Formations 07.01.2018: Bottom-Line Beliefs

Deuteronomy 6:4-16

Barnesville Presbyterian Church, Barnesville, GA

A few weeks ago I had the honor of preaching in a local Presbyterian church. Precisely how a Baptist-preacher-turned-curriculum-editor wound up preaching in a Presbyterian church is a long and irrelevant story. Suffice to say that we all came out of the experience unscathed.

Following their custom, after the sermon we all stood together and recited the Apostles Creed. That’s not something I’ve ever done in a Baptist church—though it is something I’ve done in a church history class at a Baptist seminary. Dr. Timothy George thought it was important for his students to know this important text. It is a concise summary of the Christian faith, the things that bind together everyone in every denomination who confesses Jesus as Lord.

Twenty-five years later, I still think Dr. George was right. We may not use a creed liturgically in our communities, but there is nothing wrong with embracing a creed the same way the early church did—as a tool for bearing witness to our shared faith and teaching it to newcomers.

Today’s passage, known as the Shema, is central to the Jewish faith in somewhat the same way that early creeds are central to Christianity. It is both a declaration of who God is and a thumbnail sketch of what it means to love this God and pass that faith and devotion on to the next generation.

It is something that binds the community of the faithful to their God and to one another, both in good times and in bad.

Discussion

• Can you summarize your bottom-line beliefs in just a few sentences? What would you say?
• What is the relationship between beliefs and behavior? Can one of those be truly sound if the other is lacking? Explain.
• How can these instructions, written to ancient Israelites, be applicable to Christians today?
• What does it mean to love God with all our heart, being, and strength?
• How does Israel’s history of deliverance inform our faith journey?

Reference Shelf

The Shema

Referred to as the shema (from the first word, shema, “hear”), this expression became in early Judaism a confession of faith. The Nash papyrus (second century B. C. E.) includes the shema with the Ten Commandments in what must have been a liturgical text. Later, by the second century C. E., the shema was enlarged to consist of three parts (Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41). According to Jewish tradition, the shema should be recited morning and evening as a part of the prayers. The practice was extended to other occasions, such as the Sabbath service and the festivals, especially the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of the seventh month. Some practiced its recitation after having gone to bed and just before rising, according to the instruction: “When you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut 6:7).

By means of the shema Judaism has affirmed its belief in one God over against both ancient polytheism and Christian trinitarianism. But reciting the shema also expresses personal devotion to God and willingness on the part of the worshiper to accept responsibility for the ethical principles of the law, both in the present as well as in the future, through religious instruction of the children.

Niels-Erik A. Andreasen, “Shema,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 818.

Hear, O Israel

Named for its first word, the “Shema” continues to figure prominently in both public worship and private devotional practice, as it did already before the time of Christ. It may be regarded as a positive restatement and radicalization of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Theoretically, one could render YHWH only nominal devotion and still fulfill the call to revere him above all other deities. The Shema, however, lays claim to total devotion and obedience. The ambiguous syntax of the first clause of the Shema (6:4) permits two possible translations and interpretations: (1) “Hear, O Israel! YHWH our God is one!” a translation that underscores the unity of the deity, or (2) “Hear, O Israel! YHWH only is our God!” a translation that emphasizes the exclusivity of YHWH’s claim to Israel’s devotion. If the Shema intends the former, it may represent a reaction against the tendency, known especially among Israel’s Canaanite neighbors, to associate deities having the same or similar names with specific locales (for example, the “Baal of Peor,” Num 25:3, 5; Deut 4:3), as though the deities were somehow interchangeable. In this under- standing, the Shema rejects any hint of “poly-Yahwism.” YHWH is one, indivisible. The other interpretation bears closer affinities with the first commandment in terms of its disinterest in ontological matters, whether YHWH is essentially one deity. Instead, the question of relationship carries greater weight. YHWH is Israel’s only God. No other deserves Israel’s worship. Of course, the Shema’s ambiguity may have been intentional so as to imply both understandings simultaneously.

The second clause (6:5) extends and radicalizes YHWH’s claim to Israel’s devotion even more explicitly than does the first commandment of the Decalogue (which it interprets). Not only does YHWH demand to be first, but he also expects Israel’s total commitment and dedication. The Shema offers yet another example of the difficulties inherent in dealing with ancient texts at this point. It calls for the Israelite to “love” YHWH with “heart,” “soul,” and “strength.” Three of these four expressions suggest concepts to the modern reader that would have been alien to the original readers of this text. As D. J. McCarthy and others have shown in their work on Ancient Near Eastern treaty texts, “love (’hb)” regularly designated the obedience and loyalty owed one’s overlord. In such cases, it involved none of the sentimentality and emotion often understood by moderns. Instead, it referred to concrete acts in the public realm. Similarly, the ancient Israelite understood the “heart,” the organ often associated in modern culture with romantic love, not as the seat of emotion, but of volition, of decision-making. “For as one thinks in one’s heart, so is one” (Prov 27:19; compare Gen 6:5; 8:21; Exod 4:21; 25:2; Ps 10:6, 11; etc.). Still further, contrary to the common understanding of the term often translated here “soul (nepesh),” which may perhaps be better translated “life” in this instance, the Shema does not call for interior, private, or “spiritual” devotion. Instead, one is to love YHWH with all one’s very life. The final phrase only underscores this unsentimental, radical claim to total obedience and devotion. The Shema calls upon the individual Israelite to exert total effort in relation to YHWH. In this vein, the Talmudic sages and later rabbinic authorities interpreted the phrase ûbekol-meodeka “and with all your strength” as a reference to wealth (Ber 51a; 61b; 9:5; Sifre Deuteronomy, and Nachmonides on 6:5). This interpretation may underlie Jesus’ admonition to the rich young ruler that it remained only for him to submit his riches to the claims of God (Mark 10:21).

Mark E. Biddle, Deuteronomy, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2003), 124–26.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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