The Shema and a Modern Understanding of Law

Chris LandonSermon

Arbor House is a community of Northgate Free Methodist Church in Batavia, NY

What is the Law?

When we say “the law” in connection with the Old Testament, the Bible, or the church, what comes to mind? Broadly we think of the various law codes that are found throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These laws span a vast time period from the exodus, through the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, to the border of the promised land. There is a wide array of ritual, civil, and dietary laws all intermingled, as well as two copies of the Ten Commandments.

When we talk about “the law” more specifically, we can be referring to just the book of Deuteronomy. In Israelite tradition the book of Deuteronomy became known as “the Book of the Law.” In 2 Kings 22 there were renovations being done on the temple and the workers found a scroll in the back of the temple. They passed the scroll on and it eventually made its way to the king. This scroll that was read to the king is referred to as “the Book of the Law.” When the king hears the scroll read, and after consulting a prophetess (which is a whole other story), he realizes how far the Israelites have wandered away from God. He commands that all of the foreign idols be destroyed and all of the foreign altars be torn down. This “Book of the Law” sparked the only reformation in the history of the nation of Israel, and it was likely what we have now as the book of Deuteronomy. So much history and importance is wrapped up in a book that many consider to be boring and irrelevant.

The primary issue that Christians are faced with when they consider the law is answering the question, what does this ancient law code mean for us today?

The primary issue that Christians are faced with when they consider the law is answering the question, what does this ancient law code mean for us today? Should Christians follow all of the laws that are contained in the Torah Law since they are apart of scripture? Jesus even said that not one letter of the law will pass away until all is completed. So do we as Christians have to follow the dietary laws and keep kosher? Do we have to keep the civil laws and stone our disobedient children?

To quote President Bartlet, “Does the whole town have to get together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side?” We know implicitly that there are laws that we do not follow any more. But if we go to the other end of the spectrum can we say that we do not follow any part of the law any more when the law is so important to Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and the early church. I would like to propose a framework that will help us to apply the law, or perhaps more accurately the ethics of the law, as modern Christians.

To present this framework we are going to use the book of Deuteronomy as representative of the whole law. Old Testament scholar, Patrick Miller, wrote that the theological center of the book of Deuteronomy is the Ten Commandments. He argued that the Ten Commandments are the foundation upon which the rest of the law is built. I agree with his position that there is a theological foundation for the law, but I think he argued for the wrong passage. It seems to me that the theological foundation of the law is a passage that is known as the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4–9. The Shema becomes the basis upon which all of the law is built upon. Jesus agrees. In Matthew 22:36–40 Jesus says, “36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” We first note in this passage that he quotes to them the Shema as the first Great Commandment. But I think the final line of that passage is equally important. All of the Law and the Prophets hang on those two passages, one of which is the Shema.

The Shema

The Shema begins, “Hear, O Israel: YHWH is our God, YHWH alone.” The interpretive challenges of this verse begin almost immediately. “YHWH alone” is also variously translated as “YHWH is one.” In the hebrew it is only two words, “YHWH” and the number one. So the question is, how are those two related? Is it meant to say that “YHWH is one” or “YHWH alone.” Each of those translations makes a different theological claim. “YHWH is one” could be making a claim about the character of YHWH, that is, YHWH is not various different gods that the other polytheistic cultures believe in. There is no god of wind, rain, sea, or harvest, there is only YHWH over all. This is a claim of monotheism, that YHWH is one God and is the only God to be worshiped.

If this passage is read back from the perspective of the New Testament it could be understood as an illusion to the trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is one God in three persons. The problem with reading this as a trinitarian passage is that the original audience, the ancient Israelites, would not have understood it in those terms. They had no concept of the trinity. If we read the Shema as “YHWH alone” then it is reminding the Israelites of the supremacy of YHWH over against the gods of the other nations. Those other gods, Baal, Ashera, etc., may exist but they are not to be worshiped.

The problem with reading this as a trinitarian passage is that the original audience, the ancient Israelites, would not have understood it in those terms.

As modern readers of the text we recoil from this idea of the existence of other gods. We know that they certainly do not, God in Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, is the only God who exists. But in the Old Testament there seems to be a trajectory towards monotheism, but they do not start at monotheism. By the time of the later texts of the Old Testament and into the New Testament there is an understanding of monotheism but in the earlier texts there seems to be an allowance for the existence of other gods. The other cultures that surrounded the Israelites regularly believed in many gods, they were polytheistic. This was the norm for that historical time period. So perhaps it would have been a bridge too far to insist on strict monotheism from the start. Instead there seems to be a trajectory toward a stricter understanding of monotheism.

The second half of the Shema reads, “You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Israel is to respond to YHWH by loving him with all of their being. These three emphasis, heart, soul, and might, sum up the totality of the person and they are to love YHWH out of that totality. Gerald Janzen wrote:

“These few words concentrate the character of Israel’s God to a single point: YHWH is one. Likewise, they concentrate to a single point the covenant response appropriate to that divine character: Israel is to love YHWH totally.”
Gerald Janzen

In the Shema we see that YHWH is the God Israel and Israel is to respond to that God by loving him with the wholeness of their being. But the question arises how does that work out practically in daily life? The next set of laws addresses that question. Built upon the theological foundation of the Shema is the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue. This provides a framework for how to apply the Shema to everyday life. Loving God with you whole being means not making idols, not bearing false witness, and not murdering. But we know that life does not fit into neat categories, that there are a great many unique and difficult situations. By way of example consider murder, is it murder to kill someone in battle? Is it murder if you accidentally kill someone when the head of your axe flies off and strikes them? But what if you knew that the head of the axe was loose and it was likely to break? Are you then negligent? This is where we can understand the rest of the Torah law. The rest of the law is then the working out of the categories of the Ten Commandments to specific life situations. It takes the theological foundation of the Shema and applies that to the various situations that may arise in the life of Israel.

Where does this leave us?

This gives us a framework for how we, as modern Christians, can apply the law. When we are faced with life situations we can consider whether or not an action is an out working of the theological ethic of the Shema. This means that we follow not necessarily the letter of the law, but instead the spirit of the law. The law as it appears in the Old Testament is historically located, it was written for ancient, nomadic Israelites. Our context has changed, we are in a different place and time and the world has changed greatly between then and now. While our context has changed our theological grounding remains the same, so then the specifics may change the spirit still remains. Consider this analogy by Patrick Miller:

“All of this suggests that there is something going on with the Decalogue that is akin to what we encounter in constitutional law. The foundations do not change. They continue in perpetuity to be the touchstone for all actions on the part of the people as they seek to live in community and order their lives. The specifics of those basic guidelines, however, need to be spelled out again and again in changing circumstances and as new matters come up in the community.”
Patrick Miller

I would like to say one final thing about a popular interpretation of the law. We often hear in the church that Christians are bound to the moral law of the Old Testament, but not the ritual or civil law. They divide the law into those categories, civil, ritual, and moral. The problem that makes this interpretation untenable is that there is no such distinction in the law and life of Israel. The laws in the Old Testament are not separated in such a fashion, instead they are all intertwined and intermixed. The rituals are not separated from the civil laws. Instead they are all apart of one whole, which is a full picture of what it means to be God’s people in that time and place. Also, there was no distinction between church and state in ancient Israel, what was civil was also religious. Therefore, to separate the laws in such a way reads modern categories into the text that are foreign to it.

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About the Author
Chris Landon

Chris Landon

Chris Landon is the Pastor of Word and Table at Arbor House. He has served at Arbor House since 2016. He is also the Camp Manager of Covenant Acres Campground and Retreat Center. Prior to that he was an Assistant Pastor at Gowanda Free Methodist Church and Youth Pastor at Ransomville Free Methodist Church.