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Deuteronomy 6:4-15...

Deuteronomy is a retelling of the story of the people who have escaped slavery in Egypt and have followed God and Moses through the wilderness to the land of promise. The text is traditionally attributed to Moses, who preaches this epic and mythological sermon to help the hearers, the Israelites, locate themselves in history as the chosen people of YHVH. John J. Collins refers to the first twelve chapters of Deuteronomy as “the motivational speeches,”[1]with our chapter occurring squarely in middle. The text itself points to a different source of authorship than the primary speaker Moses. The linguistic formatting is very similar to that of Assyrian style treaties, this sets the writing of this text closer to the rule of King Josiah, and contextually makes more sense to be the work of Josiah’s scribes than that of the mythic-historic founding figure of Moses.[2] The Assyrian treaties with their vassal kingdoms would often command that the subjugated people “love” the king of Assyria. While the authorship is in question, Deut. 6 does appear to be one of the oldest sections of the book.[3] Patrick D. Miller in his commentary on Deuteronomy refers to this section, what is traditionally known as שְׁמַע, the Shema, (Hebrew for the first word of the prayer “hear”) as “the heart of the matter” when it comes to the book of Deuteronomy.[4] The Shema commands the people to love the LORD their God with all their heart, soul, and might. The word we often translate to heart in English bibles is the Hebrew word לְבָבְך (lebab), which does not simply mean heart, but also means mind. For the ancient near eastern reader, these two concepts shared the same cognitive space. The word that we most often see translated in English as “soul” is the word נַפְשְׁך (nephesh), which represents the concept of the animating force. Nephesh is the source of life, personhood, and embodiment. In Jerome’s Vulgate the word נַפְשְׁך is rendered as anima, often translated as soul, but with a secondary, more broad translation of “life.” The final way which the Israelites are told to love the LORD is with their whole might. The word translated to “might” is the Hebrew word מְאֹדֶֽך (meod). This word appears most often in the Hebrew Bible as the adjective translated in English as very.[5]

Miller comments that the rest of the book hangs on this brief command to hear. Even Jesus will refer back to this passage in Matthew 22:40 in which he makes the statement that “all the law and the prophets hang on [this].” So what about this passage is so important? The Shema became the “touchstone” for the faith of Israel, the center or religious identity and life; these ancient words defined what it meant to be part of the community. It set the rhythm of Jewish life, recited in the morning and at night. The language of the Shema permeated both Jewish life and the rest of Deuteronomy.[6]

This command, prayer, ritual, rhythm, and this identity is for all the people of God. Carolyn Pressler, in her contribution on Deuteronomy to the Women’s Bible Commentary points out that this passage is truly directed at everyone in the community. In the following verses, 6-9, Moses gives instructions to the entire family. Mothers, fathers, men and women alike are called into this Shema way of life.[7] These passages were to be ingrained in the community, taught to the children in their earliest days, bound on the people’s bodies, and mounted on doorframes. They were to be talked about whenever the community met. What were they to talk about? הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֣ים (hā-’êl-leh, had-də-ḇā-rîm) “these words”, those of the commandments, the Shema, and the Exodus story. If theses things remained central in the life of the community then there would be no confusion on what it means to be an Israelite. The words in this brief and memorable passage tell the people who they are/were, “take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Deut 6:12) It tells them what their values are, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.” (6:6) And it tells them what they are to do about it, “ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” (6:5) and “Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you.” (6:14) The passage is both theological and practical.[8]

[1] Collins, John J. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004, 84.

[2] Ibid., 89.

[3] Carr, David M. An Introduction to The Old Testament West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 149-50.

[4] Miller, Patrick D. Deuteronomy, Louisville: J. Knox Press, 1990, 97.

[5] Ibid., 150.

[6] Ibid., 98.

[7] Newsom, Carol A., and Sharon H. Ringe.,The Women's Bible Commentary, 3rd ed, London: SPCK, 2012, 90.

[8] Blair, Edward Payson, The Book of Deuteronomy; the Book of Joshua, Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1964, 37.

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