We are studying Deuteronomy 6:1-9 for Sunday, December 2. This is the preamble to the recitation of the law in Deuteronomy, and includes the text of “the Shema,” what has become the central prayer of Judaism, and which Jesus identifies as the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:36 and Mark 12:29-30. Here are my very brief [especially relative to the profundity of the text] notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The narrative in Deuteronomy is that Moses is addressing the Israelites on the plains of Moab who are about to enter the promised land of Israel. Or, we could also say, about to invade Jericho. Both of those expectations arise in the text and are addressed at various points. In the text we are dealing with, the emphasis is on the future life in the land rather than the invasion.
The content of this part of the Torah includes some narrative about Moses, the transition in leadership from Moses to Joshua, and finally Moses’ death; and speeches made by Moses, that incorporate a restatement of the substance of the covenantal obligations – the commandments and statutes and judgments – that are to govern the life of the people of Israel; and the promises, the blessings, that accrue to this way of life, and the curses that are the consequence of abandoning this way of life. This makes it, in a sense, a summary or review of “the law.”
Like a review session before a final exam.
The contemporary narrative around Deuteronomy is more complicated, because Deuteronomy seems to represent the development of religious ideas. It is later text; it is written in the voice of the Deuteronomist, who has a distinctive voice, whose voice is also heard in the “Deuteronomistic history” that we have in Joshua and Judges and into Samuel and Kings, and whose vision of God’s hand in history is clear – loyalty to God brings blessing and reward, disloyalty to God brings punishment and penalty.
The commentary in the Jewish Study Bible on this points is fairly detailed and very illuminating. It would be worth following up with a comparison of Deuteronomy 6-11 (sermon) and 12-26 (legal code) to Exodus 21-23 (“book of the covenant”). Their reading is that:
The entire Mosaic reprise of ostensibly earlier law is therefore more sophisticated than at first evident, since repetition here entails competition, as Deuteronomy seeks to displace the Book of the Covenant.
It’s worth remembering that we associate the Deuteronomist with the period just following the exile. That’s the period of redemption from exile in Babylonia and of return to the land, but with a difference, because there is no monarchy, Israel is not fully independent, the 2nd Temple is not the Temple of Solomon … we might call this “reduced circumstances.” So the Deuteronomist sees, and says: Loyalty to God should have been everything; if it had been, all this pain and suffering would have been avoided; which implies that, now that we have a second chance, loyalty to God really needs to be everything.
Maybe because I have Advent on my mind, this complicated textual status feels significant: here is a text talking about something that is just about to happen that was just about to happen in the past, remembering and retelling that event in a place of renewed hope and expectation for something more, or new, still about to happen … full restoration, full redemption, “what we really want to see,” … after a long period in which having any hope at all seemed, possibly, foolish, and then was vindicated. So that these different instances of anticipation and expectation echo each other, and deepen the significance of what is being said. And then, additionally significant for us, who are reading in the present, also looking back at promises fulfilled, but still looking forward to promises yet to be realized … Maybe it’s just me, but that’s how I hear it.
CLOSER READING: In verse 1, the verb translated “to observe” is literally to do, a very common Hebrew verb, which makes the idea that people need to put these commands into practice, act on them – do them, very plain.
In the land that you are about to enter speaks to a future (and presumably enduring) way of life for a new place.
As I read it, the doing of the commandments will be the evidence of fearing YHWH (verse 2). This would be consistent with other uses of “fearing God” in Hebrew scripture. Yes, that verb really is “fear.” [I know people who find this very bothersome. Maybe because it seems so negative; or because if we were afraid of our parents, if our parents terrorized us, that would be bad parenting not good parenting, and projecting that back onto God feels wrong. I don’t disagree with this, and want to take it seriously, while still respecting the text here. I try to remember that there is a wide range of circumstances in which we, ourselves, use “fear” language. For instance: “I’m afraid I can’t come to your party.” “I’m afraid that will hurt Mom’s feelings.” “Don’t take that grape juice in the living room, I’m afraid it’ll spill.” On the other hand: God is vastly greater and wiser than humans, so I’m afraid opposing God seems like a potentially dangerous and probably foolish course of action from all kinds of perspectives, and we wouldn’t need to think of God as extraordinarily punitive to think that way. Certainly our text treats this fear of God as a positive. Fearing God is good for us.] We might remember that in the 1st century CE, Gentiles who associated themselves with synagogues and tried to keep the commandments were known as God-fearers.
Still in verse 2, your children and your grandchildren are literally your son and your grandson. This does not let your daughters and your granddaughters off the hook, though … except … for some commandments it might. We would need to consult the rabbis on this one.
In verse 3, the verb translated “observe them diligently” is still keep, a repetition of the keep in verse 2, which can also mean “guard.” Keep doing them.
A lot of renderings of the Hebrew in verse 4 are possible. NRSV and JPS both have “YHWH is our God, YHWH alone.” Which emphasizes the need for loyalty to this God. It can be translated in a way that emphasizes God’s oneness. Both of those ideas are present at the same time in Hebrew, which doesn’t need to make a choice about this the way English does.
In verse 5, we might want to read love as more behavioral than emotional – because as our psychotherapists tell us, “you can’t ‘should’ your feelings,” so it is hard for people who have had a lot of therapy to understand why we would be commanded to have a feeling of affection for God. But on the other hand, our emotions and volition are involved here, because the commandment is to love God with “all your heart” which includes those things. So, don’t have – or, encourage, or indulge – desires, affections, and intentions that are incompatible with the love of God.
Also all your soul, which in Hebrew is NOT a kind of disembodied, ethereal thing, but is firmly located and “enfleshed” in one’s body, so we might want to think of it as “who and what one is.”
Also all your might, or “all your strength,” or “all your substance.” The Hebrew word here in many contexts means something like “great, strong” or “greatly, strongly” or as we might say, “a lot, really.” As in, “all in” or “leave it all on the field.”
In verse 6, literally, “And they shall be, these words that I command you today, upon your hearts.”
In verse 7, the word translated “recite” is literally to sharpen – usually explained as an image of going over and over this until it is “inscribed.” But also – if we think about what it means to whet or sharpen a knife – we go over and over that metal till it is sharp, capable of slicing right through something, making it really useful, which could also fit.
There is a lot of commentary about the specific ritual results of verses 7-9: morning and evening prayers, the practice of using tefillin or phylacteries and tzitzit or fringed prayer shawls and mezuzot or special devices for holding sacred text attached to the doorposts of your home.
But more generally, verses 7-9 seem to be saying: spend a lot of time with these words; bring them up with your children and your friends and your companions and your colleagues, all the time, wherever you are. Make it so you see them all the time, and everyone else sees them on you, and you remind yourself and everyone else of them and your connection to them constantly – when you are about to be with your family, or you are about to be with others, when you are coming or going. Make them your world. Make them your life.