INTRODUCTION & BACKGROUND ON THE LESSON
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, is a fitting first lesson for this quarter’s theme, Our Love For God, because this passage of scripture contains the most important confession of love and faith for God in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The Shema—as Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is called because the opening word of the fourth verse, shema, means to hear in Hebrew—was the central confessional statement of Ancient Israel. “Shema Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai, Echad—Hear Israel, the LORD, your God. The LORD is One.” This verse, and those that come after it, clearly outline how Israel was to keep the LORD at the center of its life. As the core confessional statement of Israel, the Shema distilled Israel’s covenantal love relationship with God into a singular phrase. Yet, this phrase was neither simple, nor trite. The Shema was a verbal confession with embodied lived consequence—to recite the Shema was to live the Shema.
Today, countless observant Jews still pray or recite the Shema three times a day—once in the morning and once in the evening, and before going to sleep at night—as a constant reminder that God is the center of their lives. Jesus, who was an observant Jew, would have done the same. This is why He identifies the Shema as the first great commandment in Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:12-21. For contemporary Christians, this week’s lesson text reminds us that our confession of faith in God is not window dressing for life. Rather, if we say we believe in God, then that affirmation should exist as the center of our being. God’s command to love and obey, given through Moses, should ground our everyday living—providing the moral and practical compass for every thought, every action, every decision, and every act of living worship.
INTO THE LESSON
1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.
In the opening verses of the lesson text, Moses begins to teach Israel the commands, decrees and laws that he received from God while Israel was camped at Mt. Sinai/Mt. Horeb. Because Israel is on the border of Canaan, poised to begin their possession of the Promised Land, Moses gives the law a second time to encourage the children of Israel to keep faith with the God who brought them through the wilderness to a land flowing with milk and honey. Moses’ intention is clear and distinct: he encourages Israel, their children, and their grand children, to demonstrate their love and awe for God, by keeping—or actively obeying—God’s teaching. The process of keeping God’s teaching is an active, ongoing, daily process of reflecting on who God is, and then demonstrating their love for God through keeping Divine commands. Then, and only then, will Israel enjoy prosperous long lives. Blessing and prosperity is directly linked to obedience and fidelity. Further, Moses teaches to exhort the people to obediently keep religious tradition alive for future generations.
This emphasis on the need for obedience is repeated in the New Testament (Luke 6:46; John 14:21; James 2:14-26; I John 5:2). The way that we show God that we really love God is to do what God has told us to do. The focus of this obedience is directed first toward God and then toward our covenant sisters and brothers. The phrase, so you may enjoy long life, in verse 2, has often been interpreted in connection with Deuteronomy 5:16 as a promise of individual longevity to those who honor their parents. However, because of the repeated use of this phrase in Deuteronomy 4:40; 5:16, 33; 6:2; 11:9, it is obviously an idiom for the promise of a stable society, not individual longevity. God's covenant is designed to promote a godly, stable, healthy, productive society that will live on, and endure into the future.
In verse 3, the phrase, “that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey", reveals the reciprocal relationship between God and Israel. If Israel obeyed covenant statues and ordinances, then God would bless Israel in a unique way. The cursing and blessing section of Deuteronomy 27-29 is pivotal in understanding the history of the children of Abraham. They were told specifically of the abundance that would accrue to them if they followed God, and the cursing that would accrue to them if they disobeyed.
4 Attention, Israel! God, our God! God the one and only! 5 Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got! 6-9 Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.
As previously stated, verse 4 introduces the Shema, coming from the Hebrew verb shema which means "to hear so as to do." This is the focus of biblical covenant. The usage of this verb in Deuteronomy implies that it was used liturgically at set worship times (e.g., 4:1; 5:1; 9:1; 20:3; 27:9-10). As the central pillar of the Jewish affirmation of monotheism, the Shema distinguishes Israel from the polytheism of its neighbors—particularly the Canaanites' emphasis on the many local ba’als.
Verse 5, “Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!" emphasizes what a loving response to God looks like—it should involve our entire personhood. Jesus used this same verse in combination with Leviticus 19:18 to affirm the entire essence of the law (Matthew 22:36-38; Mark 12:29-34; Luke 10:27-38). Believers' "love" is assumed. However love must manifest itself in action.
It is characteristic of Deuteronomy to link obedience to YHWH's covenant as evidence of one's love for Him (cf. 5:10; 6:5; 7:9; 10:12; 11:1,13; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6,16,20). The phrases “whole heart” and “all you’ve got in you” in Peterson’s translation—or heart and soul in other translations—are often used together to show the complete person (cf. 4:29; 10:12; 11:13; 13:3; 26:16; 30:2,6,10). The term "soul" describes the life-force (i.e., breath) in both humans and animals. In this verse it refers to passionate desire. “All you’ve got” means with abundance or strength. Notice the term "all" is repeated three times for emphasis. This commandment is highlighted by Jesus as the greatest of the commandments. These two laws, love God and love your brother are surely also summaries of the new covenant in Christ Jesus.
In verses 6-9, Moses underscores the importance of instilling God-centeredness in children and grandchildren. In verse 6 he exhorts parents to get these values inside of them, and inside their children. Parents must diligently teach their sons and daughters—repeatedly emphasizing God’s will for our lives during the entire scope of daily activities. It is the responsibility of parents to pass on lifestyle faith. It is interesting that the flow of these different times for teaching falls into the same literary pattern as Psalm 139:2-6 and Proverbs 6:20-22. This emphasis on parental responsibility is repeated in Proverbs 22:6. Our modern day Sunday School cannot take the place of parental training, but it surely can supplement it!
In verse 8 and 9, Moses says the people should tie the commands on their hands and heads. Again, for Israel, the Shema was not an idle command, it was a way of life. They would actually write the Shema out on little scrolls and place them in small cases called a mezuzah’s (Hebrew for doorpost) and place the Shema on the doorposts of their houses. They would also put small slips of paper into tiny boxes called phylacteries that they would hang around their necks, and hands. Every time they passed through a door with a mezuzah on it, they would kiss their fingers and touch them to the mezuzah, expressing love and respect for God, remembering the commandments and acknowledging the presence of God in their lives.
Israel was ever mindful that their entire lives—everything they would do—centered on their relationship with the LORD. The substance of their lives focused on their extreme thanks, love and respect for God’s Divine act, and their extravagant respect, honor and devotion for God’s personhood. When Israelites would see the mezuzahs and the phylacteries; they would be reminded not only of the words of the Shema, but of the context for the Shema.
The Shema comes about after God has brought them out of slavery—out of being Egypt’s footstool. The words of the Shema come after they’ve come through their Red Sea experience. The words of the Shema come after, God brings them through the wilderness to the edge of the Promised Land. After all Israel has gone through, they realize God is exactly who God claimed to be, and that God does what God says God will do. Therefore, every time Israelites would see the leather strap around their left hand with a small box which contained selected Scriptures from the Torah, they would remember to love God with all their heart, soul and might. Every time Israelites saw the Divine commands inscribed on doorposts and gates they remembered that God had control of their home and social lives.
Contemporary Christians should receive Deuteronomy 6:1-9 they way the Israelites received it—as a call toward diligently living lives centered in love and obedience for God and Divine commands. Although we might not wear phylacteries, or have mezuzah’s hanging from our doors, modern-day believers should think of God’s goodness towards us and respond by dedicating our lives to loving God and obeying God’s Word. Further, we must diligently teach the Word of God to our children. Instructing our children is of the utmost importance to the survival of God’s people and the promulgation of God’s will for the world.