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The Essence of Our Faith - July 27, 2014

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Matthew 22:34-41

As we continue to explore the Scripture passages read at Annual Conference this past June, we come to Deuteronomy 6:1-9. At Annual Conference I had the privilege of joining a few others in an early morning Bible Study led by Dr. Jeffrey Kuan, President of Claremont School of Theology and an Old Testament scholar.
I already knew a bit about this text. Deuteronomy 6:4 is known in Judaism as The Shema, from the Hebrew word for to hear. This is the one text I know in Hebrew: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad. That's all the Hebrew I know.
I learned it in seminary when I took a course on Contemporary Judaism. This verse is the most important verse in all of Judaism. Faithful Jews recite it each morning when they wake up and each night before they go to sleep. Its role in Judaism is roughly equivalent to John 3:16 in Christianity. It sums up the most basic elements of their faith. Because Christianity has its roots in Judaism it is also a core text for us.
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad. The New Revised Standard Version translates it, "Hear, O Israel; the Lord is our God, the Lord alone." The Common English Bible puts it, "Our God is the Lord: Only the Lord." This verse is actually difficult to translate because, as Dr. Kuan explained, the Hebrew does not include any verbs. A literal translation would be, "Hear Israel, the Lord God, the Lord alone."
As with anything in the Bible, to really understand it, we need to look at the broader context. The Book of Deuteronomy is addressed to the Hebrew people as they are, at long last, about to enter into the land of Canaan. They have spent forty years wandering in the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt and are looking ahead to a land of promise.

It turns out, however, that Deuteronomy was actually written many centuries later. They had long since taken possession of Canaan. Sadly for them, however, they were now under siege from Assyria. The northern part of their land had already fallen to the Assyrians. King Josiah, who ruled in the southern part, hoped to reclaim the lost territory. He also understood that his people had been unfaithful to God and so called them to renew their covenant with God. The word Deuteronomy means second law and was written to help reform their fractured faith. In a time of great instability it looks to God – the one God – as the source of their stability.
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. If we were to look at the Hebrew text we would see that it actually says Yahweh instead of Adonai. The Book of Exodus tells how God called to Moses from a bush that burned but was not consumed, and told him to lead the people out of slavery. Moses asked for God's name. God said, "I am who I am." In Hebrew, which does not contain vowels, that is written as YHWH. Our best guess is that it is pronounced Yahweh.
The Hebrew people believed that God's name is so holy that it should not be pronounced aloud or even written down. To this day, Orthodox Jews print G-D in their Bibles and prayers to avoid profaning the divine name. When those four consonants are written in the Bible, therefore, the word Adonai is substituted. Adonai means Lord. You'll note in your Bibles that it is printed in all capital letters. Whenever you see that, know the Hebrew text is actually YHWH.
Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. I've always understood this verse to state Judaism's core belief in monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. Certainly that is a basic tenet of Judaism. We claim that as Christians as well, though our doctrine of the trinity confuses a lot of people because it sounds like we believe in three Gods. The trinity is at least one sermon in itself. Without going into a lot of detail, let me just say that Christians believe in one God whom we know in three ways. The essence of the trinity is that God is relational. Monotheism is essential to us as well.
Dr. Kuan helped me to see this text in another light. At the time of Josiah's reforms, most people, including Jews, recognized many gods. What was important to the Hebrew people was that they were to be loyal to one God, the Lord, YHWH. As I acknowledge there are many men, even attractive men, and have committed myself to be faithful to only one, so the Hebrew people pledged themselves to YHWH. A chapter before our passage today Deuteronomy states again what we know as the Ten Commandments. They begin with a statement of God's identity: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery." The second commandment calls them to loyalty: "You shall have no other gods before me."
Dr. Kuan pointed out to us that Deuteronomy 6 is treaty language which recognizes a basic relationship in which YHWH will be the Hebrew people's God and they will be YHWH's people. Each side is to love the other.
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." The heart, in Hebrew thought at this time, was understood not as the seat of emotion as we think of it today but as the center of rational thought, of reason. Soul was not just one part of a person but their whole identity. In the account of creation, we read, "And Adam became a living being," which uses the same word translated elsewhere as soul. To love God with heart, soul, and might, thus was to love God with everything you've got.
Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad. "Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children, and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."
Wear your faith in God proudly. Show you are serious about your loyalty to God. Just as a married couple show their faithfulness to each other by wearing wedding rings, so the Hebrew people wore their loyalty to God on their bodies.
Orthodox Jews still wear on their wrists and foreheads small boxes called tefillin, which contain tiny scrolls with the Shema written on them. Most observant Jews fasten mezuzah's, other boxes with similar scrolls, on the doorposts of their homes. They wear their faith.
Centuries after Josiah's reform, someone asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment. Good Jew that he was, he turned to this verse. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record it: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind." They each detail it a bit differently. Mark and Luke add strength to this list. The message is the same: love God with everything you've got.
Jesus then adds, "And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself." Always Jesus links love of God with love of neighbor, near and far. We wear our love of God in our love of other people. We love with everything we've got: heart, soul, mind, and strength. We love with our pocketbooks and our calendars. We love at work and at school, and everywhere else.
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai, echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love God and love your neighbor. That's the essence of our faith.

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