The Shema is perhaps one of the most oft-cited passages of scripture of Trinitarian proof-texting. Unfortunately, it is done frequently with very little understanding. The Shema originally served, and today still serves, as a prayer that Jews recite in the morning and at night.1
This well known passage is famous for allegedly being a clear statement of traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism. However, this passage is also notorious for being difficult to interpret; scholars still struggle with it today. While the bible may at other places teach extreme monotheism, it isn’t safe to rely on the Shema as a proof-text for this teaching.
Jeffrey H. Tigay, a Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the following entry on the Shema in the The JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy.2
What Do the Words Mean?
The precise meaning of the Shema is uncertain. The four Hebrew words “YHVH eloheinu YHVH ehad” literally mean “YHVH our God YHVH one.” Since Hebrew does not have a present‑tense verb meaning “is” to link subject and predicate, the link must be supplied by the listener or reader. Where to do so depends on context and is sometimes uncertain. Grammatically, “YHVH our God YHVH one” could be rendered in several ways, such as (1) “YHVH is our God, YHVH alone”; (2) “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (lit. “YHVH our God, YHVH is one”); (3) “YHVH our God is one YHVH.”
(1) YHVH is Our God, YHVH Alone
The first possibility, which is followed in the NJPS (new Jewish Publication Society) translation, is based on [the interpretations of medieval commentators] Ibn Ezra and Rashbam. One difficulty with this interpretation is that Hebrew normally expresses “alone” with levad, as in “You alone [levadekha] are God of all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Kings 19:15, 19; and Psalm 86:10). A few passages have been found in which ehad seems to have this meaning, but the usage is at best rare.
There is also a serious syntactic difficulty with this interpretation: it interprets the words “YHVH our God” (YHVH eloheinu) as a subject and a predicate, meaning “YHVH is our God.” Although this usage is grammatically possible (see 2 Chronicles 13:10), it is rare in the Bible and absolutely anomalous in Deuteronomy, where YHVH eloheinu occurs nearly two dozen times, consistently as a fixed phrase meaning “YHVH our God.” Still, this interpretation seems to be presupposed by Zechariah 14 [Zechariah 14:9 reads: “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name.”]. If so, it is the only interpretation that was demonstrably held in biblical times.
(2) YHVH Our God, YHVH is One
The old and familiar translation “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (2) makes the verse a statement about the nature of God Himself, namely that He is one. This might mean that He is unique (incomparable) or that He is indivisible, that He does not consist of multiple deities (the latter idea is also expressed by translation (3). This translation, however, is problematic because it leaves the second YHVH superfluous; “YHVH our God is one” would have sufficed.
(3) YHVH Our God is One YHVH
The third possibility, “YHVH our God is one YHVH”–and not many YHVHs–is not as tautologous [self-referential] as it sounds. Pagans referred to some gods by their name and place of worship, such as “Ishtar of Arbela,” and in some texts a god’s name appears several times, followed each time by a different place. For example, an Egyptian‑Hittite treaty invokes both “the Re the lord of the sky” and “the Re of the town of Arinna”; similarly, it invokes “Seth the lord of the sky,” “Seth of Hatti,” and the Seths of ten other cities.
This manner of speaking, based on the many sanctuaries of a deity, was also used by some Israelites. In some Hebrew inscriptions of the ninth‑eighth centuries B.C.E. discovered in the Sinai, one refers to “YHVH of Samaria” and two others refer to “YHVH of Teman.” Some scholars believe that this manner of speech could imply that there were several deities of each name–several Res, Seths, or YHVHs–and that such a danger was developing in Israel. They believe that the Shema meant “YHVH our God is one YHVH,” not many YHVHs, and was intended to counter this kind of disintegration of YHVH into several deities.
However, there is no other evidence that such a danger was developing in Israel and we do not even know whether non‑Israelites really drew such inferences. Re was the sun, and the Egyptians could hardly have believed that there were two suns. An Egyptian inscription describing offerings to Amon‑Re lists his name dozens of times, each time followed by one of his epithets, including local manifestations (e.g., “Amon‑Re in Thebes … Amon‑Re in Heliopolis”), but includes phrases recognizing that all these references are to a single deity (e.g., “Amon‑Re in all the places where he wishes to be,” “Amon‑Re in at his funerary temples,” “Amon‑Re in all his names”).
While it is possible that recognition of the unity behind all these names was limited to the intelligentsia and that the common folk thought of these as different deities, there is no evidence to that effect. Furthermore, such a danger seems foreign to the context of Deuteronomy 6, which is concerned with Israel’s relationship to God, not with His nature. On the basis of present evidence, translation (1) seems the most likely, but it is not certain.
Incidentally, Tigay has revealed that he happens to fall into the camp who believes that the Shema is best understood as a description of YHWH’s relationship to Israel as their only god, and not as a commentary on God’s nature (much like Paul’s stance in 1 Cor 8:5-6). In other words, option number 1.
1. Shira Schoenberg, “The Shema,” Jewish Virtual Library. Website, accessed Nov 14, 2008. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/shema.html
2. Tigay, Jeffrey H. “Deuteronomy 6:4 (“The Shema”)”, Bible. My Jewish Learning.com. Reprinted from The JPS Torah Commentary: “Deuteronomy.”Website, accessed Nov. 14, 2008 http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/bible/What_is_the_Torah/Deuteronomy/TigayShema.htm#