Is YHWH “One” or is He God “Alone”, and Does it Matter?

“Hear! O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

Deut. 6:4

There may not be a more prized verse in the Old Testament, both for Jews and for Christians.  Known as the “Great Shema”, named after the opening word in the verse: שמע (she·mă), which translates to “listen” or “hear”.  For my entire life in the church, and in the Bible, I have always read this verse in the way it is written above.  This shouldn’t be surprising, considering this is how most English translation render the verse.  In the Christian tradition, oceans full of ink has been spilt plunging the depths of this passage.  “The nation is being reminded of their monotheistic faith”, says one.  “The plurality of the word for God (אלהינו – el·ō·hĭ·nū), combined with the word אחד (“one”) is an implicit recognition of the triune nature of God” says another.  And while I don’t fundamentally disagree with either point, I’ve recently looked at this verse anew and come to a startling realization:  I think I’ve been reading it wrongly all this time.

One or Only?

This realization came about, almost entirely, by accident.  I happened to be reading this section in Deuteronomy in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible and noticed the different rendering:[1]


“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”


This is a subtle difference, but one that makes a rather large interpretive point.  Could it be that this verse isn’t an ontological statement about the being of God?![2]  Admittedly, my initial response was merely to reject the translation as inadequate or a result of the bias of the particular version of the text, but then I decided the better approach, the approach I often champion to others, would be to investigate the matter for myself.

As it turns out, there are, to my knowledge, only three English Bibles that translate the verse this way, the NRSV, NLT, and NAB.  Therefore, the majority of English translations do not adopt this particular reading.  But, as most apologist are often quick to point out, truth is not determined by the majority, so this alone does not negate the need for further study.

The next question for me was if this English interpretation was grammatically possible from the original Hebrew.  The Hebrew reads thus:


שמע ישֹראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אהד


If read from right to left in sequence, it reads very much like the bulk of English translations.  The only caveat is that this is a “verb less clause” so the English has to add the “is”.  The two most likely options for this verse, as it relates to the word “one” (אהד) are to read it as a noun in the predicate nominative position (i.e. the Lord is our God, the Lord is one), or to read it adverbially (the Lord is our God, the Lord alone).  On the basis of the grammar and the lack of any articulated verbs, either is possible.  That being said, if there is another passage in the Hebrew Bible that possesses a similar construction and is translates אהד as “alone” this will lend support to the NRSV reading.

It just so happens that there is.

In Zechariah 14:9 we read:


“And the Lord will be King over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one and his name will be the only one.”


In Hebrew, it reads thus:


והיה יהוה למלך על כל הארץ ביום ההוא יהוה יהוה אהד ושמו אהד


It’s fairly clear that both the placement of the word אהד (“on”/ “only”/ “alone”) is the same in both Zech. 14:9 and Deut. 6:4, and in this instance, the bulk of English translations render it adverbially as above.  What this does, is it provides support for the alternative reading of the Shema as is found in other translations, in contrast to how it is most often read.  This is not enough, though.  The grammar is still ambiguous enough to allow for both, therefore context must help us determine which seems more appropriate.

Context, Context, Context…

Anyone who is familiar with my writing, speaking or podcast appearances will have heard me say on more than one occasion that context is key when it comes to interpreting Scripture.  Many a heretical teaching, or simply a misunderstood Bible verse, has come from removing a single verse in the text out of its context and using it for purposes it wasn’t intended.

If we look at Deut. 6:4 in isolation an argument for either interpretation stands on equal grounds.  But Deut. 6:4 doesn’t exist in isolation.  It is part of a larger thought in the verses that precede it and follow it.  In Deut. 5, Moses gives the ten commandments to the people of Israel a second time.  The next generation of Israelites is about to enter the promised land and they must first commit to the Law.  In 5:32 he says,


“Be careful, therefore, to do just as the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn to the right or to the left.”


Turning “to the right or to the left” is idiomatic of forsaking the exclusive worship of YHWH.  It is to say, “Don’t forsake the worship of YHWH alone!”  Then, we read in 6:1-3 that the people are to be certain to obey YHWH so that they might remain in the land.  This is followed by the Shema in 6:4. After the Shema we read, that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your mind, your heart and your being.”[3]  The exhortation continues through v.9, telling the Israelites to teach these laws to their children and to live by them, and vv.10- 12 tell of the land they will be brought to.  Verse 13-15 however, read thus:


“You must revere the Lord your God, serve him, and take oaths using only his nameYou must not go after other gods, those of the surrounding peoples, for the Lord your God, who is present among you, is a jealous God and his anger will erupt against you and remove you from the land.”


These verses reflect the sentiment at the close of chapter 5 mentioned above.  When taken in it’s full context, if you were to exclude the Shema (6:4) from the rest of the verses, I believe most would agree that the point of the passage is to remind the nation of Israel that in spite of the other gods in the land they are entering, they are to serve only YHWH.  With that in mind, it makes little sense that this discussion of worship exclusively given to YHWH should be disrupted with an ontological statement about His being.  Rather, in keeping with the larger subject matter, the Shema would make more sense in the NRSV translation, that Israel is to remember that YHWH is their only God, not any of the gods they will see in the land of Canaan.

For this reason, I believe, as do some others, that the Shema should be read,


“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is our God alone.”


The effect this has on the overall use of the passage is different than it’s typical approach, but no less significant.  Rather being used to reveal the nature of God’s “oneness”, the nation is being reminded that worship is reserved exclusively for YHWH.  He and He alone is their God.  This reminder is no less soluble for Christians in the modern age.  Where do we spend our time?  Where do we spend our money?  Do our actions demonstrate a divided worship?  We live, in effect, in the land of Canaan, with idols of all kinds, gods without number.  Perhaps we should always be reminding ourselves of the Great Shema, “Hear O Christian, YHWH is your God alone.”  Reserve your worship for Him.

Does it Matter?

I recently posted this position on a forum of language professionals with mixed responses.  Those that rejected the position did so for three reasons: 1. If you change it, it changes the monotheism of the Jews (and makes trinitarianism in this verse difficult), 2. It’s not how the Jews read it, and/or 3. There are other, clearer, ways of writing “alone” or “only” in Hebrew.  These are valid concerns and I respect them.  In brief response let me just say that changing Deut. 6:4 does nothing to the monotheistic teaching of the Jews.  The concept of monotheism is spread throughout the Hebrew Bible and does not rest solely on this verse.  In the same way, the triune nature of God, does not hinge on Deut. 6:4, therefore it is not detrimental to change it.  Secondly, it is true that the Jews, both in the past and even today[4], do not read it as I have suggested.  However, is it a helpful maxim to say that we should read the OT in the same way that Orthodox Jews do?  Would you read Is. 53 as they do?  I don’t believe so.  Also, my argument is not based on the majority reading, but the grammatical and contextual probability, which has nothing to do with how others read it.  And lastly, it is also true that there are other ways to convey this sentiment in Hebrew that are not ambiguous[5], however if the argument is that 6:4 should be understood from these other verses, why is it not first understood in light of its immediate context?  Does not a proper hermeneutic begin with the passage itself before examining the larger body of Scripture?

I point this out simply to address a broader point.  While I believe that my defense of this reading is sound, others will disagree with me, and that’s okay.  I admit that either reading is possible.  Some who react extremely to this suggested change, tend to do so out of a desire to clutch a long -held tradition of the reading, not out of a desire to examine the evidence.  This was my first response when exposed to it as well.  We must be very cautious about this reaction, and be willing to recognize it, not just in others but in ourselves.  Do we interpret Scripture, or derive our understanding of God simply from the repeating of the standard we have been taught?  Or should we investigate all that we have been taught in order to lay hold of a faith that is our own?  Don’t we tell non-believers and those of other faiths that this is exactly what they should do?  Do we not tell them that they should be willing to examine what they’ve been taught, either in the mosque, the temple or the university, and seek the truth even if it contradicts their traditional understanding?  How can we expect others to do what we are not willing to do ourselves?

The larger point is this, when faced with the possibility of having misunderstood Scripture for many years, or even some aspect of the nature of God, the natural reaction is revulsion.  We want to defend how we’ve always done it.  But how we’ve always done it may not be right.  And if truth matters to us, like we say that it does, we must be willing to challenge even those sacred beliefs.  I recommend a few questions for everyone when faced with this dilemma:

  1. Ask yourself, “Does the alternative make sense?”

Some alternatives are clearly contradictory to the revelation of God.  Others are not.  Take a moment and ask if the alternative view, even if it is not your own, makes sense in light of this revelation.

  1. Ask yourself, “What’s at stake here?”

Not every issue is a gospel issue.  Be willing to ask if the alternative view really makes any difference to the main message of the Christian faith.  If this verse changes, does it affect others? Or is it incidental?  Knowing the difference between a mountain to die on and valley of compromise makes a world of difference.

Conclusion

I set about writing this article to defend an understandably minority opinion.  I did this knowing it may upset some people.  I wrote it, knowing that it might upset some people, because I think it serves as an excellent point for the larger discussion.  As Christians we strive, or at least should strive, for unity with one another.  However, in the age of social media, we often are known for division and strife.  Rather than fall victim to the age of constant offense that we live in, let us strive to be counter-cultural and do the hard work of analyzing opposing views, assessing their value, and seeking concord rather than discord.

 

 

[1] Some readers may balk at this, given that the committee that translated the NRSV stated that they did so “without theological bias”, resulting in a largely biased translation in favor of neutral or non-spiritual nuances to the text.  That being said, this, in and of itself, is not reason to reject every reading carte blanche, but simply to read with a critical eye.  Also, the reading above is not unique to the NRSV, but is found in the NAB and the NLT.

[2] Ontology – The science or study of being; that branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or essence of being or existence.

[3] Famously repeated by Jesus in Matt.22:37-39; Mk. 12:29-30 and Lk. 10:27.

[4] Many thanks to an Orthodox Jewish friend of mine for her insight into the modern understanding of this passage!

[5] See Deut. 4:35 and Deut. 32:39

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