The great commandment

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שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל — Shema Yisrael — “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4) — from the Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem.

Text: Deuteronomy 6: The Great Commandment

1Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

10When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, 15because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

16Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. 17You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. 18Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, 19thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.

20When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ 21then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household.23He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. 24Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. 25If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.’


What’s the situation here? Deuteronomy is a collection of deathbed sermons from Moses. The Israelites have been delivered from Egypt by God through the Exodus. Now they are on the doorstep of the Promised Land, and Moses, who is not going to accompany them into Canaan, is leaving them with a parting testament. (“Imagine Moses poised with one foot about to step over the border, giving the Deuteronomy speeches” — from Mtr. R’s OT course)

We come to what Jews have traditionally recognized as the Great Commandment, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel” in 6:4, which begins translated above as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” NRSV), or as “the LORD is one” (ESV) or “Yahweh our God Yahweh one” (John Goldingay) among other possibilities.

This is echoed in the later prophecy of Zechariah, “And the LORD will become king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be one and his name one” (14:9) And, according to Mark’s gospel, Jesus himself confirmed this commandment, when questioned by a scribe:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ Mark 12:28-33

We want to get to the question posed by our children in verse 20, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?”, but in order to do that, we have to understand that meaning ourselves.

It appears that the essence of the statement “The LORD alone” or “The LORD is one” in 6:4 is to remind Israel (and thus, the church) of the difference between YHWH and the normal pluralistic understanding of the ancient world (and of the modern world): namely, that everyone, every culture, every town and every place has its own separate god, any of whom might be relevant at any particular point. No, Moses says: The Lord alone is God.

First, the One God isn’t a rather vague, difficult-to-define, imperfectly understood “god-concept” that is sometimes glimpsed at different times in different ways. No, says Deuteronomy, the One God is this God. Yahweh. The one who led them out of Egypt. Yahweh, specifically, is the One God. (And throughout, Christians would be reading this story, while substituting the saving work of Christ in the crucifixion and resurrection as bringing us on a New Exodus out of the Egypt of sin and death.)

For Israel, the question was not merely whether there is one God but who this God is and whether people acknowledge this God and repudiate others. Declaring that Yahweh is one does imply that there is only one God, but its more focal affirmation is that Yahweh is God and the god the Canaanites called the Master [Ba’al] is not God. Such beings are gods but not God. The Old Testament does not dispute that there are many supernatural beings, but it knows that Yahweh belongs to a unique class of heavenly being, a class with only one member. Yahweh is the creator of all these other beings and the one with sovereignty over them all. They are Yahweh’s underlings and aides, though often not very faithful ones. (Goldingay)

Second, the commands indicate that the One God claims “every square inch” of life and creation for himself. “The LORD is one” stands in contrast to:

  • One god for Sunday mornings, and another god for the rest of the week
  • One god in private life, and another god in public life
  • One god among one set of friends, and another god among another set of friends
  • One god when I’m feeling especially holy and Christian, and another god when things are tough and I’m up against the wall

No, Moses says, God is One, and his creation runs according to his laws — so remember that he is One whether you are in America or another land (at home and away), he is One 24/7 (when you lie down and when you rise), among your family (your house) and in public life (the city gates) — and, like an always-on bodycam or an un-removable tattoo, on your forehead (6:7-6:9). That’s all, no big deal.

Thus, the commandments that immediately follow “God is one” — to love, keep, bind, recite, write, take care, fear, keep, etc., all demand active, energetic response from us. Abstract, mental agreement with the idea that “God is one” is only the very first step of an operation that eventually encompasses all of life.

To this end, Moses urges the Israelites to do a great deal of discussion in a corporate, group setting — much like our very own Sunday class — “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away…”  because passive listening is simply not enough. The process of figuring out what this means for us in daily life essentially takes place in Christian community.

To say the least, if this message gets through to us, those around us, such as our children, will probably notice when we do things that are different or unusual. Why do we strive to love the poor, the homeless, etc.? Why do we give generously of our income, instead of spending more on fun things for ourselves?

Verse 20 envisions our children asking us: “Mom and Dad, I see you obeying, trusting, loving God… why should I?” And perhaps we can imagine a subtext in our own age: “Mom and Dad, it sort of looks like you’re losers for spending so much time loving unloveable people, instead of looking out for number one, and maximizing your own status, pleasure, prestige etc.”

Notably, the answer that parents are to give does not jump directly to verse 24, i.e. because God said so (“the LORD commanded us”). Instead, the answer begins with the story: our God, the one God, led us out of Egypt… (Keller). We can testify that the Lord brought us out — he saved us — and that’s how we know he’s trustworthy. The structure of this answer is not: We’d better obey if we want to be blessed. But rather: The One God has already blessed us; therefore we are motivated to obey him out of gratitude. We love, because he first loved us.

The Israelites knew that the blood of the passover lamb had spared them from the wrath of God at the outset of the Exodus (“when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you”), and so, too, had John the Baptist recognized Jesus as such when he encountered him (“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”) If, in fact, we have been mercifully and miraculously delivered in an Exodus, in which the sacrifice of a Lamb spared us from sin and death — a story which we would inherently never tire of repeating to anyone who will listen — then living in accordance with the laws of our deliverer would be a joy and an honor.

Traditionally, Christians have translated this idea of “teaching your children” into the format of a catechism, or what Wikipedia calls “a summary or exposition of doctrine and serves as a learning introduction to the Sacraments traditionally used in catechesis, or Christian religious teaching of children and adult converts” (see links below).

Catechisms are perhaps under-utilized today. But our Book of Common Prayer in fact contains a catechism (towards the end: from page 844). Students of Anglican and Episcopal history might want to contrast the (more Puritan) Westminster catechism of 1646 with the Restoration catechism of 1662, and for that matter with the Roman Catholic and various Reformed catechisms as well.

But practically speaking: What kind of catechism do we do? What kind of catechism should we be doing? What kinds of questions are our children asking us?


Compare catechisms from other churches:

Further discussion: excerpt from Christopher J. H. Wright

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 prepositional 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.

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. …

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)….

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…

These verses powerfully dispel two misconceptions. The first misconception is that OT law was a matter of legalistic conformity to an external code. On the contrary, Deuteronomy 6:6 is part of a strong stream of OT teaching that calls for the internalizing of the law in the heart, i.e., at the center of a person’s mind, will, and character (cf. 4:9; 10:16; 11:18; Jer. 4:4; 31:33; Ezek. 18:31; 36:26f.). The second misconception is that religious traditions and observances are the preserve of a professional elite with esoteric knowledge, whether clerical or academic. The priests of Israel were, indeed, to teach the law, but not as something only they within the confines of the professional guild could understand. On the contrary, the law was to be the topic of ordinary conversation in ordinary homes in ordinary life, from breakfast to bedtime…

The son’s question in verse 20 is (lit.) “What [are] the stipulations, decrees and laws . . . ?” He is presumably not asking what they are in content, since he would already know that through the family’s observation of them. So we have to assume the question means something like “What is the meaning of . . . ?” or “What is the real significance of . . . ?” or “What is the point of . . . ?” or even, “Why do we keep these laws?” In fact, as it turns out, the father’s answer combines the historical basis of the law, its divine origin, and the beneficial value of keeping it….

The son asks about the law and is answered with a story— the old, old story of Yahweh and his love. The meaning of the law is to be found in the gospel. The basis of the law lies in the history of redemption (vv. 21– 23); the reason for keeping the law is to enjoy the blessings of redemption (v. 24); the fruit of obeying the law is the righteousness that is the goal of redemption (v. 25).

In the light of the emphatic thrust of the previous verses, it is impossible to read into verse 25 any kind of alleged “works righteousness.” The context makes it impossible to think that righteousness (in a salvific sense, which is in any case almost certainly not its meaning here) is somehow achieved by obedience to the law. Rather the point of the father’s whole answer is that obedience to the law is the only right response to the saving acts of such a God as Yahweh.

References: see Resources page.

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