The Shema (Deut. 6:4–9) is a confession about the God of Israel and simultaneously a piety and a pedagogy for Israel:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is 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. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Theologians debate the meaning of “Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” Is it an assertion of God’s metaphysical simplicity and unity, or a declaration about his unrivaled uniqueness among the gods of the Gentiles?
If the theology is ambiguous, the piety is not. Because Yahweh is one (in whatever sense), each Israelite is to live with singleness of purpose and fixed affections. Yahweh is the sole legitimate object of love, loyalty, and service. Yahweh longed for and chose the fathers (Deut. 10:15), so Israel in turn is to cleave to Yahweh (Deut. 11:22) as husband and wife cleave to one another (Gen. 2:24). The piety is comprehensive, all-consuming. Love for Yahweh occupies the inner life, the whole heart and soul, with no room left for other loves. There are other loves, but they’re enveloped by and subordinated to love for God. As Augustine put it, we rightly love persons and things only in God and for his sake. We rightly love creatures only if that love is an overflow of our love for the Creator.
The people of Israel are to love Yahweh with all their heart, soul, and “might.” The last is curious, since it’s not the normal word for strength, but a nominal form of a Hebrew adverb (me’od) meaning “very,” “greatly,” or “exceedingly.” The Septuagint translates it as dynamis, “power,” and in Luke’s Gospel Jesus uses ischus, “might.” Perhaps it modifies the love of the heart and soul: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all the force of your heart and soul.” It’s been understood expansively, including not only physical and mental powers, but social powers—connections and friendships and influence, political status and authority, money and economic clout. Whatever form of power we possess is directed by love for the one God. The piety of the Shema implies a politics.
That political dimension is overt in the Shema’s pedagogy. Moses teaches Israel to teach, so his hearers are equipped to pass on fear and love for Yahweh to their sons and sons’ sons (Deut. 6:1–2). Like the piety, the pedagogy is comprehensive, all-consuming. It’s not confined to school or school hours, but takes place everywhere, in private (“house”) and public (“in the way”) and at all times (“when you lie down, when you rise”). Whatever posture they assume, whether sitting, walking, lying, or rising, parents train children to love Yahweh. Education includes dress as well as talk: “you shall bind [these words] as a sign on your hand and they shall be as a band between your eyes.”
The words of Moses are to be written on the doorposts of the house, consecrating each house as a house of Yahweh, a house of prayer and instruction. And they’re to be written on “your gates.” In the Hebrew Bible, gates are public gathering places, the setting for legal deliberation and decision. Elders are found in the gates, since they determine who enters and who’s expelled from the civic community (Deut. 21:19). Boaz claims his rights as Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer before witnesses gathered at the gate of Bethlehem (Ruth 4:1). All these deliberations and decisions, all legal arguments and arrangements, occur under the shadow of Yahweh’s words, literally or metaphorically written on the city gates. Israel’s pedagogy continues beyond childhood, for judges too need public reminders of their obligation to love Yahweh in their administration of justice. Private and public worlds conform to the words of Yahweh and are organized as aids to memory.
Jesus quotes the Shema and calls it the first and greatest commandment. He cites only the command to love, but surely he implies the rest. Jesus, like Moses, expects his followers to love the Father with every form of power they possess, to pass on their love for the Father to their sons and sons’ sons through a comprehensive, enveloping discipleship, and to surround themselves and their children with private and public signs of this devotion. So, at least, the Church has believed. The façades of courthouses and legislatures are inscribed with quotations from the Torah and the Gospels. Judges have sat before plaques containing the Ten Words. Scripture has been transposed into stained glass, stone, bronze, paint, and plaster. Churches strain toward heaven, their interiors “ribbed” to represent the body of Christ. Cities have been organized around cathedrals, so that the built environment also proclaims the gospel. Whenever Christians have pursued the comprehensive pedagogy of the Shema, it has taken form in a civilization that expresses single-minded love for God and serves as a ubiquitous exhortation to persevere in that love.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. Therefore: Christendom.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.