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Sunday 26 April 2015

The Meaning of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4)

What follows is a slightly expanded version of an assignment submitted as part of my theological studies.

Consisting of only six words in Hebrew (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרֵָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד   ), this text is known as the Shema due to the transliteration of the first word (properly šemaʻ). Despite its brevity and syntactical simplicity, consensus as to its meaning has eluded modern biblical scholars. Our purpose here is to survey the various options, highlight their strengths and weaknesses, and draw a conclusion as to the most likely sense.

Block (2004) lists five possible renderings of the Shema.
(1) Hear, O Israel:[1] Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one
(2) Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God is one Yahweh
(3) Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one
(4) Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is One/Unique
(5) Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh alone (p. 196)

Bord & Hamidović (2002), McConville (2003) and Fuhrmann (2010) give the same list except that they do not distinguish (4) from (3). Bord & Hamidović offer a sixth rendering (which they view favourably) under which Yahweh is the direct object of שְׁמַע:
(6) Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God: Yahweh is unique! (p. 28).

Proponents of the first translation include MacDonald (2001), McConville (2002) and Kraut (2011), though the latter adds a nuance to be discussed below. In support of this view, as well as (2) and (6), אֱלֹהִים elsewhere occurs only in apposition to יְהוָה in Deuteronomy (312 times!) and never as a predicate. The main difficulty for (1) is that “the second YHWH appears to be superfluous” (MacDonald, 2001, p. 86).

The main weakness with rendering (2) is that it appears tautologous to say that Yahweh is one Yahweh. Ancient Israelite inscriptions have been found associating Yahweh with particular locales, e.g. ‘Yahweh of Teman’ (Block, 2004; Tigay, 1996) which raise the possibility that the Shema is opposing poly-Yahwism, that is, belief in multiple Yahwehs. However, as Kraut (2011) observes, “if this proposal were to represent the actual intent of Deut 6:4, it would be the only instance in the Bible in which this danger is addressed” (p. 587). 

Views (3) and (4) (which are grammatically equivalent) are defended by Janzen (1987) and Gordon (1970) respectively, although both of these writers are more interested in the meaning of אֶחָֽד. On this reading, “it is unclear why it would be necessary to make the declaration ‘YHWH is our God’” (Macdonald, 2001, pp. 85-86). Moreover, these renderings, along with (5), require interpreting יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ as a subject-predicate combination. As noted earlier, such usage occurs nowhere else in Deuteronomy and, according to Kraut (2011), “no earlier than the Book of Chronicles” (p. 586).

The main strength of view (5) is its close correspondence to the broader context of Deuteronomy, in which exclusive devotion to Yahweh is a primary concern (Block, 2004; Christensen, 2001; Tigay, 1996; cf. Deut. 6:14-15). However, this rendering faces several philological difficulties. Firstly, there is the subject-predicate issue referred to above. Secondly, Hebrew normally expresses ‘alone’ with לְבָד, not אֶחָֽד (Tigay, 1996). Block (2004) addresses this by pointing out that, as an adverb, לְבָד is inappropriate in a nominal statement. However, Bruno (2009) identifies two nominal statements in the Old Testament in which לְבָד does occur (2 Kgs. 19:15; Isa. 37:16). Thirdly, ancient exegesis runs counter to this interpretation. The LXX rendering, which is also adopted in Mark 12:29, explicitly includes a verb (ἐστιν) in the second clause. It is thus consistent with the first four renderings but not (5). The Nash Papyri (second century B.C.E.) adds הוּא after אֶחָֽד, which similarly makes the verbal connotation of the second clause unmistakable (Biddle, 2003; Block, 2004). Furthermore, some Samaritan inscriptions from the Christian era add לְבָד after אֶחָֽד, suggesting that these writers did not take אֶחָֽד adverbally (MacDonald, 2001).

View (6) is very improbable in view of the fact that “Nowhere else in the bible is anyone enjoined to listen… to YHWH with ‘YHWH’ appearing as the direct object of the verb” (Kraut, 2011, p. 590). Deuteronomy prefers to refer to hearing the voice (4:30; 5:24-26; etc.), the words (4:10; 18:19; etc.), or the commandments (11:27) of Yahweh. Moreover, in all the other occurrences of שְׁמַע יִשְׂרֵָאֵל in Deuteronomy, it is followed by the content of the proclamation without any direct object (5:1; 9:1; 20:3; 27:9). Finally, the LXX translators clearly did not interpret the Shema according to (6) since the first κύριος is nominative and not accusative.

To summarize, the best rendering on philological grounds is (1). The main difficulty of this rendering is the apparent superfluity of the second Tetragrammaton; however, Kraut (2011) has offered a plausible solution on this point. He proposes that “the verse represents an assertion garbed in poetic syntax – namely, in the AB//AC pattern commonly referred to as ‘staircase parallelism’” (p. 591). When staircase parallelism is present, the sense can be reduced to prose as ABC. Hence, while a literal translation would follow (1), the meaning is simply, “Yahweh our God is one” (p. 592). He offers Exod. 15:6 and Hos. 12:5 as other instances of staircase parallelism with ‘Yahweh’ as the repeating item. He notes that while classic cases of staircase parallelism occur in “unquestionably poetic contexts” (p. 594), there are other examples in biblical prose (e.g. Judg. 19:23).

Our conclusion, then, is that rendering (1) is the best literal translation of the Hebrew, but the sense is simply, “Yahweh our God is one.”

We now turn to the question of the meaning of אֶחָֽד. Again, a number of possibilities exist. Perhaps surprisingly, in light of the almost creedal use of this text in later Judaism (Biddle, 2003; Foster, 2003), most scholars do not regard the Shema as a direct statement of monotheism. MacDonald (2001) concludes that it expresses Yahweh’s uniqueness for Israel, which is actually close to the sense of rendering (5). Bord & Hamidović (2002) take uniqueness (more broadly) as the meaning, appealing to the echo of the Shema in Zech. 14:9. Janzen (1987) argues that it refers to the “integrity or moral unity” of Yahweh’s character (p. 291). Gordon (1970) takes the surprising view that אֶחָֽד functions as a personal name here, but offers little supporting evidence.

Numerous scholars think the oneness of the Shema is multivalent (Biddle, 2003; Craigie, 1976; Fuhrmann, 2010; McConville, 2002; Willoughby, 1977). Craigie interprets אֶחָֽד in terms of uniqueness and unity. McConville sees the Shema as expressing both the indivisibility and integrity of Yahweh. Willoughby regards it primarily as an oath of allegiance to Yahweh alone but also an implicit declaration of monotheism. Biddle and Fuhrmann both allow for intentional ambiguity by which Yahweh’s unity, uniqueness and exclusive claim to Israel’s worship are in view. Since these are all major concerns in Deuteronomy, it is best to allow for a multiplicity of meanings. Block (2004) states, “The question addressed here by Moses is not, ‘How many is Yahweh?’ or ‘What is Yahweh like?’ but ‘Whom will the Israelites worship?’” (p. 208). In fact, the beauty of the Shema is that in just four words it answers all three of these questions.

In closing, a brief comment is in order on the implications of this text for the Trinitarian debate. Scholars rightly observe that it would be anachronistic to import the theological concerns of a later age back into this passage (Block, 2004; Janzen, 1987). From a grammatical-historical point of view, the Shema does not address philosophical issues around Yahweh’s essential nature (Brown, 2000). The Shema neither affirms nor denies the notion that Yahweh is a compound unity (as in the sense of אֶחָֽד in Gen. 2:24). The Shema itself is consistent with Trinitarian and Unitarian views of God, both of which uphold Yahweh’s uniqueness in relation to all other reality, exclusive claim to worship, and unity of character. Only in certain Christological allusions to the Shema in the New Testament (Mark 2:7f and especially 1 Cor. 8:6) does the internal complexity of Yahweh’s unity become apparent (Bauckham, 2008; Kim, 2008).


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[1] Block’s commas have been changed to colons here to highlight the distinctiveness of translation (6).

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