Hear, O Israel!

In the last 40 odd years of studying the Bible, I have read more essays and commentaries on Deuteronomy 6:4 than I can recall. I have also more than twice changed my view on what should be the correct translation of Israel’s central confession. What is so complicated? After the call to give attention — Hear, O Israel! — Moses gives us a string of four nouns with no verbs: Yahweh, our-God (in Hebrew, one word), Yahweh, one.

In what I regard as an essay as close to definitive as this topic allows, R. W. L. Moberly explains what the correct translation should be. But his essay is not easily available, so I will simplify and summarize his explanation. I add my own notes and observations, so I am not entirely faithful to his essay, but the gist of his argument comes through.

As Moberly explains, when Hebrew offers a string of nouns with no verbs, some form of the verb “to be” is usually understood. The problem with Deuteronomy 6:4 is, of course, deciding where the verb is to be inserted. There are four basic possible translations.

1. The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. (New Revised Standard Version)
2. The LORD our God is one LORD. (King James Version)
3. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (English Standard Version, New King James Version)
4. The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! (New American Standard Bible)

As is evident from the fact that highly respected translations of the Bible have differed significantly, even advanced Hebrew scholars disagree on how to construe the sentence. In the early years of my study of this verse, I found myself pushed back and forth by each new essay or article that I read. It was not until I began to do serious study of Deuteronomy myself that I made a discovery that persuaded me of what I believe is the correct approach. I only encountered Moberly’s essay in the first month of 2017, though it was published in a book of essays in 1990.

What I discovered from my own computer search of Deuteronomy with my wonderful Bible software (Accordance) set me in my present direction. Anyone who reads Deuteronomy, especially repeatedly, notices how very frequently Moses uses expressions like “Yahweh our God,” “Yahweh your God,” etc. The pronoun varies, but the expression is the same covenantal language. Yahweh is the God of Israel, whether Israel be referred to as you (plural), you (singular), our, or their. Sometimes the expression can be “Yahweh my God.” But the import does not change, for Yahweh to be one’s God is to be in covenant with Yahweh.

Though the expression is used at least once in Genesis (27:20) and appears frequently in the early chapters of Exodus (3:18; 5:3; 6:7; 8:10, 26–28; 10:7–8, 16–17, 25–26; 15:26; 16:12), the background for understanding the expression is the whole Exodus story as it is summed up in the opening words of the Decalogue: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Yahweh redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery and bore her on eagles’ wings to Sinai to be His beloved treasure (Exodus 19:3-6). Whenever the expression “Yahweh your God” is used, the Exodus redemption and the gift of the covenant is being alluded to.

Given the importance of the Exodus and the Decalogue, we may not be surprised to discover that “Yahweh your God” and similar expressions appear over 600 times in the Hebrew Bible. Some years ago, what I was very much amazed to learn is that over 300 of those occurrences were to be found in a single book — Deuteronomy!

In all of the over 600 references to this expression, there is not a single instance in which it is translated “Yahweh is our God;” it is always “Yahweh our God” — a way of identifying the God of Israel in terms of His covenant with His people, with the grace of Sinai in the background. This rules out the possibility of translations 1 and 4 above (NRSV and NASB).

The word order of the verse favors 3, since it reflects the Hebrew order exactly. Moberly suggests that the confession, “Yahweh is one” is interrupted by the standard way of naming God, “Yahweh our God,” and so the name Yahweh is repeated. “Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” The repetition, I think, adds emphasis as well, making the declaration more exuberant.

Moberly’s other argument for translation 3 is the quotation of Deuteronomy 6:4 in Zechariah 14:9. The passage in Zechariah seems to be the only place in the Old Testament that Deuteronomy 6:4 is referred to directly, in spite of being a passage of central importance for Israel’s theology.

Zechariah 14:9 says, “And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.” However we may interpret this verse, if it gives us any help in translation, clearly it guides us to favor option 3 above.

Thus, I have come to rest in my quest for a good translation of Deuteronomy 6:4. But what does it mean to assert that Yahweh is one? It is not a confession about Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, though that is included in the name “Yahweh our God.” It is, rather, a concise and absolute claim of Yahweh’s exclusive deity — a claim which is not denied by the frequent mention of “other gods,” for the simple reason that the gods of the nations are “vanity,” demons and not God (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:19-21). The claim to absolute and unique status — Yahweh is One! — is paralleled in the near context where Moses reminds Israel of the history of redemption from Egypt, the gift of the law at Sinai, and judgments in the wilderness as proof of that claim.

“To you it was shown, that you might know that the Yahweh is God [literally Yahweh, He is the God]; there is no other besides him. . . . know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Yahweh is God [literally Yahweh, He is the God] in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39)

The repeated “there is no other” provides the background illuminating the meaning of the words in the Shema: Yahweh is One!

In the larger context of Deuteronomy 4, there are also severe warnings against idolatry and even a prophecy that Israel will indeed fall away from Yahweh (4:26-28). But that is followed by the promise that they will return and Yahweh will be compassionate to them (4:29-31). To paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 where he alludes to Deuteronomy 6:4 and makes Jesus “Lord” together with the one God, the Father: though there be many that are called gods, there is in reality only One worthy of the name) — Yahweh, the Creator. This was Israel’s central confession.

This confession of exclusive deity — one and only one God — is the ground for the demand for absolute love and loyalty: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” There is no other deserving of absolute commitment — not only because the other “gods” are not God, but especially because the Creator God, Yahweh, has chosen Israel and loved them, made them His special people. The one and only true God is “Yahweh our God,” therefore, Moses says, Israel should love Him. Through Jesus we know Him in a new way but the same total devotion belongs to Yahweh now named in the baptismal formula as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.