Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Both the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic movement that followed the precepts of the book vigorously resisted plurality.

Good fences, Houston Heights, Texas
Good fences, Houston Heights, Texas. Image by Patrick Feller via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

November 1, 2015

First Reading
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Commentary on Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Both the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic movement that followed the precepts of the book vigorously resisted plurality.

From the single shrine to the single priesthood, the desire to eradicate multiplicity and with it any room for theological innovation appears as a strong hallmark of Deuteronomy and its theological descendants. Naturally, this conventional view impacts the way the book is read and crucial, even though confusing words, are translated in the book. While ehad in v. 4 is a simple enough word to understand, exactly what it means in the context of chapter 6 has been the subject of vigorous debates. In a passage that suggests expressions of devotion to God through multiple means and multiple practices of affirming that devotion, the tendency to think of God as singular presents a curious sight.

Chapter six forms another step towards the eventual laying out of the promised “statutes and ordinances” in the book, delayed until chapter twelve. The next six chapters present various forms of motivations to obey these laws. The lectionary passage divides between the now conventional repetition of the necessity for obedience in vv. 1-3 and the start of an exhortation at v. 4. Since vv. 1-3 provide language already encountered in the book, the tendency to overlook these verses can be too real. Understanding that repetition, routine, and reprise are literary techniques — intentional or otherwise — in the book should help readers not gloss over these verses. The unexpected singular “commandment” at v. 1 raises questions as to which particular commandment qualifies as the summary of all the “statutes and ordinances”? Does this refer to the list in chapter five or the extensive tenets still to come beginning at chapter twelve? What relationship does the parenthetical “statutes and ordinances” have with “commandment”? At the outset the chapter offers up the tension between the one and the many. This tension sits in conversation with the gospel lection and the expectation that a single statement can encapsulate the myriad traits and requirements that form human community.

The first part of the passage offers readers surprises that move beyond single perspectives formed about the book. The language of vv. 1-3 recalls that already used in the book. In Deuteronomy 4:1 Moses is presented as teaching but at 5:1 the more intentionally divine charge to teach appears. The benefits of obedience: long life (5:16), and success (4:40; 5:16, 28-29), underscored by a fear of God (5:29), already mentioned in the book, appear in the chapter. On this occasion, the land as inheritance is vividly described as the “land flowing with milk and honey” for the first time in the book. This attractive description provides the vivid rhetorical appeal to the people to pursue the path of obedience. The routine admits to innovation and even that which appears one way opens up new possibilities.

As this seemingly routine aspect of the first part of the passage reveals surprises, so too the language of the second half seems repetitive and formulaic but offers more than anticipated. The imperative call to hear or obey that begins v. 4 hardly looks like the utterance of a single instance, rather this call repeats a formula of orthodoxy that defines God and the people. The formula seems to be less about forming the foundation for theological orthodoxy and more as the equation that draws God and people in a relationship. Both God and people stand on opposite sides of the equation navigated by love as the equal sign. This formula constitutes the community by naming the community as Israel that is called upon to hear/obey. In the Shema, God and people present and ask each other for commitments. The request to the people to love God will make further sense at Deuteronomy 7:7-8 but the divine initiative to love has already been spelled out in the various notices of divine redemption from Egypt (1:30; 4:20, 34-37; 5:6). How many times can this history be stated? How many ways can the love between God and Israel be expressed? Far from being a tiresome routine, the Shema repeats the fundamental assertion of the community’s identity and opens the door to multiple expressions of love.

The word ehad can be translated as either “alone” or “one.” The NRSV opts for “alone” while the NIV uses “one.” The debate here revolves around whether the statement makes a claim about God’s nature — singularity versus plurality — or whether the statement calls Israel to exclusive devotion in a single relationship. Evidence suggests the worship of multiple instantiations of God (YHWH) following local tastes and preferences. The argument for the use of the word “one” asserts that Deuteronomy advocates the elimination of localized deities in the move to centralize and control religious practices. Such a claim is consistent with Deuteronomy’s high level of intolerance for anything that strays away from ardent devotion to God (7:1-6; 13:6-11). Although this strong case exists for the translation “one,” the word “alone” shifts the concern of the passage away from the nature of God to the level of devotion required from the people. By insisting on “alone” the formula challenges the people to assert in clear and specific ways that God is their “one and only.” No other path, no other value, no other power, can substitute or require the same level of devotion that distracts, deters, or derails the people from the unique and closed relationship with the God who redeems from trouble.

Rather than opting for one translation over the other, the text allows for the multiplicity inherent in ambiguity. Either translation invites conversation about the two parties in the relationship. Traditional theological discourse prefers to focus attention on divine attributes and to do so from the perspective of demand as well as perfection. This wholly coherent and holy God requires this response. Asserting that God is “one” participates that coherent theology that makes strident demands. Yet theology can and should interrogate the divine not as already fixed or even knowable, but unknown and in the process of coming into being through relationships with humans. Readers who prefer “alone” may be open to this possibility but may well fall into the trap that the exclusive relationship takes place with an already coherent God.

Deuteronomy hosts anxieties around divine multiplicity and its theological impulse is to control. Do those anxieties exist at the same level in the book or even in earlier articulations of the now creedal form of v. 4? The fear of multiplicity may exist more with modern readers than the book of Deuteronomy. The prohibition against physical representations (4:16-18) or the veneration of celestial bodies (4:19) may on one level represent a tightening of practice to eliminate seductions of certain religious practices. Yet this prohibition enables a broader template upon which God can be painted. Not simply limited to the mundane or to the known, the nature of God can be imagined in countless ways. That Deuteronomy understands God as formless (4:15) enables the freedom to think of God as plurality beyond the single monochromatism required by conventional readings of ehad.

This passage encourages multiplicity in the love that the people express for God. This love can be expressed not with a single body part but rather with everything that characterizes human emotion. The emphasis on all in the list (Deuteronomy 6:5) expands the scope and challenges a level of devotion unseen in any other relationship. Though this passage in its use of love imitates the pattern in seen in treaty forms such as the Neo-Assyrian treaty obligations, the love required here takes on the practical aspect of realpolitik but goes beyond the mere transactions needed to get by. Instead the multiple expressions of love here presses for more than the ordinary. This love calls for deep intellectual assent, “all your heart,” the core of one’s beings, “all your soul,” and all of things that we put at the disposal of what is good for which we cannot find a clear name (the Hebrew falls back upon meod normally translated as “very” or “much,” “your muchness”?) “all your might.” No one thing suffices to express this love and devotion suggesting that the multiple expressions are suited to a God that transcends the neat categories that formulas seek to construct.

The love relationship between God and the people will be sustained by multiple practices. No one thing can fully sustain this deep connection. If exclusivity is the aim of this relationship, then its practices ensure its multiplication to include more participants. Resorting a mental act to practice this level of love will not sustain the relationship (v. 6). That other items are added to the list shows how loving only with the heart/mind is inadequate and maintaining it with only mental practices are inadequate for the relationship. Rather the recitation to children to ensure generational transmission, public witness, constant daily communication, and displays of affection form some of the mechanisms to sustain the equation of love between God and the people (vv. 7-8).

In its present form the Shema contributes to the orthodoxy of the book of Deuteronomy that prefers singular rather than multiple expressions of God. Countless love songs dedicated to the “one and only,” narrate the inadequacies of these relationships primarily due to the restrictive nature of the relationship. Shema describes a wild love that revels in multiplicity, thrives on diversity, and takes all that it can to keep it going. Such a love and lover can hardly be monochromatic or single or alone.