Deuteronomy 6:1-9, in particular Deuteronomy 6:4-5, is the holiest passage in Judaism, called the Shema, and immortalized in Judaism’s famous phylacteries on their forehands and right hands and their mezuzahs on their doors. Not coincidentally, it is also the Greatest Commandment for Christians as well (see Matthew 22:34-40), even though most Christians do not take the Commandment of Deuteronomy 6:1-9, even though it is recognized as the Greatest Commandment, to the degree of literalness that Judaism is known for. Let us therefore examine this passage today and see what insight it has for us.
Hear, O Israel
The word Shema comes from the phrase, “Hear, O Israel,” (specifically the first word) which is repeated twice in this passage (and once more, for good measure, in Deuteronomy 5:1, before a listing of the ten commandments). Deuteronomy 6:1-9 reads: “Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply as the Lord God of your fathers has promised you–‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’ Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which i command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Some Notes On Context
It is not difficult to understand why this passage is so important. For one, let us note that this passage follows after the restatement of the ten commandments in Deuteronomy 5:1-22. Additionally, this passage serves as a bridge between the historical introduction of Deuteronomy and the cautionary passages that show both God’s election of Israel and Israel’s need to respond to that election with obedience. As such, the Shema is a prologue that points back to the ten commandments from which the many laws and statutes of Deuteronomy spring as well as remind Israel of the relationship between law and grace that is so controversial in the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and within both faiths as well.
As a note, Deuteronomy 6:10-25 provides that relationship between law and grace very thoroughly, reminding Israel that God was giving them (as a gift) cities and houses and vineyards and wells and olive trees that they did not earn, but that God required obedience from Israel so that they could remain in the land and remain His covenant people. Here we see both law and grace in their classic formulations by Paul and James and John (and Jesus Christ–see Matthew 5:17-20, John 3:16). God’s grace toward us is a result of His love, but He requires us to be obedient to His laws for us to maintain our relationship with God . This was true in Deuteronomy as well as in Romans and 1 Corinthians and Galatians and James and 1 John, and so on and so on. The grace of God was not something new that Paul discovered and taught to early Christians. It was here all along in the heart of God’s law, only it has been largely forgotten by those who were supposed to be keepers of God’s law even as they were never fully obedient to it.
On Mazuzahs And Phylacteries
For the record, I have never lived in a home where there was a mazuzah on the doors of all of the rooms (except bathrooms) nor have I ever worn a phylactery. These are common customs of religious Jews. I do come from a part-Jewish background, but my ancestors were not practicing Jews some generations before my family again took an interest in obeying God’s laws (such as the Sabbath), and so therefore my family’s Jewish religious practices were largely lost in a haze of secularism or (perhaps almost as bad) Unitarianism and did not remain to the present day. It is for those reasons, largely being out of touch with the practical behavior of being Jewish (aside from Sabbath and Holy Day observance, biblical food laws, and circumcision).
That said, in this passage as well as the passage about tassels in Numbers 15:37-41 , there appears to be a direct divine command to wear some tangible physical reminder of one’s commitment to God’s law. In Numbers 15:37-41 the command is to wear a blue thread that (apparently) marks one out as a commandment keeper. Here one is commanded to write this law (usually taken as the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5) on one’s right hand and forehead as well as on one’s doors and gates. It seems likely that the gates meant are not merely house gates but the gates of the city, for larger symbolic meaning as well as because the expression “within your gates” in biblical law does not refer to one’s own specific household but one’s community at large. This meaning gives a very broad application of Sabbath laws, for example, forbidding us to take advantage of the labor of those heathen (i.e. strangers) within our communities, not only those housemaids who may be “living in,” as many so legalistically (and falsely) presume.
Most believers who consider themselves Christians are not particularly interested in looking Jewish, especially if we lack that sort of practice from our own family upbringing, even if we share a sense of Hebraic roots. It is common (and I must admit I share in this lamentable tendency sometimes) to pit the physical requirement of wearing these phylacteries (or tassels) or putting the physical mazuzahs on one’s doors against the apparent spiritual meaning of these laws, to claim that we obey them in spirit even if we rather flagrantly and dismissively reject such practice on the physical level. There need not be any contradiction between the physical practice and the deeper (Christian) spiritual meaning behind these verses. After all, Jesus Christ pointed to the Shema in Matthew 22:34-40 as the Greatest Commandment of all (and there are many of them). For it to be the greatest, from the mouth of our Messiah and Savior Himself, means that it still applies to genuine Christians today. And no one reading this command (or, it should be noted, Numbers 15:37-41), can deny that there is a physical and literal obedience as well as a deeper point, in mind.
I have dwelt rather longer than intended on these matters, despite my rather profound discomfort at laws that I do not (at this time) practice being commanded in such obvious ways and forms, simply because I believe it important to be honest about such matters and to lay out the sincere biblical case so that the practice may follow in its proper time. I also wish to make it clear that there need not be any hostility or contradiction between the physical obedience to such laws in their obviously physical form and the deeper spiritual insight one wishes to gain from these laws. After all, the Bible is profound enough to express truth on a variety of levels. We need not pit one layer against another in the attempt to justify our own lack of interest in obedience to God’s commands. Furthermore, obedience to this law need not mean we accept the myths about such practice that are common in Jewish fables, nor do we need to engage in practices like making our phylacteries broad or our tassels long to appear righteous, a practice condemned in scripture (see Matthew 23:5). The existence of legalism and hypocrisy regarding a commandment does not mean that the commandment of God is null and void and can be safely disregarded.
A Deeper Significance
It is clear that there is a deeper significance in mind for this passage than merely phylacteries and mazuzahs, though these are straightforwardly commanded as well. This passage seems to point towards a deeper implementation and instruction of God’s laws than merely the physical and personal level, though necessarily it begins there. Let us spend some time, therefore, commenting on the deeper significance of where the laws and commandments of God are to be put.
We are physical creatures, even with our many potentialities, and we need frequent physical reminders of our spiritual commitment to God. To be a circumcised Israelite (on the eighth day, as some of us are) or to be a baptized Christian, is to be a part, whether natively or grafted in, to the Israel of God. This means we belong to God, and need to be reminded of that fact lest we think we are autonomous and belong to ourselves. Having our commitment to obey God’s commandments on our right hands and between our eyes on our foreheads is a reminder to ourselves that we belong to God, that we are bondservants of Christ (as Paul wrote so regularly in his epistles). They are not there to show off our obedience to others, but to remind ourselves daily (hourly even) of our commitment to follow God’s ways.
There is a connection between the daily reminder of our commitment in this law to talk of God’s commandments when we are sitting in our house, when we are walking along the way (or driving or riding a bus or plane), when we rise up each morning and when we go to bed each night. After all, the sacrifices of God were offered morning and evening, a twice-daily reminder of the need for sacrifice to allow us to be close to God, a sacrifice that is eternally fresh thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ once for all time.
Additionally, Deuteronomy 17:14-20 commands all kings (and perhaps all leaders would be well-advised to follow this law as well) to write a copy from the Bible for themselves by hand (even if their handwriting is bad) and to read the law every day to make sure to follow it. After all, leaders (kings and their royalist elite supporters especially) need the reminder not to think themselves above their people, nor to multiply gold and silver and horses (or cars or private jets) or wives or mistresses for themselves. All godly rulers are constitutional monarchs, subject to and accountable to the laws of God, and God thought it was important for kings to have a daily reminder of that fact given the tendency of people to forget when they have great power that they are accountable to the people of God. Given what I have seen of the behavior of leaders and rulers around the world, I wholeheartedly second this advice.
With the physical reminders of the mazuzahs and phylacteries and the command to meditate on and talk about God’s commandments on a daily basis we move on to deeper levels of understanding. For one, these are not merely to be personal reflections, but they are to be outer-directed in focus. We are to teach God’s laws to our children (incidentally enough, this commandment makes parents ultimately responsible for the education of their children, and seems to presuppose some sort of “homeschooling” of children by their believing parents by making parents the teachers of God’s ways for their families). And not only do these laws imply that our families are to be places where God’s commandments are practiced and taught on a daily basis (because the commandment is written on the doors of our house), but the fact that the laws are to be written on our city gates means that our cities and therefore our communities (and political systems) are to represent obedience to God’s laws. These laws are about far more than personal morality, but also include the civil and economic laws that are so routinely ignored and disparaged even by those who claim to support God’s laws and call themselves Theonomists.
It would seem, intentionally, that God’s laws require the submission of all human activities, whether they be civil or religious, whether they be business or governmental or familial or personal behavior, whether they be for men or women, slave or free, governor or governed, boss or employee, to the laws and authority of God. We all belong to God, and every thought and action must be brought into submission to God’s ways all the time (see 2 Corinthians 10:5). This is no less true because we believe in Christ now than it was for the Israelites in the time of Moses. There is no discontinuity there between our obligations of obedience, regardless of the fact that obedience has never and will never earn our salvation or justification from sins.
And indeed, this commandment would seem to involve all walks of life, at all times of day, in all spheres of activity. God claims authority over all human behaviors and endeavors, and His law is applicable above all others. We who are Christians are called to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29) and this means obedience to the laws of God that serve as the foundation of authority and legitimacy within the Kingdom of Heaven, the New Jerusalem, that we claim to be citizens of (Philippians 3:20). Being a citizen of heaven means living under its legal and moral order, a legal and moral order described in the Bible.
God Is One
I would be remiss to mention this passage without mentioning perhaps the most contentious part of this passage. “The Lord is one!” is a hotly debated matter between Jews and Christians in large part because both Jews and Christians have muddled the matter. For Jews, the word one comes from the Hebrew echad, which has a variety of meanings, including unity and primacy, that are pretty obviously meant here, as well as being an ordinary way to say “one.” Jews tend to read this verse as saying yahid, which means one without containing the additional shades of meaning of echad. Without being a Hebrew scholar, it is easy enough to say that reading echad as yahid seems to be a deliberate attempt to claim Christianity as polytheistic, without taking into account scriptures such as Proverbs 30:4 or Psalm 110:1, or Daniel 7:9-14, which show two beings called variously: God and the son of God, Yahweh and Adoni, the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man, expressing the two beings known as God the Father and Jesus Christ (or Yeshua the Messiah, if you would prefer).
On the other hand, those who are genuinely biblical Christians would recognize that there is one God and Father of all (see Ephesians 4:6) who is above all (even Christ). Even Christ subjected His will to the will of His Father, and therefore there is no polytheism within the Family of God, because all who are a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, whether human believers who will become adopted sons, or righteous angels, or God or Jesus Christ, are all subject to the will of our Heavenly Father. His is the only will which matters in heaven, and therefore Christians are not polytheists, because there is no division or anarchy within God’s created order except among those who are rebels consigned for eternal judgment unless they lay down their arms and surrender to their sovereign Lord.
Therefore, all aspects of this passage agree that God is supreme. Because God is supreme over all the universe, He is therefore supreme over all parts of human life, over all spheres of human activity, and over all human institutions that wish to claim loyalty, be they families or churches or communities or nations. All human activity is subject to the divine legal order expressed in scripture because there is no part of ourselves or our universe that does not belong to God. We belong to God, therefore we must hear and pay attention to the claims of God over our behavior and to accept those claims if we want to be considered law-abiding citizens of His realm. This is something both Israel and Christianity have not done very well, and an area where we all (myself included) could stand to improve.