“first.” See commentary on Mark 12:28.
“Hear, O Israel!” The verb “hear” means not only to hear, but to pay attention and heed. Thus, some versions have, “Listen.” The verb “hear” is in the imperative mood, hence the exclamation point at the end of the phrase.
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” This verse is a quotation of Deuteronomy 6:4, and is most often translated something like this: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord,” or “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” However, in this article we will see that these translations are not the best, and can lead to false conclusions.
The Hebrew words Shema Yisrael (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל), “Hear, [O] Israel!”) are the first two words of Deuteronomy 6:4, and are the title of a prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services (the title “Shema Yisrael” is often shortened to simply “Shema”). Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service in Judaism. Originally the “Shema” prayer was only Deuteronomy 6:4, but in more modern Judaism it has been expanded to include other sections of the Torah as well. (In this article, we will sometimes refer to Deuteronomy 6:4 as the Shema).
The first thing we should say about the statement, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” is that, according to Christ, it was a part of the greatest commandment in the Law. Usually when someone asks, “What are the two greatest commandments in the Law?” the answer is “Love God, and love your neighbor.” But Jesus did not answer that way. Jesus included the Shema in his answer, and by doing so made a very important point: before we say that “Love God” is the first and greatest commandment, we should know who “God” is. The Shema shows us that we do not get to choose who “our God” is, Yahweh alone is God.
Most people think that the great commandment is just “Love God,” partly because the record in Matthew 22:37, which is the same event, does not include the Shema statement. However, it is common that when two or more Gospels record an event that they include different details. In this case, Mark gives the full account, and Matthew leaves out the Shema. That is understandable for a couple different reasons. One is that the account in Matthew is much shorter than the account in Mark, but a more important reason is that the Gospel of Mark highlights Jesus’ ministry as the servant of God. One of the important roles of a servant was to promote and protect the Master, and so it makes sense that in his role as the “servant of God,” Jesus would promote that his Father, God, was the only God. [For more on why there are four Gospels and the emphasis of each Gospel, see commentary on Mark 1:1, “the Good News of Jesus Christ”].
The Shema is widely understood by Christians to be about the nature of God and a confirmation of the Trinity and the compound unity of God, i.e., that God is “one,” and therefore He is one God made up of three persons. However, that is not at all what the verse is saying, as we will see by examining both the Old Testament and New Testament texts on the subject.
One thing should be clear to everyone who studies Mark 12:29: no matter how the Greek text of Mark is worded, it is a translation of the Hebrew, because to answer the Pharisee’s question, Jesus Christ would have quoted the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Jesus would not have spoken Greek to him. Although we will see as the study develops that the Greek in Mark (and the Septuagint), can mean what the Hebrew OT says, the Hebrew wording is very dense and has a number of secondary meanings built into it, and so the full meaning of the Hebrew is difficult to capture in Greek.
To fully understand the dialogue between the Pharisee and Jesus in Mark 12:28-34, it is helpful to know it is the same record as Matthew 22:34-39, although each Gospel has details that the other Gospel does not include. The Pharisee, who was also a “scribe,” that is, an expert in the Law, asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment in the Law. The conversation that followed gives us a context that helps us properly understand and translate the Shema.
The Old Testament text, like the New Testament, is often used to support the Trinity. But that is not what the verse is saying. For one thing, the Jews do not now, and never have, believed in a Trinity, and yet they have used Deuteronomy 6:4 as the rallying call of the nation of Israel since long before the time of Jesus. Deuteronomy 6:4 can be, and should be, translated close to the way it is translated in a number of modern versions: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (NAB, NLT, NRSV, and the Tanakh; the JPS Bible). The Geneva Bible of 1599, which was the Bible of the Pilgrims and many of our founding Fathers and is a translation generally recognized by scholars as a better translation than the King James Version, has: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord only.” The Moffatt Bible has: “the Eternal, the Eternal alone, is our God.” Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible correctly uses God’s proper name, “Yahweh,” instead of “LORD,” and has: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God—Yahweh alone.” We believe that using “Yahweh” instead of “LORD” is the most proper way to render the verse, and Rotherham’s translation is about as close as you can get to an English translation that captures the primary meaning of the verse.
Deuteronomy 6:4 is saying that Israel [and believers today] have only one God—Yahweh. That is why the verse says that Yahweh is “our” God.” Other people may have other gods, but the people of God are to have Yahweh alone as their God. This Old Testament truth is confirmed by Christ in Mark 12:29, and reconfirmed by Paul, who wrote that, “to us there is one God, the Father” (1 Cor. 8:6).
Although it is commonly believed that Deuteronomy 6:4 is a statement of “monotheism” and thus the “compound unity” of God, that is not what the verse is saying. Of course it is a statement about monotheism, that there is one God, but that is not its primary emphasis, as we will see below. Furthermore, it is not a statement about the compound unity of God for a number of reasons. First, because the compound unity of God does not appear in Scripture. Second, the Old Testament was given by God to the Jews so they could know and obey Him, and never in the more than 3500 years since the Shema was written have the Jews understood it to refer to a compound unity in God—quite the opposite. They took it to mean that there was only one God, and fiercely fought against polytheism throughout their history. So if the Shema was God’s attempt to reveal a compound unity in God, the attempt was an epic failure. It makes much more sense that God gave the verse to the Jews and intended it to mean what the Jews say it means. Furthermore, the Jews did not take the Shema as their primary statement of monotheism because many other verses made that point (we will cover that shortly). Third, the context of the Shema in both the Old and New Testaments, backed by the Scope of Scripture, shows that the Shema is not saying “God is ‘one,’ but rather is saying that Yahweh “alone” is our God.
The context shows us that Deuteronomy 6:4 is using the Hebrew word ‘echad (#0259 אֶחָד; “one, only, an, alone”) in the primary sense of “only” or “alone,” in contrast to the number “one,” and the context in Mark 12 confirms this. Note how Deuteronomy 6:4-5, flow together and thus make a major—and logical—point: “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone! And you must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” It is because Yahweh “alone” is God that we can worship him with “all” our heart, “all” our soul, and “all” our might. If we had more than one God, our worship would have to be divided between all the gods we served, and each god would get only “part” of our heart, soul, and strength. In fact, that is what happens with Trinitarians today: they divide their worship of God into the worship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But that division of worship is what is expressly forbidden by Deuteronomy 6:4 and Mark 12:29.
When Jesus was asked about the first commandment, he quoted both Deuteronomy 6:4 and Deuteronomy 6:5. Interestingly, in both Hebrew and Greek (the Septuagint and Mark 12), these can be one sentence, the second starting with “and,” (or even “and so”). It is traditional to separate the “first commandment” into two sentences, but grammatically it can be one sentence and thus easily seen to be one commandment.
What should be clear is that Deuteronomy 6:4 is a statement about our personal relationship to God. He “alone” is God, so He is to be “our” only God and we must worship Him with “all” that we are and have. Deuteronomy 6:4 is not primarily a statement about monotheism, it is a statement about relationship. Stated another way, Deuteronomy 6:4 is not about the nature of God, it is about our relationship with God. Monotheism is important, and God had established that there was only one God earlier in Deuteronomy. Only about 50 verses before the Shema, God had twice stated that He was the only God. Deuteronomy 4:35 says, “Yahweh is God, besides Him there is no other.” Four verses later Deuteronomy 4:39 establishes that truth and says, “Yahweh is God in heaven above and on earth below. There is no other.” After establishing that there is only one God in chapter 4, Deuteronomy 6:4 then takes that truth and makes it personal: Yahweh who alone is God is to be “our” God, and we are to worship Him with “all” our heart, soul, and strength. Furthermore, after Deuteronomy 4:35, 39, and Deuteronomy 6:4 have established that there is only one God, and thus Yahweh alone is to be “our God,” Deuteronomy 6:13 then says that we should fear and serve Him, and swear oaths in His name.
The scope of Scripture also shows us that the Shema is about our relationship with God and not the singular nature of God. For example, Zechariah 14:9 uses the word ’echad and speaks of the future, saying that Yahweh will be king over the whole earth. The last part of the verse says in that day, “Yahweh will be one [’echad], and his name one [’echad].” Here we see the same use of ’echad that we see in the Shema. When Zechariah says that in that day Yahweh will be “one,” it is not making a statement about God’s nature, as if somehow His nature would become “one” in the future but is not “one” now. Rather, it is using “one,” (’echad) as “alone,” just as in Deuteronomy 6:4. Zechariah is saying that in the future Yahweh will be “alone” and His name “alone,” not in competition with the names of other gods. Unlike today when many “gods” distract us from God, in the future all the competing gods will be cast away and Yahweh “alone” will be everyone’s God. Isaiah says, “On that day people will throw their silver and gold idols, which they made to worship, to the moles and the bats” (Isa. 2:20 HCSB). Zechariah says, “‘And on that day,’ says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, ‘I will erase idol worship throughout the land, so that even the names of the idols will be forgotten’” (Zech. 13:2 NLT). Isaiah 2:11 and Isaiah 2:17 say that Yahweh alone will be exalted in that Day.
Also, the very first of the Ten Commandments fits with the Shema, saying that Yahweh alone is to be our God. The First Commandment is: “I am Yahweh your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me” (Exod. 20:2-3; NLT with Yahweh in place of “the LORD”). So the first commandment says in effect the same thing that the Shema says: God alone is to be our God, and we are not to have any other god but Him.
Having seen that the Shema is a statement about our relationship with God and that He “alone” is to be our God, we can now turn our attention to the New Testament text and Jesus’ words in Mark 12:29. As has been stated earlier, there is no doubt that Jesus would have quoted the Shema as it appears in the Hebrew text. He would not have been quoting it in Greek, even though the Gospel of Mark is written in Greek. But when we study the Greek word translated “one” in Mark 12:29, heis (#1520 εἷς; pronounced “hace”), we find that just like the Hebrew word ’echad, can mean “one” or “alone,” so can the Greek word heis. In fact, we see heis being used in the sense of “alone” several times in the New Testament. The BDAG Greek English Lexicon lists Mark 2:7; 10:18; 12:29; Matthew 23:10; and Luke 18:19 as clear examples of heis meaning “alone.”
As has been stated above, the Hebrew text is very compressed and hard to translate. A common translation of the Greek is, “The Lord our God is one Lord.” However, a translation that reflects more of the meaning of the verse is, “Hear, Israel, The Lord our God is the only Lord” (that same basic translation appears in: The Geneva Bible; The New English Bible; Sir Andrews Norton’s, A Translation of the Gospels; The New Testament by William Barclay; and The Source New Testament by A. Nyland). Another good translation is in the New American Bible (NAB), which follows its translation of Deuteronomy and has, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” Still another good translation is God’s New Covenant by Heinz Cassirer. He has: “Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one and only Lord.” Cassirer’s translation should catch our attention because he was born and raised Jewish and taught philosophy at Glasgow University and Corpus Christi, Oxford, and converted to Christianity due to his reading the Greek New Testament. Thus he brings a unique blend of Jewish heritage and a thorough knowledge of both Hebrew and Greek to his translation. He clearly understands that the Shema is making the point that God is the “one and only” God.
How do we know that when Jesus quoted the Shema that he quoted it with the same meaning it had in the Old Testament; that God “alone” was God? We know it by reading the whole account in Mark. We must pay attention to all the elements of the conversation: the question the Pharisee asked, Jesus’ answer, the Pharisee’s commentary on Jesus’ answer, and Jesus’ statement about what the Pharisee said.
First, the Pharisee’s question: “What commandment is the first of all?” We learn from Matthew 22:34 that the question was initially asked to test Jesus. It was a question that the Jews had asked and hotly debated among themselves for centuries, and was a question all the Jews were interested in. It seems clear the Pharisee legitimately wanted to know where Jesus stood on the issue.
Jesus answered the question by quoting both Deuteronomy 6:4, 5, which shows that Jesus understood that it was not enough to just “love God,” in some generic sense, we must love the “right God,” the true God, the only God, who is Yahweh. Jesus then added the second commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. The Pharisee had not asked for that information, but we can see why Jesus added it: the Pharisees were well known for holding themselves aloof from others, and even the name “Pharisee” means “Separated one,” someone separated from the rest of mankind, who are then relegated by default to a lesser status. Jesus was trying to reach this Pharisee’s heart, and teach him that if he loved God, it would show itself through his love for others.
The Pharisee responded to Jesus’ answer in a way that showed he had grasped what Jesus said and had himself come to a similar conclusion about the central point of the Old Testament Law. The Pharisee started by acknowledging that Jesus’ statement was “well said,” and then he connected the Shema with Deuteronomy 4:35, that Yahweh is God and there is no other God but him. The Pharisee did not have any conception of a “compound unity” in God, but rather spoke back to Jesus the simple message of the Old Testament contained in the Shema: Yahweh alone is God and there is no other God, and that is why we can and must love God with “all” our heart, soul, and might. Furthermore, as the Pharisee acknowledged, loving God and our neighbor was more important than all other religious ceremonies and practices.
Jesus immediately recognized the heart of this Pharisee, and said to him: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” If the Shema was teaching the “compound unity” of God, and if Jesus was trying to communicate that to the Pharisee, he would have immediately recognized by the Pharisee’s answer that he did not “get it.” At that point Jesus should have further engaged the Pharisee so he could have a chance to understand the compound unity of God and the doctrine of the Trinity. Why didn’t he? The simple answer is that Deuteronomy 4:35 and Deuteronomy 6:4 teach a simple truth: there is one God, Yahweh, and He alone is to be our God. That is the simple point that is being made in both the Old and New Testaments.
Having said that the most pertinent truth in the Shema is that Yahweh alone is to be our God, there are nevertheless some other basic truths that the wording of the Shema shows us. Although the primary meaning is, “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone,” the wording of the Hebrew text and the word ’echad also allows for: “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is unique.” Although not the primary meaning, if we read the verse that way, it is saying that Yahweh, who is “our God,” is unique among the gods, thus superior and worthy of our worship. The usage of ’echad as “unique” is found in Song of Solomon 6:9, where the king speaks of his 60 queens, 80 concubines, and “young women without number,” but tells his new beloved that she is “unique” (Do you think she believed him?).
Another secondary meaning that can be seen in the very compact wording of Deuteronomy 6:4 is that there is “one” Yahweh. It was common in the cultures of the Middle East that several gods would be known by the same name, or the same god would be assigned different characteristics and worshiped differently in different places. Examples of gods like this include: Astarte, Baal, Cybele, El (a Canaanite god), Isis, Leviathan, Lilith, and Tammuz. In contrast to gods who, in different places had different characteristics and were worshiped differently, Yahweh was only “one” God and was to be known as the same and worshiped the same everywhere.
In the spiritual battle, Satan is always trying to distort God: His nature, His character, His love, and His actions, and God works to prevent that. After the birth of Christ, Satan has worked to distort Jesus too. Thus less than 30 years after Jesus gave his life for mankind, 2 Corinthians 11:4 speaks of those people who preach “another Jesus,” and Galatians 1:6-9 shows that people were perverting the Gospel, saying, “If anyone is proclaiming to you a Good News that is contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
In closing, it is helpful to speak a few more words about why the Shema cannot be referring to a “compound unity” in God. If the Shema was making the point that God was a compound unity, then neither verse 4 nor verse 5 would fit with what the Bible actually says. The Old Testament never reveals that “Yahweh” was a compound deity, made up of separate “Persons.” Trinitarian theologians acknowledge that the Old Testament does not reveal the Trinity—a major reason the Jews never believed in one. In the Old Testament, “Yahweh” and the Son are always represented as two separate entities. “Yahweh” is the equivalent of the “Father” (or “God”) in the New Testament. Just as the Father and Son occur together many times in the New Testament and are clearly presented as two (Cp., “The testimony of two men is true: I bear witness about myself, and the Father bears witness of me”—John 8:17-18), so the Old Testament presents Yahweh and the “Son” (also referred to as the “Lord,” “Servant,” or “anointed”) as two, not “one God” (Cp., Ps. 2:2, 7; 110:1; Isa. 42:5ff; 49:4-5; 53:6, 10, 11). Furthermore, it is clear in the Old Testament texts, such as those that call the Messiah the servant of Yahweh, and in the New Testament texts as well (Cp., 1 Cor. 15:28) that the “Son” is subservient to Yahweh. Given that, for the Shema to say that “Yahweh” is “one,” in contrast to many, does not make sense. If the verse were referring to a compound deity, it would have had to say that “Elohim” is one.
Furthermore, if the Shema were saying that “Yahweh” were “one” in the sense of a compound unity, then verse 5 would be incomplete and confusing, rather than helpful. If God were a compound unity, then what the Israelites would need would be instruction as to how to treat each “Person,” i.e., how to worship and serve each “Person” in this compound deity. But instead of offering instruction as to how to worship each “Person,” verse 5 contradicts the idea of multiple “Persons” in God and says to worship “Yahweh” with “all” your heart, soul, and might, clearly treating Yahweh as the one God whom we worship.
Also, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee, that he was not far from the kingdom of God, shows us that a person does not have to believe in the Trinity to be saved. We can see from the way the Pharisee spoke to Jesus that he did not believe in the Trinity, but Jesus made no attempt to instruct him and instead said he was not far from the Kingdom. If a person had to believe in the Trinity to be saved, Jesus would have taught the Pharisee about it, and would never had said he was close to the Kingdom.