Commentary on Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Chapter 6 begins a new unit in Deuteronomy that runs until 11:32.
Chapters 1-4 of the book set the stage by recounting key moments in Israel’s journey from Mount Horeb (Sinai) to the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from the long-promised land. Chapter 5 then re-presents the Decalogue (5:6-21; cf. Exodus 20:1-17) and discusses some of the events that transpired when the Ten Commandments were given (Deut 5:22-33).
The commandments are very much still the subject in 6:1-11:32. Or, as 6:1a puts it, perhaps it is the commandment (singular!) that is the point of this larger unit since many commentators believe it to be an extended exhortation or sermon based on the first commandment.1 Indeed, 6:5 can be seen as the positive (re)articulation of the prohibition against other gods (see further below).
Undoubtedly, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 are the most famous verses in this Sunday’s lection. But 6:1-3 should not be passed over too quickly. Note, first, that despite the singular “commandment” of 6:1a, Moses (who preaches Deuteronomy as his valedictory address) immediately glosses that singular with plural subjects: “statutes and ordinances.” These many “statutes and ordinances” can nevertheless be glossed as a singular “commandment,” and the singular “commandment” can be understood as many and various “statutes and ordinances”–which in Deuteronomy almost certainly refers to the detailed legislation in 12:1-26:15.
That bewildering amount of material is a singular entity: a commandment. If this strikes modern Christian readers (especially those with antinomian tendencies) as completely incomprehensible, we might recall how the many laws of the Pentateuch can still be called Torah, “law” (a suitable but not exhaustive or satisfying translation)–in the singular–though the rabbis delineated no less than 613 individual pieces of legislation. Or, we might consider another rabbi, who later (and with Deuteronomic precedent) epitomized the many laws of Scripture into one (plus “a second like it”) and that this “first and greatest commandment” comes from our very lection for this Sunday (see Matthew 22:34-40; cf. Luke 10:25-28; the texts are Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18).
This commandment, and these statutes and ordinances, are specifically for life in the land that Israel is entering (Deuteronomy 6:1b; see also 12:1). Life there will be different than it is in the wilderness; there, Israel will face new challenges and temptations (see, e.g., 7:1, 17; 8:7-20). Since Moses will not accompany Israel into Canaan (see 3:23-39), he is at pains to stress what is important before he dies. What he leaves ringing in Israel’s ears and written before Israel’s eyes for future reading and hearing (see Deuteronomy 31:10, 19, 24, 30; 32:44-45) is the importance of the Lord’s instruction, command, statutes and ordinances–in a word, the Lord’s Torah (see 1:5).
Moses proceeds to emphasize that this instruction is not only necessary, it is beneficial: it results in proper obedience, even into future generations, and eventuates in long life (6:2). Of course, things don’t always work out that way. The life of one of Israel’s greatest kings, Josiah, who is the only person in the entire Old Testament to incarnate, as it were, the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 (see 2 Kings 23:25), is tragically cut short (2 Kings 23:29; cf. 22:20).
But Moses is preaching right now. Moses is mid-sermon right now. He can’t be bothered by exceptions to the rule. And the rule, for Israel–especially for Israel in the land–is to keep the Lord’s Torah. If they do, good things (of whatever and various sorts) will happen (see Deuteronomy 6:3). If they don’t, all is, quite literally, lost (cf. 28:47-68; 29:18-28).
The first thing Israel must do, for things to go well, is “to hear” (6:3, 4). “To hear” means “to listen,” but also, in Deuteronomy’s idiom, it means to obey. The Hebrew imperative “Listen up!” or “Hear this!” is sema (pronounced sh’ma) and 6:4-9 is famously known as the Shema, after the first word of 6:4. Faithful Jews recite it at least twice a day, in the morning and at night, in compliance with the Shema itself (6:7b).
Verse 6:4 is notoriously difficult to translate (see the notes in virtually any English translation). The NRSV’s rendition “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” is perfectly acceptable and connects with the exclusive worship that Deuteronomy, the Decalogue, and the Shema itself repeatedly emphasize (cf. 4:35, 39; 5:7-10; 6:5; 32:39). The other common translation–“The LORD our God is one LORD”–while perhaps not as felicitous in context, nevertheless captures aspects of God’s integrity and unity (cf. 1 John 1:5).
Much heat and light for preaching is found in 6:5-9. First, the Shema rearticulates the first commandment. How does one change the negatively put (“you shall not…”) prohibition of other gods and their idols in a positive way (“you shall…”)? (Preachers might note that even the best of negative construals can occasionally benefit from positive rearticulation.) “Loving God with everything” isn’t a bad attempt.
The “everything” is defined (in English, at least) as the “heart” (which in Hebrew anthropology corresponds mostly to our “mind”), the “soul” (perhaps better, in our understanding, the “self”), and the “might” (which could be taken, with the rabbis, as implying the love of God with one’s “stuff” or property as much as with one’s strength or capacity). However the terms are translated, it is clear that complete devotion is commended–better yet: commanded.
The emphasis here on obedience, even an obedience that can be dictated, should chasten overly-romantic notions of what it means to “love” God. To be sure, Deuteronomy employs a verb with many affective overtones, especially considering our own culture’s use of the term “love.” But, as important as the affect is (and it truly is!), one must not forget that in Deuteronomy love is never emotions-minus-ethics. One demonstrates love for God by what one does and what one does not do–that is, how they do or do not obey–not merely by how one does or does not feel.
It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that “love”-language was widely used throughout the ancient Near East in political treaties and covenants to mark the proper attitude and behavior of parties toward each other, especially vassal subjects to their overlords. Nevertheless, we (and Deuteronomy) are still talking about love, not cold, hard, unfeeling obedience.
If 6:4 is the undergirding proposition, with 6:5 a positive (re)articulation, then 6:6-9 comprise a blueprint for proper enactment. As important as love with the heart is (and it truly is!), there are words to consider. “These words” (6:6a) refer, at one level, to the entire book of Deuteronomy itself, the name of which, in Hebrew, is debarim (“words”). These words must be “on the heart”–or, in our parlance, “on the mind”–presumably that means always.
They are to be incisively taught to, perhaps even boiled down for, one’s children (the verb used has connotations of sharpening). And they are to be talked about at all times: After all, one is either at home or away, either lying down or rising. Even the body is marked by these words: they go on the hand and on the forehead, either symbolically or quite literally, as in the Jewish practice of praying with phylacteries. Finally, the words are to be written on the doorposts (Hebrew mezuzah) of one’s house and on the gates, which are probably best understood as the city gates, which often doubled as civic space in ancient Israel, where governing elders met and where justice was meted out.
In a word (or is it commandment?), Deuteronomy 6:4-9 indicates that all parts of the Israelite body, Israelite family, Israelite time and activity, and Israelite domestic and civic space are to be dominated by “these words” that Moses speaks and preaches. And, again, those words are, at one very important level, the entire book of Deuteronomy itself.
Readers will have to keep reading Deuteronomy to know what all these words comprise if they are to obey the Shema. Preachers will have to keep preaching Deuteronomy if they are to assist in that same process. Both acts are imperative, at least if Jesus is to be believed. He is the Reader of Israel’s Scripture and the Preacher like Moses who told us that on the Shema and the love of neighbor “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40).
1In the Hebrew, the “first” commandment includes both the no other gods prohibition and the prohibition against idols as in Catholic and Lutheran numerations. Contrast the Reformed and Orthodox numbering, which make these the first and second commandments, respectively. The Jewish tradition also connects the prohibition of other gods and idols but counts it as the second commandment, the so-called “preface” (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6) being the first.