is found in the prayers of Daniel (Dan. 9:4) and Nehemiah (1:5), drawing, perhaps on the worship of the Psalms as well as Deuteronomy (Pss. 31:23; 97:10; 145:20). A very early poetic use in the context of the early wars of Israel in Canaan is in Judges 5:31.
For Deuteronomy, the command to love is so often linked with the command to obey, in a sort of prose parallelism, that the two terms are virtually synonymous (though they should not be simply identified; “love” clearly has a distinctive range of affective meaning not entirely equivalent to the practical sense of “obey”). The simple fact that Deuteronomy’s love is one that can be commanded shows that it is not merely an emotion. It is also a commitment to Yahweh, which generates corresponding action in line with his word. “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
This committed, covenantal response to Yahweh was to be total: with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. The wholeness, or oneness, of Yahweh (v. 4) is to be met with a response involving the wholeness of the human person (v. 5). The expression “heart and soul” is another characteristic Deuteronomic phrase (seen in 4:29; 10:12; 11:13; 13:3; 26:16; 30:2, 6, 10). The heart(lēbāb) in Hebrew was not so much the seat of emotions and feelings—as it is in English metaphors—as the seat of the intellect, will, and intention. You think in your heart, and your heart shapes your character, choices, and decisions. It is also the center of the human being as a moral agent (cf. also its prominence in Proverbs). It is understandable, therefore, that the gospel version of the great commandment adds the word “mind” (dianoia) to the list. Dianoia (understanding, intelligence) is the word the lxx uses to translate lēbāb, in this text and most others.
Soul is more often than not a misleading translation of Hebrew nepeš, since it has connotations in English that are simply not present in Hebrew. Nepeš means the life of each individual, and applies to animals as much as humans (cf. Gen. 1:20, 24; 2:7; Lev. 17:11, 14). In the legal texts it is frequently used in the sense of “a person, an individual, anyone,” or in the sense of “a life” that can be taken or lost. But most often it is used to express the whole inner self, with all the emotions, desires, and personal characteristics that make each human being unique. “Bless the Lord, O my nepeš,” sings the Psalmist, who then amplifies his meaning, “and all that is within me bless his holy name” (Ps. 103:1 rsv).
To love God, then, with all your heart and with all your soul, means with your whole self, including your rationality, mental capacity, moral choices and will, inner feelings and desires, and the deepest roots of your life. To this profound pair, the Shema adds a third, remarkable item: (lit.) “and with all your very-muchness” (meʾōd). This word is everywhere else used adverbially, meaning “greatly,” “exceedingly.” Here it is almost uniquely used as a noun in its own right and is open to various translations, of which strength is the most common. However, the earliest Jewish versions (including the Targum) translated it as “your substance” or “your possessions”—an acceptable possibility that has some support in Proverbs 3:9 and may lie behind some of Jesus’ parables and conversations (such as Matt. 6:19–24; Luke 12:13–21). It may even be that this third word is simply intensifying the other two as a climax. “Love the Lord your God with total commitment (heart), with your total self (soul), to total excess!” Loving God should be “over the top!” Such commitment characterized Josiah in his reforming zeal after the discovery of the Book of the Law of the Lord. Josiah alone in the Deuteronomistic History is credited with explicitly measuring up to the second verse of the Shema (2 Kgs. 23:25).
6:5. To love the Lord means to choose Him for an intimate relationship and to obey His commands. This command, to love Him, is given often in Deuteronomy (v. 5; 7:9; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20). Loving Him was to be wholehearted (with all your heart) and was to pervade every aspect of an Israelite’s being and life (soul and strength).
6:5love. See 4:37. all. That the Lord alone is Israel’s God leads to the demand for Israel’s exclusive and total devotion to him. heart … soul … might. All Israelites in their total being are to love the Lord; “this is the great and first commandment” (Matt. 22:38). In Matt. 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, Jesus also includes “mind.” In early Hebrew, “heart” included what we call the “mind”. “Might” indicates energy and ability.
6:5 Love for God is the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37–38). One’s relation to God himself is central to life, and true love for God and reconciliation to God are possible only in Christ (John 14:6; Rom. 5:1–10).
6:5you shall love The command is not a demand to manufacture false emotion but to cultivate a disposition (see Lev 19:17–18).
with all of your heart and with all of your soul The Hebrew terms levav (often translated “heart”) and nephesh (often translated “soul”) do not refer to separate components of the human person. Rather, the terms overlap in meaning, conveying the internal life, dispositions, emotions, and intellect.
might The Hebrew word here is not a noun but an adverb meaning “exceedingly.” This description of love of Yahweh thus implies totality: as Yahweh is undivided unity and alone worthy of worship, so the Israelites must have undivided loyalty to Him.
6:5 all your might. The Hebrew expresses totality. For this reason the New Testament sometimes renders it with “mind and strength” (Mark 12:30). This is the language of devotion. God does not demand mere outward obedience to a law, but the heartfelt love and commitment of the whole person (Prov. 23:26).
6:5 The principle of love is a major theme in Deuteronomy. In Luke 10:27 Jesus stressed love as the essence of pure religion, and elsewhere He referred to it as a kind of “eleventh commandment” (Matt. 22:34–40; John 13:34; cf. Rom. 13:10).
6:5 Moses repeatedly exhorted the Israelites to respond to God’s love with devotion. In this context, the word translated as love may mean “to make one’s choice in.” God commanded His people to choose Him with all their being, and in the process to deny all other supposed deities.
6:5 — “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Of all God’s commandments, this is the central and most important one. When we love God first and foremost, obedience follows as a natural result and ceases to be a chore (John 14:15; 1 John 5:3).
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