In the modern debate between Christians and Muslims there seems to be keen interest to find out the true meaning of the “Shema” found in the Hebraic-Christian Scriptures in Deuteronomy 6:4. In fact, the Shema is the prescribed prayer of every Jew recited every morning and evening. The assumed pericope of this prayer always seems to move to the “unitariness” or “oneness” of Yahweh in its assumed context but a closer study shows that the very heart of the Shema has always been to obey! This is what the word “Shema” actually means! To pray the Shema is to commit one’s self to loving God and obeying his laws…the entire Shema is composed of the three Bible passages: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; and Numbers 15:37-41″.[1] The priority emphasized in the Old Testament Scriptures has always been to “obey” the Lord your God.

The central concern of the Shema is, therefore, the obedience necessary when following Yahweh (Ex.19:5, 23:21, Deut.5:33; 11:1; 28:1, Josh. 5:6, 22:2-3;  1 King. 2:3, Jer.7:23, 38:20).

“In the Bible, the Word Shema is widely used to describe hearing and also its outcomes: understanding, taking heed, being obedient, doing what is asked”… “almost every place we see the word “obey” in English in the Bible, it has been translated from the word Shema. To “hear” or “listen” is to “obey“![2] I do not desire to show in-depth as to the nature of this prescribed obedience, but let me just say that when we understand the general context of the Shema, we can clearly see it calls for us to obey and fulfill the central command of Scripture…LOVE! Jesus sums it up beautifully when He uttered the greatest command: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mark 12:29-30). Leaving it at that we need to also make it clear that the central emphasis of the Shema Jesus calls us back towards is to love! Now the Unity of God is important, but the central axis of the Shema is to obey!

Allow me to say that even though theologians from both sides (Islam & Christianity) like to emphasize central themes that eliminate the overall understanding of the context we need to realize that to focus exclusively on the word “Echad” is to miss the predicate evident within this given text. “While other complicated Biblical passages give rise to various doubts as far as some of their components turn out to be obscure or dubious, the text of the Shema [Deut 6:4] is perfectly clear from this point of view since all its elements . . .[and] are identifiable and understandable grammatically, etymologically and semantically . . . It is not their meaning or function but their combination that makes the words of the Shema individually transparent but obscure when put together”.[3] When we listen to the Shema we need to understand that the core emphasis is to obey! I cannot stress it enough!

Early Ancient near Eastern cultures was placing incredible emphasis on the plurality of various gods. The Shema declares boldly that Yahweh only is God.[4]

The concern before and at the time of Christ was not the “oneness” of Yahweh but the uniqueness of Yahweh. Theologian N.T. Wright to affirm “about the nature and variety of early Jewish monotheism… we have very few examples of ‘pure’ monotheism anywhere, including in the Hebrew Bible… from the Maccabaean revolt to Bar-Kochba – there is no suggestion that ‘monotheism’, or praying the Shema, had anything to do with the numerical analysis of the inner being of Israel’s God Himself… we find strong evidence during this period of Jewish groups and individuals who, speculating on the meaning of some difficult passages of Scripture (Dan7; Gen 1) suggested that the Divine being might encompass a plurality…but none of these show any awareness that they are transgressing normal Jewish monotheism.” He affirms that later with the “rise of Christianity… [and the influence of] Hellenizing Philosophy], that Jews in the second and subsequent centuries reinterpreted ‘monotheism’ as ‘the numerical oneness of the Divine Being.”[5]

He adds further that, “Jewish-style Monotheism meant living in this story, trusting in this one true God, the God of creation and covenant, of exodus and return. This God was utterly different from the pantheist’s “one god”. Utterly different, too, from the faraway ultra-transcendent gods of the Epicureans…This Monotheism was never, in our period, an inner analysis of the inner being of the One God. It was always a way of saying, frequently at great risk: our God is the true God, and your gods are worthless idols. It was a way of holding onto hope.”[6]

What is interesting when we read the overall context of the Shema is that the insistent focus on just the unitariness of Yahweh forgets what the context shows. What is described here is what is called a “monolatry” confession. Again, this highlights God’s Uniqueness amongst other superficial ‘gods’. Prolific Scholar Prof. M.F. Bird writes, “Monotheism entails monolatry, the Worship of the one true God to the exclusion of others…make[ing] up the substance of Jewish Monotheism.” [7]

Another Semitic scholar asks what it means to be monotheistic?

“It is simply exclusive devotion to one particular Deity – this is what is known as “monolatry” or “henotheism” – nor is it the acknowledgment of a single divine principle behind all the various deities- “monism”. Monotheism has been defined as “a religion in which the adherents express belief in the existence of and venerate only one High God.”[8]
We need to understand therefore that Israel’s concern was to stay true to the Unique One God! As Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann shows clearly, Israel was more concerned with a polemic against idolatry that would exclude other God’s in light of YWHW’s superiority than the numeric understanding of the One God. God is One![9]

Another interesting facet of early Judaism was that “the Hebrew word ’eḥad does not normally bear the meaning “alone”.[10]

The over excessive debate on the word “echad” also seems to be problematic, when seriously weighed we can actually establish that “echad” does not mean a monadic one as some would have us believe. Dr Michael Brown “Actually, ’echad simply means ‘one,’ exactly like our English word ‘one.’ While it can refer to compound unity (just as our English word can, as in one team, one couple, etc.), it does not specifically refer to compound unity. On the other hand, ‘echad certainly does not refer to the concept of absolute unity, an idea expressed most clearly in the twelfth century by Moses Maimonides, who asserted that the Jewish people must believe that God is yachid, an ‘only’ one. There is no doubt that this reaction was due to exaggerated, unbiblical, ‘Christian’ beliefs that gave Jews the impression Christians worshiped three gods. Unfortunately, the view of Maimonides is reactionary and also goes beyond what is stated in the Scriptures. In fact, there is not a single verse anywhere in the Bible that clearly or directly states that God is an absolute unity.[11]

Another interesting point is how the Shema reads in Hebrew.  

The Hebrew is literally, ‘Yahweh our God, Yahweh one,’ with the NRSV representing Yahweh as ‘LORD.’ On the basis of usage elsewhere in Deuteronomy, it is unlikely that ‘Yahweh our God’ should be rendered ‘Yahweh is our God,’ against the NRSV text; it is more likely that ‘is’ should be added between ‘Yahweh’ and ‘one.’ This yields the translation ‘the LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ It is then necessary to explain what is meant by ‘one.’ This most likely refers to Yahweh’s uniqueness. He alone is God, and he needs no other gods to assist him. However, this unique and incomparable God is also, for Israel, our God, not because of what Israel deserves or merits but because of God’s graciousness (cf. 7:7).”[12] Was monotheism unique in Israel? Prof. Michael Bird writes, “There was a long tradition of pagan monotheism well before the Christian era…Monotheism entails monolatry, the worship of the one true God to exclusion of all others”[13]

Interestingly enough we need to be honest to the context that clearly shows that Israel’s concern was to be true to Yahweh who is uniquely God alone! “Israel was time and again taught that there is only One God – Yahweh, who had taken his people into covenant with Him… [the Shema] “trenchantly repudiate the polytheism of the pagan world. In the immediate context, Canaanite religions were the challenge to Israel, but this impressive declaration includes in its scope all pagan objects of worship mentioned in the historical and prophetic literature”. [14]

A recent article in the “Biblical Archaeological Review”[15]
A recent amulet was discovered near Carnuntum that contains the oldest reading of the Shema. Noah Wiener writes “The Shema‘ Yisrael from Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) is Judaism’s holiest confession. Today, we understand the passage as a monotheistic declaration. However, in the Second Temple period, the Shema‘ Yisrael text in Deuteronomy would have been read “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” He affirms even further that “The Shema‘ Yisrael was originally a monolatric statement; it stated that Israel had an exclusive relationship with its God, but it did not deny the existence of other national deities for other peoples. When did Deuteronomy’s Shema‘ Yisrael become a monotheistic statement? When did Jews begin to recognize their deity as the only deity existing in the universe?

With the rise and growth of Christianity who was still attending the temple with the Jews (Acts 2:46-47), we understand that Christianity brought forth a change in emphasis for the Jewish Temple goers. Daniel Boyarin writes: “for at least the first three centuries of their common lives, Judaism in all of its forms and Christianity in all of its forms was part of one complex religious family, twins in a womb, contending with each other for identity and precedence, but sharing with each other the same spiritual food”.[16] With the Early understanding that Jesus was God the Jews naturally rejected their Messianic Jewish brothers and excluded them from the Temple. Here I believe the emphasis of the Shema went from “Shema” to “Echad”! In the Second Temple period, we see an emphasis on the exclusiveness of Yahweh, not the equation of His absolute Unity. The Shema therefore emphatically does not affirm absolute Unitarianism nor does it refute Trinitarianism.

Further, we read that with the Discovery of the amulet that was dated to the 3rd Century C.E. that: “ The amulet is formed out of a silver capsule and small gold leaf, inscribed with a Hebrew Shema‘ Yisrael written in Greek letters. Lange and Eshel state that “the Jewish amulet reads the last clause of the Shema‘ Yisrael as ΑΔΩΝ Α ‘the Lord is 1.’ That is, it replaces the Hebrew word אחד, which meant originally ‘alone,’ with ‘one’ (a Greek A). The letter in ancient Greek represents the numeral 1.What is an early monotheistic Shema‘ Yisrael doing near Carnuntum? Lange and Eshel illustrate that Carnuntum had a well-integrated Jewish population that stated their religion openly. The Jewish population would have known how to recite the Shema‘ Yisrael, but most likely did not know how to write in Hebrew. 
Lange and Eshel conclude: “To our knowledge, the Halbturn amulet is the first text that renders the Hebrew word ehad (אחד) with the number “1.”

This numerical representation of the final word of the Shema‘leaves no doubt about how the Jewish craftsman who made the Halbturn amulet understood the Shema‘ Yisrael —as a monotheistic statement! Only the Lord is God; there is no other God. Though the Jews of Carnuntum were open to the multi-religious culture of their city, this openness clearly had defined limits. For them, no other god existed but the Lord”.


The Central Theme of the Old Testament context was to obey Yahweh, not to give a rendering of His Oneness! It was generally assumed that Yahweh was the Only True God and all other polytheistic systems were false. The concern for Jews was therefore never to describe what the system of “oneness” was but clearly tried to show who this One God was, Yahweh, the One to be obeyed! The earliest archaeological source shows the main concern was monolatry and not predominantly Yahweh’s unity. I sincerely hope this short article will allow you the reader to see the Shema in a different tone!


Rudolph P. Boshoff

[1] Sitting at the feet of the Rabbi. Spangler & Tverberg. Pg 177.
[2] Listening to the language of the Bible. Tverberg & Okkema. Pg.3-4.
[3] V. Orel, “The Words on the Doorpost”, ZAW 109.4 (1997), p. 614. S. D. McBride,  The Yoke of the Kingdom”, Interpretation 27 (1993), writes: “no statement in the Hebrew Bible has provoked more discussion with less agreement than this one” (p. 291).
[4] Shemot Rabba 29:2.
[5] The New Testament and the people of God: Pg.258-259.
N.T. Wright “The Meaning of Jesus” Pg.159-160.
[7] ‘How God became Jesus’ Pg 29.
[8] Simon J. Sherwin “Israel” edited by Daniel I.Block. Pg 262-263. cl. D.L.Peterson “Israel and Monotheism” Pg.87.
[9] ”The Religion of Israel” Pg 13-20.
[10] A number of verses have been proposed as possible precedents for such a usage of ’eḥad— including Josh 22:20; Isa 51:2; Ezek 33:24 and 37:22; Zech 14:9; and Job 23:13. See the discussion, for example, in D. Block, “How Many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5”, JETS 47.2 (2004), p.199. None of the examples, however, represents an unequivocal precedent in which ’eḥad must be translated as “alone”.
Vetus Testamentum 61 (2011) 582-602 Vetus Testamentum © Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011 DOI: 10.1163/156853311X560745 “Deciphering the Shema: Staircase Parallelism and the Syntax of Deuteronomy 6:4”1 Judah Kraut University of Pennsylvania
[11] Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections [Baker Books, Grand Rapids MI, 2000], Volume Two, p. 4
[12] John W. Rogerson, “Deuteronomy,” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 157.
[13] Michael F.Bird “How God became Jesus” Pg.28-29.
[14] The Holy Trinity. Robert Letham. Pg 24-25.