The book of Deuteronomy opens by saying: “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan” (1:1). Moses recalled something of their history, including their wilderness years—years spent wandering because of their unfaithfulness to Yahweh—as well as an account of the defeat of Kings Sihon and Og (1:1 – 3:22). He then recounted seeing the Promised Land from Mount Pisgah. Moses asked Yahweh to be allowed to cross over into the Promised Land, “But Yahweh was angry with me for your sakes, and didn’t listen to me” (3:26)—in other words, Yahweh denied Moses entry into the Promised Land because of the sins of the Israelites.
In chapter 4, Moses told the Israelites to “listen to the statutes and to the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them; that you may live, and go in and possess the land which Yahweh, the God of your fathers, gives you” (4:1). He also charged them to “make them known to your children and to your children’s children” (4:9).
In chapter 5, Moses recited the Ten Commandments, given originally in Exodus 17. He concluded chapter 5 by saying, “You shall observe to do therefore as Yahweh your God has commanded you: you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way which Yahweh your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess” (5:32-33).
Now, in chapter 6, he gives the Israelites the commandment that would become known to Jews as the Shema—a commandment that summarizes the demands of the first two of the Ten Commandments—a commandment that calls them to internalize the commandments, so that the commandments, once written on stone tablets, would be written on their hearts (6:6). He also commands them once again to teach this commandment to their children (6:7a) and to take specific measures to remember the commandments (6:7b-9).
In chapters 6-11, Moses appeals to the Israelites to be faithful to Yahweh and gives a rationale for doing that. These chapters, then, serve as an introduction to the more detailed giving of the law that Moses outlines in chapter 12-26.
DEUTERONOMY 6:1-3. THIS IS THE COMMANDMENT
1Now this is the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances, which Yahweh your God commanded to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you go over to possess it; 2that you might fear Yahweh your God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, you, and your son, and your son’s son, all the days of your life; and that your days may be prolonged. 3Hear therefore, Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with you, and that you may increase mightily, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised to you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances“ (v. 1a). “The commandment” is singular, and “the statutes and the ordinances” are plural. They are in apposition—in other words, “the commandment” is the equivalent of “the statutes and the ordinances.” Why then would “the commandment” be singular and “the statutes and the ordinances” plural? It could be that Moses intended “the commandment” to refer to the whole body of the law that will follow. However, I prefer to think of “the commandment” as referring to the commandment to love God (v. 5)—and “the statutes and the ordinances” as referring to the whole body of the law that he will outline in chapters 12-16. After all, the person who obeys the commandment to love God with heart, soul, and might will strive to obey all the other commandments as well.
“which Yahweh your God commanded to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you go over to possess it“ (v. 1b). Commentaries emphasize that the book of Deuteronomy is a book of instruction. Throughout the book, Moses is teaching the people of Israel what God has called him to teach. While that is true, Deuteronomy is also a book of preaching. Moses embraces the task of persuasion as enthusiastically as he embraces the task of instruction. He is not only teaching the people what they should do, but he is also appealing to them in no uncertain terms to obey God’s commandments. As we will see in the next verse, he tells them that their future depends on their obedience.
We should note that Moses is delivering to the people the word that Yahweh has given him. Moses’ teachings are not his opinions, but are God-given revelation. They have God’s authority behind them. We would do well in our preaching and teaching to go and to do likewise. I am reminded of a joke that Carlyle Marney was fond of telling.
The rabbi begins, “Thus saith the Lord!
The priest begins, “As the Church has always said….”
The average Protestant begins, “Now, brethren, it seems to me….”
But I have been to enough Catholic and Jewish services to know that the Protestants aren’t the only ones afflicted with the “it seems to me” problem.
“that you might fear Yahweh your God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you“ (v. 2a). The purpose behind Moses’ teaching is that the people of Israel might fear the Lord their God.
Sometimes people fear God because they have done something wrong and fear retribution, but “fear Yahweh” or “fear God” often means something entirely different—reverence and faith that lead to obedience. Fear of the Lord is serving the Lord and the Lord only (Deuteronomy 6:13). It is observing God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 28:58). Fear of the Lord is “the beginning of knowledge,” in the sense that the person who fears God will be open to instruction by God (Proverbs 1:7). It is often the result of seeing God’s power in action (Exodus 14:31). Fear of the Lord requires righteousness (Acts 10:22), faithful service to God, and rejection of false gods (Joshua 24:14). Fear of the Lord insures God’s mercy (Luke 1:50), and results in spiritual prosperity (Acts 9:31). “Behold, Yahweh’s eye is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his loving kindness”
(Psalm 33:18), so those who fear the Lord can sing:
“Our soul has waited for Yahweh.
He is our help and our shield.
For our heart rejoices in him,
because we have trusted in his holy name.
Let your loving kindness be on us, Yahweh,
since we have hoped in you” (Psalm 33:20-22).
“that your days may be prolonged“ (v. 2b). The promise to the faithful is a long life.
We should note that, at this early date, the Jewish people have no concept of resurrection. For them, eternal life is something lived out through one’s children—not something to be experienced personally. Thus they would have thought of the promise of this verse as lengthy lives on this earth rather than in the heavenly realm.
As time passed, this would change. By Jesus’ time, some people (such as the Pharisees) believed in resurrection, but others (such as the Sadducees) did not (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18).
“Hear therefore, Israel, and observe to do it“ (v. 3a). Some translations say “observe them,” but there is no word for “them” in the Hebrew of this verse. A literal translation would be “Listen, Israel, and take care to do” or “to keep.” The direct object isn’t stated, but the context tells us that the Israelites are to keep “the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances” (v. 1).
As noted above, Moses has two concerns in the book of Deuteronomy. He wants to teach the Israelites what Yahweh has given him to teach, but he also wants to persuade them to obey these teachings.
“that it may be well with you, and that you may increase mightily, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised to you, in a land flowing with milk and honey“ (v. 3b). In return for their faithful obedience to the commandments which Yahweh has given, Moses promises the Israelites prosperity—a good land—”a land flowing with milk and honey.” The phrase “milk and honey” is used often in the Bible to portray a fertile land (Exodus 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3; Leviticus 20:24, Numbers 13:27, etc.). It is Yahweh’s promise of providence—fruitfulness—abundance—on a grand scale.
“as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised to you“ (v. 3c). This promise has its roots in the covenant that Yahweh made with Abram many years earlier. In that covenant, Yahweh promised that he would give Abram’s descendants the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18).
DEUTERONOMY 6:4-9. HEAR, ISRAEL: YAHWEH IS OUR GOD; YAHWEH IS ONE
4Hear, (Hebrew: shema) Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one: 5and you shall love (Hebrew:‘ahab) Yahweh your God with all your heart, (Hebrew: lebab) and with all your soul, (Hebrew: nepes)and with all your might (Hebrew: me’od). 6These words, which I command you this day, shall be on your heart; 7and you shall teach (Hebrew: sanan) them diligently to your children, 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. 8You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes. 9You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates.
For many centuries, observant Jews have recited Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41 as a daily prayer.
• The passage from Deuteronomy 11 prescribes the rewards that Israel will receive at Yahweh’s hand for obedience to Yahweh’s commandments—and the penalties that she will experience if she fails to obey. It also requires the Israelites to teach the commandments to their children and to write them on their doorposts “that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth” (11:21).
• In Numbers 15, Yahweh says, “Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them that they should make themselves fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put on the fringe of each border a cord of blue: and it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look on it, and remember all the commandments of Yahweh, and do them; and that you not follow after your own heart and your own eyes” (Numbers 15:38-39).
“Hear, (shema) Israel” (v. 4a). We have come to know Deuteronomy 6:4-9 as the Shema. The Israelites named books of scripture according to the first word in the book. For instance, their name for the book that we know as Genesis was beresit, which is the first word of that book (and which means “the beginning”). In like manner, they refer to this text as the Shema based on the beginning word, shema (pronounced sha-MAH), which means “listen” or “hear.”
Before a person can obey, he/she must know the commandment to be obeyed. To know the commandment, he/she must first hear it. The hearing suggested by shema is what we might call active listening. It involves listening attentively—listening eagerly to understand what is being said—listening for a word which, if heeded, will lead the listener to life. In a context such as this one, shema suggests an eagerness to obey that which is heard.
“Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one” (v. 4b). This is the essential truth that Moses calls the Israelites to remember and to celebrate.
A literal translation would be “Yahweh our God; Yahweh one.”
• These words can be interpreted to emphasize Yahweh’s singularity—that Yahweh is the one and only God. All other gods are false gods, devoid of power or meaning.
• They can also be interpreted to emphasize the singularity of Israel’s faith—that Yahweh is to be Israel’s only God. Other nations might have their gods, but Israel is bound by covenant duty to worship only Yahweh.
• They can also be interpreted to emphasize the exclusivity of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh—that Yahweh belongs to Israel and not to others. However, there are hints throughout the Hebrew scriptures, beginning with Genesis 12:3 (“All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.”) that, while Yahweh’s covenant with Israel was exclusive, his love for people was not.
Perhaps the ambiguity is intended to bring all three of these meanings to mind as the Israelites recite these words daily.
“and you shall love (‘ahab) Yahweh your God” (v. 5a). This is the essential obligation that grows out of the truth that God is one. It requires the Israelites to love Yahweh with all that they are and all that they have.
The Israelites have good reason to love Yahweh, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt—and sustained them through their wilderness wanderings—and is about to bring them into the land that he long ago promised to Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12:7). Yahweh has proven himself to the Israelites—both his power and his faithfulness—time after time. He has been faithful to them even when they have failed him. They owe Yahweh their very lives.
“with all your heart” (lebab) (v. 5b). Our physical hearts are at the core of our physical beings, so the Israelites used this word, lebab, to speak of their inner being or inner self. They associated lebab with what a person is at the core of his/her being—his/her character or personality or mind or will.
While they thought of other organs, such as the liver or kidneys, in conjunction with emotions, they could also think of the heart as being glad (Deuteronomy 28:47)—so it is not as if the lebab was devoid of all emotion.
“and with all your soul” (nepes) (v. 5c). The Israelites thought of the person holistically, and would never have divided the person into body and soul, as the Greeks were later to do. They could not have conceived of a soul apart from a body—or of the soul continuing to live after the body died. The Christian concept of resurrection grows out of this holistic emphasis.
The Israelites used the word nepes to mean breath, the animating force that gives the creature life—and, by extension, the living creature itself. Therefore, when God breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, “the man became a living soul” (nepes) (Genesis 2:7).
Nepes is also associated with blood, because blood is another force necessary for life. Therefore, we have a commandment that says, “Only be sure that you don’t eat the blood: for the blood is the life; (nepes) and you shall not eat the life (nepes) with the flesh” (Deuteronomy 12:23).
“and with all your might” (me’od) (v. 5d). The word me’od has to do with strength, power, might, and abundance. It would therefore be appropriate to interpret this phrase as meaning that we should love the Lord our God with all of those things with which God has “gifted” us—our talents and treasures and strength and friends, etc., etc., etc. All that we have has not come to us from God, and everything that we have can be used to glorify God.
The book of Deuteronomy will go on to lay down many commandments that the Israelites are to keep. Many of those commandments are quite specific, and over time rabbis would add a great deal more specificity to them in their attempt to help people know exactly what they could and could not do. They incorporated their findings into the Mishnah and the Talmud—human commentaries that they tended to consider as authoritative—even as the Torah is authoritative.
One problem with an extensive system of laws, however, is that adherents of those laws often focus on the jots and tittles of the laws rather than on their intent—thereby falling into the trap of rote legalism. However, if a person keeps this commandment to love God with one’s whole being and substance, it will help him/her to avoid that trap.
When asked, “Which commandment is first of all” (Mark 12:28), Jesus responded, “The greatest is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord 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 mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment” (Mark 12:29-30). Then he added, “The second is like this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31; Leviticus 19:18). Jesus then added, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40).
“These words, which I command you this day, shall be on your heart“ (v. 6). As noted above, the heart is at the core of our being, so this commandment to keep these words in our hearts is a requirement to keep God’s commandments at the core of our being. It is a requirement to internalize the commandments so that our compliance springs from the heart rather than from legal obligation. It is a requirement to keep the commandments, originally inscribed on tablets of stone, inscribed on our hearts.
“and you shall teach (sanan) them diligently to your children” (v. 7a). The word sanan means to whet or sharpen. “In the intensive form of the verb, it means to teach incisively (Deut. 6:7). The idea here is that just as words are cut into a stone tablet with a sharp object, so the Law should be impressed on the hearts of the children of every generation” (Baker and Carpenter, 1179).
I must mention a concern here. In many churches today, Biblical instruction for children is relegated to a distant back seat. Pastors and worship committees focus first on worship schedules and then tuck in Sunday school wherever it will interfere least. Many churches provide little (if any) teacher training, and sometimes emphasize entertainment-oriented activities over actual instructional time.
Also, publishers of children’s curriculum often fail to produce materials that help children to make sense of the Biblical story. One major publisher presents Biblical stories, but groups them in accord with artificial themes rather than in accord with Biblical chronology—a bit of the Old Testament one week and a bit of the New Testament the next. The themes (such as “We Choose God”) often have little meaning to the children, who are left trying to figure out how last week’s lesson on Daniel relates to the next week’s lesson on the Widow’s Mite.
Our failure to teach our children the Bible is one of the several reasons that mainline denominations are in decline. Churches that fail to teach their children the Bible deserve to wither away. Failure to teach children the Bible constitutes ecclesiastical malpractice.
Let me also comment about adult Bible studies. The next time someone tells you that they are involved in a Bible study, ask what they are studying. You will find that few are actually studying the Bible. In most cases, they are studying a book by Philip Yancey or another popular author. While Yancey and other popular authors provide an important service, substituting their work for the study of God’s word constitutes unfaithful discipleship.
“and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way“ (v. 7b). The technical word for this kind of expression is “merism.” A merism is a pair of contrasting words (such as near and far) used to express totality or completeness. In that example, “near and far” mean “everywhere.” In this verse, “when you sit in your house, and when you when you walk by the way” means “wherever you are.”
“When you sit in your house.” We need to persuade parents that Christian education begins at home. We need to encourage them to read Bible stories to their children, preferably from age appropriate Bible story books.
We need to have good children’s Bible story books in our church libraries—and lists of such books with places where they can be ordered online (such as Christian Book Distributors or Amazon)—and some idea of prices.
We need to give children age-appropriate Bibles, such as the NIV Adventure Bible, when they are in third or fourth grade—and regular Bibles when they start high school.
We need to encourage parents to pray with their children on a regular basis—and to say grace at the table.
“and when you walk by the way.” When the parents bring their children to church, we need to have excellent Sunday school classes and youth groups. In both cases, we need to have an appropriate mix of fun activities (so they will want to keep coming) and good, solid Biblical education (so they will have something to guide them in their daily lives).
“and when you lie down, and when you rise up” (v. 7c). This is another merism, which means “whatever your state or condition.”
In other words, this verse calls for us to devote all-consuming attention to talking about God and the commandments. Those are appropriate subjects of conversation wherever we are and whatever we are doing.
“You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes“ (v. 8). This verse gave rise to the wearing of phylacteries (also known as tefillin), which are small leather boxes containing verses of scripture (usually Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16; and Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21). Typically, when attending to his prayers, a Jewish male would affix a small scripture box to his left arm and a larger scripture box to his forehead. These would serve as reminders to him of the core beliefs of his faith—and would also serve as witnesses to his faith to those who might see him.
While phylacteries might seem odd to us, they served a religious education purpose in the same way that stained glass windows or Stations of the Cross do in Christian churches.
“You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates“ (v. 9). This verse gave rise to the mezuzah, which is similar in purpose to the phylactery. A mezuzah is a small metal device containing the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) which is affixed to a doorpost.
It is possible to misuse any spiritual discipline, and that happened with phylacteries. Jesus told his disciples to practice what the scribes and Pharisees taught, but not to do what they do—for “all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad, enlarge the fringes of their garments, and love the place of honor at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ by men” (Matthew 23:5-7).
We are all subject to the same kinds of spiritual pride. What pastor doesn’t enjoy sitting in one of the best seats at a banquet? What pastor doesn’t enjoy the kind of instant respect that a clerical collar often affords? What pastor doesn’t enjoy the titles that come with the pastoral role—Reverend, the Very Reverend, Father, etc., etc., etc.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Baker, David, Brueggemann, Dale A., and Merrill, Eugene H., Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Nashville: Tyndale House, 2008)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament(Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Biddle, Mark E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2003)
Brueggemann, Walter, Abingdon Old Testament Commentary: Deuteronomy (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Christensen, Duane L., Word Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy 1:1 – 21:9, Vol. 6A (Dallas: Word Books, 2001)
Clements, Ronald E., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Craigie, Peter C., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Deuteronomy(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976)
Mann, Thomas W., Westminster Bible Companion: Deuteronomy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Maxwell, John C., The Preacher’s Commentary: Deuteronomy, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987)
Merrill, Eugene H., New American Commentary: Deuteronomy (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994)
Miller, Patrick D., Interpretation Commentary: Deuteronomy (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990)
Thompson, J.A., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy, Vol. 5 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1974)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Wright, Christopher , New International Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996)
Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan