Echad—The One and Only
The other key word in the first line of the Shema is echad (ech-HAHD). Its most common meaning is simply “one,” but it can also encompass related ideas, like being single, alone, unique, or unified. The multiple shades of meaning of echad and the difficult wording of the rest of the line have made the Shema a topic of debate for millennia.
Part of the problem is that Deuteronomy 6:4 doesn’t even have verbs. It literally reads: “YHWH … our God … YHWH … one.” The verse can be read either as saying “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone,” or “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Of these two readings, the more common reading is the second, that “the LORD is one” in the sense that God is unique. There is only one God, the God of Israel. So this line is usually understood as a statement of belief in monotheism.
The word echad has been a sticking point between Jews and Christians. Often Jews point to the fact that it means “one” as a reason that they cannot believe in the Trinity or in the deity of Christ. And Christians respond that echad can refer to a compound unity, as when God created morning and evening, and together they made yom echad (“one day) (cf. Genesis 1:5). Or when Adam and Eve, through marriage, became basar echad (“one flesh”) (Genesis 2:24).
This whole debate hinges on interpreting the Shema as a creed; that is, “the LORD is one” is a statement about what kind of being God is. But, interestingly, one of the most widely-read Jewish Bible translations now renders Deuteronomy 6:4 as “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” rather than “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” It does so because in recent decades, scholars have come to believe that the original, ancient sense of echad in this verse was more likely to be “alone” than “one.” In Zechariah 14:9, for instance, echad has this sense: “The LORD will be king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be echad and his name echad” (pers. trans.). This is a vision of the messianic age, when all humanity will cease to worship idols and revere only God and call on his name alone.
Jewish scholar Jeffrey Tigray asserts that even though the Scriptures clearly preach monotheism, the Shema itself is not a statement of belief. It’s an oath of loyalty. He calls the first line of the Shema “a description of the proper relationship between YHVH and Israel: He alone is Israel’s God. This is not a declaration of monotheism, meaning that there is only one God…. Though other peoples worship various beings and things they consider divine, Israel is to recognize YHVH alone.”
Why is this important? Because it changes the sense of what the Shema communicates. Rather than merely being a command to a particular belief about God, it is actually a call for a person’s absolute allegiance to God. God alone is the one we should worship; him only shall we serve. As often as the Shema is called a creed or a prayer, it is better understood as an oath of allegiance, a twice-daily recommitment to the covenant with the God of Israel.
As Western Christians we are used to reciting creeds and statements of belief in order to define our faith. We expect to find one here too. So we easily could easily misunderstand that Jesus was saying that it is extremely critical that we believe in God’s “oneness.” But when properly understood, this line shows that the greatest commandment is actually a call to commit ourselves to the one true God.
Reading the line this way solves another mystery about what Jesus was saying. If he was asked what the greatest commandment was, why does he begin by quoting a line about God being “one”? Because if you read this line as about committing oneself to God as one’s Lord, it flows directly into the next line in the Shema, explaining why we should love God with every fiber of our being. If the Lord alone is our God, and we worship no other gods, we can love him with all of our heart and soul and strength. The two sentences together become one commandment, the greatest in fact—to love the Lord our God.
Once again, in the light of their Hebrew context, we find that Jesus’ words call us beyond what is going on in our brains. We are not just to “hear” but to take heed, to respond, to obey. And we are not just called to believe in the oneness of God, but to place him at the center of our lives.
To do that, we are to love God with all of our heart and soul and strength and mind. Each of these words, in their Hebrew context, can expand our understanding of our calling and the very essence of the Scriptures, as Jesus understood it.