by Brian Koning
Abstract: The prophet Moses expressed the core of Old Testament theology when he said, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4, ESV). Called the Shema, this is Israel’s fundamental theological view of God, but what does it mean? For Trinitarian Christians, does this oneness of God pose a theological contradiction? How can God be both one and three? Only by exploring the context and significance of Moses’s words can these questions be answered. God’s oneness is an expression not of number but allegiance: he, and he alone, is the God of Israel.
Keywords: oneness, Shema, Trinity, covenant, Moses, Deuteronomy, Christian, monolatry, monotheism
As the people of Israel prepared to cross the Jordan River and enter their promised land, they heard one last message from their aged leader, Moses. His words, which make up the book of Deuteronomy, serve as the essential foundation for understanding ancient Hebrew culture, covenant, and life. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses outlines the people the heart of covenant life and outlines their relationship with God. God’s desire for them is to live faithfully according to the law and to receive its blessings.
After laying out these matters, the text turns to what is arguably the center of Old Testament theology. Beginning with verse four, Moses says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4, ESV). This passage, along with the following verses, forms the Shema, so named because it is a transliteration of the Hebrew imperative שׁמע (ŠMH, “to hear”). As an expression of Hebrew theology, it is unparalleled. Modern orthodox Jews still recite this passage twice daily, a practice that has continued since at least the first century CE. To be an Israelite is to be bound by the idea that God is one. The attendant principle is to love that God with all of your heart and soul as mightily as you can, a paraphrase of Deut. 6:5. This idea is the Grunddogma or fundamental doctrine of the Old Testament.
While the significance of the passage is undeniable, its meaning is another matter. What does it mean for God to be אחד (“one”)? For Christian theology, which holds both that God’s fundamental nature is triune and that the story of the New Testament is in harmony with the Old Testament, this question is especially pertinent. To answer that question, we may posit three possible answers. While all three are theological ideas compatible with historic Christianity, the goal is to discover what this passage intended. Proper biblical study seeks to uncover the original point of the passage and should not settle for importing other ideas into the text, no matter how orthodox or preachable those ideas may be. In short, we do not want to settle for good theology drawn from the wrong passage; we must insist upon teaching the right theology from the right passage. Let us now turn to the three possible.
“One” as Monotheism
Perhaps the most common interpretation of this passage is that Deut. 6:4 refers to Israel’s monotheism. God is one; there is no other God in existence. Such a point clearly finds ample Old Testament support, for example, in Deut. 4:35-9, Isiah 44:6, 45:5, 46:9, or Mal. 2:10, to cite a few. In this view, the Shema is a watershed statement of theology, charting a divergent course for the people of God from contemporary polytheistic ideas.
Although a prevalent interpretation, several points can be raised against this idea as the intended meaning of the passage. First, although sensible to a modern reader, our concept of monotheism is a modern term that comes from the Enlightenment and is not necessarily a category any original reader would recognize as such. Deuteronomy 5, in fact, has already tacitly referenced the existence of other אלהים(“gods”). This peculiarity comes from the lack of a Hebrew term for angels as a category of being. Because of that, the view of the supernatural world in the Old Testament is more complicated than we often envision and requires more nuance than simply saying only one God exists. Seeing אחד as a representation of monotheism is likely an anachronistic and eisegetical reading.
Secondly, Moses has already highlighted that God is alone in his position as the absolute creator of all things in Deut. 4:35: “You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God; besides him there is no other.” Having established that point, it is less likely that Moses would feel the need to repeat himself here. Third, if the purpose of this passage is to highlight the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, a stark statement of God’s monotheistic existence would be out of place. Malcolm Yarnell makes this point quite well.
To this point each of the Hebrew terms in the Shema has reinforced the intimate nature of this most fundamental of doctrinal confessions. Proper hermeneutics indicates that words must be interpreted within the context in which they are used. There is no reason to believe this new term should not also serve a relational function. Indeed, it would be an unexpected and jarring shift to suggest that the word אחד (’echad) was to be taken as indicative of an austere monotheism, as if an arid and aloof God were comprised of a unitarian nature.
Although many see this verse as a call to monotheism, there are several compelling reasons not to adopt this option.
“One” as Integrity
Another possible interpretation of אחד is that it refers to an essential aspect of God’s character. Put forward by the theologian J. Gerald Janzen, this view sees Moses as seeking to unpack the essential nature of God as one who is fully loyal, acts with integrity, and works consistently. YHWH is the one who brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt (Exod. 20:2. Compare with Deut. 5:6). This deliverance led to Israel being a chosen people, and why? Because, as Moses says in the context of the Shema, “The LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers” (Deut. 7:8). Taking this option would make verse 4 serve as the basis for verse 5 in the passage. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul as mightily as we can becauseHe hasand will do the same. He will never leave nor forsake us (compare with Duet. 31:6); He will never change his requirements for his people (James 1:17).
Janzen makes a compelling case for this interpretation, both from historical and textual grounds. The power of the Shema and its declaration of who God is finds its compliment at the end of the book as Moses again describes God as one who will never leave or forsake Israel under its next leader (Deut. 31:6), and one whose word always comes true (Deut. 32:40). The people of God then are called to turn in love and be faithful as their God is faithful. Certainly, this is a strong possible interpretation, but one other option deserves consideration.
“One” as Monolatry
The last option, and this author’s preferred one, is that אחד represents a call to reject the worship of others and to focus on YHWH alone. Outlined most persuasively by Darrel Block in his article, How many is God? an Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Block contends that אחד refers to monolatryrather than monotheism. Although similar in point, monolatry refers to the worship of only one God irrespective of the existence or nonexistence of other gods. Block’s point is that the Shema is not seeking to make a religious studies distinction on how many gods exist but rather the point that to be an Israelite is to be a worshiper of only one God: YHWH. As Block notes, the Shema becomes “a cry of allegiance, an affirmation of covenant commitment in response to the question of, ‘Who is the God of Israel?’ The language of the Shema is ‘sloganesque.’”
The strength of this option is that it neatly fits into the flow of Deuteronomy and the subsequent history of Israel. Moses follows the call to hear in Deut. 6:4 by the same phrase in Deut. 9:1. Here, Moses tells Israel that God is driving out the nations across the Jordan because of their wickedness, and he warns Israel that they will face a similar fate if they turn aside to follow idols. In short, if they do not worship YHWH and him alone, they will face exile, a warning that would come to pass later in their history. Block’s option then fits nicely into the point of the passage. This option also has the double advantage of solving the anachronistic problem of a purely monotheistic reading for the Shema and could also be argued as being compatible with Janzen’s view too.
When the Pharisees and Sadducees challenged Jesus and asked him about the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And 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’” (Mark 12:29-30). Jesus saw the importance of this passage. It is an importance not diminished as the story of the Bible moved to the New Testament, nor contradicted by the revelation of God’s more complex mode of existence. The power of the Shema, and its purpose in the lives of believers is best seen when we understand its proper meaning in context. Certainly, Christianity is monotheistic but that is not what is at stake in this passage. In proper context, God’s oneness is an expression not of number, but of allegiance: he, and he alone, is the God of Israel. For Christians today it retains that same power; we are to be people who worship one God and him alone.
Wilson, Marvin R. S.v. “Shema.” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Edited by Willem A. VanGermeren et al. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.
Block, Daniel. “How many is God? an Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 2 (June 2004): 193–212.
Yarnell, Malcolm B. God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016.
Huffman, Douglas S., and Jamie N. Hausherr. S.v. “Shema, the.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Edited by John D. Barry et al. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016.
Janzen, J. Gerald. “The Most Important Word in the Shema (Deuteronomy 4:4–5).” Vetus Testamentum 37, no. 3 (1987): 280–300.
 The phrase “YHWH your/our God” occurs thirty-five times in this speech of only sixty-eight verses. This speech begins at Deut. 6:1 and ends at 8:20. Darrel Block makes this observation in, “How many is God? an investigation into the meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 47, no. 2 (June 2004): 193.
 Josephus, Antiquities 4 8, 13. Duane Christensen echoes this point, “The words of 6:4 are in fact the most familiar words of the entire Bible to the observant Jew, since they are repeated daily.” Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1–11, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1991), 137.
 W. Rupprecht, cited in Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, 2nd ed., New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 169n. Jesus himself quotes this in response to the Pharisees and Sadducees asking him about the most important commandment (compare Mark 12:29-31).
 This term can carry several glosses in English, for example: the numeral one (Gen. 11:1, 2 Sam. 23:8), one and only (Zech. 14:9), each (Num. 15:11), first (Deut. 1:3), another (Job 41:16), or same (Exod. 26:2), to name just a few options. For an in-depth discussion of the term, see Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2000), 29–30.
 For example, Christopher Wright adopts this view in his commentary. See Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy, Understanding the Bible Commentary, ed. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).
 Polytheism is the belief that many gods exist and must be appeased by humanity through ritual, sacrifice, and obsequiousness. It represents the dominant worldview against which the story of Israel is set. See R. Brian Rickett, s.v. “Polytheism,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
 Malcolm B. Yarnell. God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 67-68.
 J. Gerald Janzen, “The Most Important Word in the Shema (Deuteronomy 4:4–5),” Vetus Testamentum 37, no. 3 (1987): 280–300. As Janzen puts it, “God’s ‘onenesss’ is the unity between desire and action, between intention and execution.” cf. 287.
 Daniel Block, “How many is God? an investigation into the meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 2 (June 2004), 193–212.
 Block, “How many is God?” 211.
Dr. Brian Koning serves as an Instructor of Theology at GCU’s College of Theology. He grew up in Arizona, by way of Georgia and Illinois, and has been a part of GCU since 2016. He has a degree in Computer Information Systems, an M.Div. in Biblical Communication, a Th.M. in pedagogy, and a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies. He and his high school sweetheart, now wife, Hannah, have three children.