Back to the Shema – I found some very interesting notes on Deuteronomy 6:4 in The Jewish Study Bible. Bottom line? They translate: “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” (My A3 from last time). They’re going somewhat against nearly all Christian Bible translations. But why?
First. they see this whole section as a sermon or expounding on (what Jews and the early church fathers read as) the first commandment, as there are multiple allusions to Deut 5:6-7. (379c – a,b, and c here refer to their three columns of commentary, left to right) This says (in the Deuteronomy version):
I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods beside Me.
On this, they comment:
This first commandment takes for granted the existence of other gods; its concerns is only to ensure Israel’s exclusive loyalty to YVHV. This perspective, called “monolatry,” is found frequently within Deuteronomy… [and] is often expressed by representing YHVH as the rule of the divine council… Second Temple Jewish communities sometimes read the later perspective of monotheism into texts that actually had in mind the earlier idea of God as ruling a divine council… That original theology has also become unavailable to most contemporary readers, since many of the translations found in synagogue prayer books employ euphemisms to “explain away” the biblical text’s clear reference to other gods. (375c, emphases added)
No, there won’t be any smoothing over of awkwards points for their tradition! I admire their chutzpah. Back to the Shema, interestingly, they note that “its formal recitation is not attested until late in the Second Temple period.” [i.e. until around the time of Christ] (379c) They try to reconstruct why this development happened, but I’ll leave that aside.
About the Shema:
Modern readers regard the Shema as an assertion of monotheism, a view that is anachronistic. In the context of ancient Israelite religion, it served as a public proclamation of exclusive loyalty to YHVH as the sole LORD of Israel. …NJPS correction departs from the more familiar translation “The LORD [YHVH] our God, the LORD is one”… Each of the two translations is theoretically possible because, in Hebrew, it is possible to form a sentence by simply joining a subject and a predicate, without specifying the verb “to be.” The Hebrew here thus allows either “YHVH, our God, YHVH is one” or “YHVH is our God, YHVH alone.” The first… which makes a statement about the unity and the indivisibility of God, does not do full justice to the this text (though it does make sense in a later Jewish context as a polemic against Christianity). The verse makes not a quantitative argument (about the number of deities) but a qualitative one, about the nature of the relationship between God and Israel. Almost certainly, the original force of the verse… was to demand that Israel show exclusive loyalty to our God, YHVH. (380 a-b, bold added)
As Israel moved from monolatry to monotheism, they argue, Jews began to commonly mis-read this passage, as well as the first commandment. In their view, this misunderstanding was cemented in place by the Greek OT translation we call the Septuagint (3rd cent. BCE), which translated “the LORD is one.” (380b)
They make another good point: though the Hebrew word echad normally means “one”, in this sentence such a translation is terminally unclear (one what?), and in any case to call YHWH “one”,
…is not the same as affirming that there is only one God. …Nor is it likely that the verse intends to clarify that there is only one YHVH, as opposed to many YHVHs, since there was no difficulty in recognizing that different manifestations of a divinity could arise from a single god. (Exod. 6.3) NJPS thus properly understands “echad” to mean “alone,”, i.e. “exclusively.” (380b)
Finally, they argue that this reading fits with Zechariah 14:9, which they hold alludes to the Shema, interpreted as they suggest. It prophesies a time when the god of the Jews is recognized, world-wide, as the one god.
I think they make a plausible case. I’m no expert on ancient Israelite religion, but what they say fits with the few experts I’ve read. Of course, no big point of theology hinges on this, as there are many other verses which assert that Yahweh is the one god, the only god, the one true god.
It’s also interesting for raising in a acute way, this question: How ought we to interpret the Bible? According to what we best guess was the intent of the author? Or, according to what the long, mainstream tradition and/or current religious authorities say it means, where that conflicts with the preceding?