Commentary on Deuteronomy 6:1-9
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses sets out to instruct Israel on how they were to respond to God’s gracious gift of the land that had been promised to their ancestors and which they were soon going to occupy. In Deuteronomy 6:1-9, the portion selected as one of the scriptures for the 31st Sunday After Pentecost, Moses presents the posture that Israel was to have towards God’s statutes and ordinances, which in their totality are one commandment.
Deuteronomy 6:1-9 is part of the narrative that interrupts the story of Israel’s movement from Egypt to Canaan, a land that their God had promised to their ancestors. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses recapitulates the events that have taken place between Egypt and the present time, with emphasis on the Instructions (Torah)—the commandments, statutes and ordinances—that were to guide Israel’s successful entrance into a fruitful and permanent occupation of the land. In our text today, Moses beautifully and emphatically highlights the importance of loyalty to God and the nature of the loyalty.
Diligent observation of God’s commands would result in things going well with them in ways that sustain life, population growth and longevity in the land promised to their ancestors (Deuteronomy 6:1-3). The Shema, which is often considered the most important portion of this chapter, sets forth the relationship between God and Israel and what that entails. Although verse 4 can be translated in different ways, as the footnote in the NRSV indicates1, perhaps the more appropriate translation is the one that points to the exclusive demand of this God to be the only God Israel acknowledges and worships (5:6 See also Exodus 20:2). This claim, based on God’s act of bringing Israel out of enslavement in Egypt, is also highlighted at the end of this chapter (6:20-25) where it is underscored that the demand for Israel to observe the commandments was subsequent to that.
Israel’s response to God as presented in verse 5 is an extravagant love that involves conscience (heart), essence (soul), and vitality (might). These elements define the three essential characteristics of Israel as people of this specific God. First, Israel would be a community oriented toward morally right decision-making. Second, Israel would be a community with ethical values. And third, Israel would be a community full of energy for life.
The commands in the rest of the section point to how Israel can achieve this extravagant love of God: These words are to be kept in communal conscience; passed on to the children and they should be everywhere, constantly (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). This requirement is because forgetting these words would result in death for Israel. Moses constantly reminds Israel, forgetting what God has done for them means forgetting these commands, and forgetting these commands means a national failure and death.
As beautiful as these words of the Shema are, we should not forget their context and we should not gloss over the horror of the experiences of the people who will be at the receiving end of God’s promises and commandments—the Canaanites. We should refrain from identifying with Israel in this text in ways that desensitize us from the realities of atrocities that have been perpetrated in the name of God and religion.
We should not gloss over the notice that these commands were to be observed after Israel had occupied other people’s land (6:1) and confiscated other people’s property (Deuteronomy 6:10-13). These words should not just be read in the context of Israel’s past suffering in Egypt but should be read in the context of Israel’s future (7:1-6; the book of Joshua). When nations, whose origins and wealth are results of oppression, subjugation, and enslavement, are teaching their children their past, they should not cherry pick or gloss over the atrocities of their ancestors. Proper reckoning with past and present injustices is never to whitewash, gloss over, or ignore them.
- Three variations on the translation of the Shema: The Lord, our GOD is one Lord; or, The Lord our GOD, the Lord is one; or, The Lord is our GOD, the Lord is one.