Commentary on Deuteronomy 6:1-9
There’s no denying that Jesus was a good Jew.
According to our Gospel reading for today, when asked which commandment was the greatest, he responded, as any faithful Jew would, by quoting the Shema:
“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 might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).1
The Shema (named after the first word in the verse, shema, Hebrew for “hear”) stands at the heart of Jewish faith. It is as familiar to the average Jew as the Lord’s Prayer is to the average Christian. It is recited two times a day by observant Jews.2 It is also one of the passages written out on parchment and encased in mezuzot (the small boxes on the doorposts of Jewish homes) and tefillin (the small boxes worn on the forehead and arm during Jewish morning prayer services). Indeed, the practice of using mezuzot and tefillin finds its origin in this passage, among others:
“Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (6:8-9).
The Shema is at the heart of Jewish faith, but the rest of us (speaking as a goy myself) can learn from it, too.
Love God. Love God with everything you are: heart, soul, strength. Love God with your life (perhaps a better translation than “soul,” since Israel didn’t conceive of a disembodied soul).
Many scholars would say that “love” here is not primarily an emotion. They point to examples of political treaties known from the ancient Near East. To “love” one’s sovereign in these ancient political covenants was to be loyal to him; that is, to obey the stipulations of his covenant, to fight alongside him against his enemies, and to be faithful in paying tribute to him.
Such ancient political treaties are undoubtedly in the background of this passage. To “love” God as one would “love” a human sovereign entails primarily action, not emotion. To love is to be faithful and loyal in fulfilling the obligations of the covenant. And, indeed, the Shema passage emphasizes knowledge of and obedience to God’s commandments:
“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite 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.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
To love God, then, means to obey God’s commandments, as a vassal obeys the stipulations of a political covenant. The book of Deuteronomy, permeated as it is with covenant language, speaks over and over again of God’s statutes, decrees, and commandments.
Still, there is another realm of life in which the language of love and covenant abounds. The metaphor of marriage, though not as explicit in Deuteronomy as in other biblical books, provides a central biblical paradigm for understanding the relationship of God and Israel. Indeed, in the very next chapter of Deuteronomy, it is God who is said to love, and this love is a matter of the heart:
“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you — for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
Jon Levenson writes of this passage:
“The special status of Israel rests not upon her merits, her strength or numbers or intelligence or honesty, but upon something irrational, a passion, an affair of the heart, not the mind, in short a love. All the efforts to explain the special destiny of Israel in rational terms only dissolve its power. For Israel is singled out by and for the love of God.”3
If God’s love is “something irrational, a passion, an affair of the heart,” then perhaps the love that it calls forth from us (grafted into Israel’s covenant through Christ) should also be a matter of the heart: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Love God. Love God with everything you are: heart, mind, soul, strength. Love God with your life.
And the second commandment is like it: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31).
Jesus, the faithful Jew, quotes the Shema and adds to it the law from Leviticus 19:18. How shall we love God? By obeying God’s commandments, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by teaching our children and our children’s children to do the same. It is a matter of the head and the heart alike; love lived out in obedience to the God who calls us into covenant, a covenant given not as a burden but “so that it may go well with you” (6:3).
On this eve of the U.S. presidential election, here is the word of the Lord to us: love God with your life and love your neighbor as yourself.
How that two-fold love is worked out in our common political life is a matter for debate. What is not up for debate is the commandment itself, enjoined upon Jew and Christian alike: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor (those across the street and those across the globe) as yourself.
God grant us (and our leaders) the will and the wisdom to live out these commandments in our lives and in our world, so that it may go well with us and with our neighbors.
1Verse 4 can also be translated, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”
2As the beginning of a longer prayer comprised of Deut 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Num 15:37-4.
3Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (HarperOne, 1987), 76-77. Levenson, a Jewish scholar, writes eloquently in this book about the Sinai covenant and its continuing significance for today.