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The Shema and the Greatest Commandment

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The Children of Israel had been given the Ten Commandments and God had spoken through the midst of the cloud and fire. The law and commandments were required for two million Israelites to live with God and with each other in the way that would please Him. Great emphasis was rightly placed on doing the commandments as well as reciting them. Yeshua came not to do away with the law but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17-18). When He was asked concerning the greatest commandment, he quoted from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, see Mark 12:29-31.

The Shema

The Shema is the basic confession of Judaism repeated twice daily, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, The Lord is One (Deuteronomy 6:4).” Today mezuzah on doorposts still remind us of this great confession which continues to remind us of loving the Lord with the totality of our being.

Consider for a moment the Ancient World and Israel’s surrounding neighbours who worshipped the Baals, Ashtoreth and Molech. They worshipped the creation, rather than the Creator which even Aaron succumbed to on one occasion, when he made an image of the golden calf whilst Moses was on the mountain with God.

The false gods were supposedly in the mountains and valleys and resided in different geographical areas. Many were inconsistent in character or vile in nature, moral boundaries were obscured and there was little security. For the true Israelite, the Shema would ground them in reality and in the Lord’s shalom.

Over the centuries, debate has continued regarding the meaning of ‘one’ in the Shema. This is not a hypothetical conundrum since it concerns the nature and essence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The word used in Deuteronomy 6:4 is ‘echad’ which is a compound unity, and is also the same word used in Genesis 2:24 when a husband and wife become ‘one’. They are two people who are united through marriage, another form or compound unity.

Maimonides stated that the word for one should be ‘yachid’ meaning a single unit. Nonetheless even the first verse of the Bible tells us that ‘Elohim’, meaning ‘mighty ones’ created the heavens and the earth. In Genesis 1:26 the Lord says, “Let us make man in our image (c.f. Genesis 3:22; Isaiah 6:8).”

The command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind is not primarily an argument for dual or tripartite nature of humans but to love the Lord our God at all times and in all situations.

The centrality of loving God in totality is expressed in the verses that follow. Talk of them when you are sitting, walking, or lying down. Binding them on hands, wearing between the eyes and writing the commandments on doorposts is still practised today with tefillin as a visible reminder. A deeper question is whether God’s ways are visible and noticeable in our lives through our words and actions?

The Greatest Commandment

Jesus the Messiah taught that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). He explained that the Law and the Prophets hung on those two commandments. He was therefore referencing the Shema and summarising the Ten Commandments. The first four relate to loving God and the remaining six to loving our neighbour.

We can love the Lord by obeying and worshipping Him and also with our time, energy, and money and by loving others. That will reveal where our affections lie, what we value the most, what we are committed to and who we are following. It is only through God’s grace and turning to Him and trusting in Him, that we can have our sins forgiven and be reconciled to God and have the assurance of meeting the Lord as our Saviour instead of our judge.

Mark’s gospel commenting on the parallel passage to Matthew mentions loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. Again this is not about delineating between human faculties by including ‘strength’, but it is about ensuring the entirety of our lives are about loving God. Greek thought generally separates the body and Spirit though in Hebraic thought these faculties are interwoven. Greek thinking can allow us to try and excuse our actions through separating the physical and spiritual and by doing so we only fool ourselves. Sadly, that has led to the polar extremes of aestheticism on one hand and debauchery on the other. God is concerned that we should love Him and serve Him with each aspect of our lives that He has given us.

But what do we mean by ‘love’ since people day use the term ‘love’ and at times relate it to all kinds of entities often belittling what it is really supposed to mean? Our Lord said, ‘Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down his life for one’s friends (John 15:13).” Yeshua did something far greater than that since he never sinned, and while we were still sinners, Messiah died for us (Romans 5:8).

A person that comes to faith and trust in Jesus the Messiah as their Lord and Saviour is saved neither through legalism (keeping rules to obtain salvation), nor a license (making a verbal proclamation and living as they please for themselves) but by grace through faith in Him. Everyone has sinned other than Yeshua and none are righteous (Psalm 53:3). He is the perfect sinless Saviour who provided atonement for sin by dying as a substitute, in our place.