The Bible & Theology Toward Christian Maturity
Deuteronomy 6 and the Greatest Commandment
Hear and Remember
By Sara Koenig, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies | AP Photo / Gautam Singh, File
Jewish families touch a mezuzah on the door frame of a synagogue in Mumbai, India.
Editor’s note: This summer, the Center for Biblical and Theological Education’s Lectio: Guided Bible Reading highlights “Selections from Israel’s Story.” In this excerpt, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies Sara Koenig reflects on the Shema, a key text for Israel’s worship practices.
The instructions in Deuteronomy 6 are some of the most basic for Israel, and they express the main theme of the entire book of Deuteronomy: that God demands their ardent and exclusive loyalty. As Deuteronomy 6:5 says, the Israelites are to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, and might.
In 6:3, Moses commands Israel, “Hear.” The Hebrew word shemaʿ is repeated in the following verse, and in fact, the entirety of Deuteronomy 6:4–9 is a piece of liturgy known as the Shema. However, the word “hear” can also be translated as “obey.” So “hear” has the sense not only of something auditory: hear, listen; but also of something motivational: obey, do, act.
After commanding Israel to hear — and obey — and after identifying the Lord, the next command is to love. Love is not simply a feeling or an emotional attachment, but it expresses itself in action. In other words, Israel is supposed to love God by loving and loyal actions to God and others. Still, Deuteronomy is the first book in the Torah to speak about loving God. The previous books emphasize reverence, often expressed through the command to fear God. Deuteronomy includes “the fear of the Lord,” but includes love as an attitude that should motivate Israel to obey.
From the soaring commandment to love, the text moves into practical details. These words are to be kept in their hearts. They are to be recited — literally “repeated” to their children, spoken about at home and when away, when they lie down and when they rise up (Deuteronomy 6:7).
From this verse, Jews took the daily practice of reciting Deuteronomy 6:4–9 every morning when they woke up, and every evening before they went to bed. The practicalities continue in 6:8–9: “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.”
The Pharisees took the text literally and inscribed the words on a scroll placed on the forehead and on the hand or arm. Hence the objects known as tefillin, or “phylacteries” — boxes containing words from Exodus 13:1–16, and Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21, with black straps attached to them. The provision in verse 9 — to write the commands on your doorposts and gates — gets literal expression as a mezuzah, a small case affixed on the doorposts of a house with the words of the Shema and its companion passage, Deuteronomy 11:13–21, written on parchment inside.
Despite the provisions to remember, despite the practical ways to be reminded, we still might forget, especially when the reminders themselves become rote. I have a mezuzah on the doorpost of my office at Seattle Pacific University. One time, a colleague was standing in my doorway talking with me about something else, and she exclaimed, “How beautiful!”
My answer — unfortunately — was, “What?”
I had forgotten that it was there. The physical reminder that I had nailed to the entrance to my office was something I had gotten too familiar with, something I walked by without touching, without saying the words of the Shema, without remembering.
I often get frustrated with how quickly the Israelites seem to forget God, and then I realize that I am their spiritual descendant. Even reminders apparently do not always help me remember. But in the hearing of the words and the commandments, in talking about them with the family of faith, I am encouraged to keep hearing, obeying, loving, and remembering the God with whom I have a relationship of love.