Echad: God of the Shema

The other weekend I revisited a place I go to maunder and ponder in the discord of this age. With phones, applications, advertisements and such all taking us captive every moment of our life, it’s important once in a while to lock your phone in the car, hold nothing in your hands, walk outside, and just shut the…. be still and quiet.

I visited the pier, with the intent to do nothing but stare at the tumult over the waters. It reminds me of Genesis 1:2, really, and the reality we forget daily.

And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (NKJV)

As I approached the verge where the concrete met the aged planks of the pier, something caught my eye. It was an inspirational call-to-action of some sort, with an emblazoned URL beneath it:

Proudly its bold text and assuring promises were nestled in the pamphlets that were freely displayed for the public’s taking. Across from the stand sat two ladies primed for the sunny day, with water bottles in reserve, lawn chairs positioned where they ought not be, and wily grins.

I wasn’t going to engage them: I was going to walk by and head home.

I wasn’t going to speak to them: I was going to just stand next to them and stare at the kids on the beach play in the waves.

I wasn’t going to do anything… so I became one intellectual powerhouse of a nuisance, a faux-Paul of Tarsus rhetorician. The whole conversation was fruitless and vain.

You got past the preface? Great. Here’s the pith of this piece.

One thing the trained ladies couldn’t grasp (despite my approach being a very coarse, regretfully unloving one), was the tension in Scripture that ultimately led to the doctrine of the Trinity.

God is one.

The most declarative instance in Scripture about this idea is called “the Shema.” Shama, in Hebrew, means “to hear.”

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Deut. 6:4)

This verse is by far the most iconic, most memorized verse in the Tanakh (Old Testament), and is ingrained in the hearts and minds of each follower of Judaism.

It bespeaks God’s oneness: and, since God’s story takes place in the context of polytheism and the worship of those false gods by his people, it doubles down on the truth that there is only one God.

Not two, three, or 3,000. One.

Now this is numerical. Quantifiable. It’s a number, and it’s probably been conveyed to you this way. It’s probably how you would convey this verse to someone else, too (especially if you were in Greece in the first few centuries, where the number of gods were multiplied a thousand-fold).

It may be part of your arsenal when evangelizing: to a smarmy opponent who numbers Yahweh with all thousands of God, but tritely “believes in one less god than you.” One here is a number.

Now, while in Hebrew words can have several meanings (i.e., there is a semantic domain for the word), usually one definition (cp. denotation vs connotation) takes precedence over the others. (If you’re really brave, see polysemy.)

For example, the word day, yom, is understood as a single day, one earth’s full rotation, far more than it as understood as a vague, indefinite period of time (for those who like conjecturing about the Gap Theory. I don’t.).

The word for God in the Old Testament, elohim, can mean God but can also mean “mighty [ones/men]” or “gods” (lowercase), as elohim is a plural noun. This word’s referent, though, is much more often God than it is mighty men or [pagan] gods. (For a thorough article discussing whether elohim can mean “mighty men,” see here.)

So it is with the word one, echad: It overwhelmingly refers to the cardinal number “1” than it does express another concept…

…like unity, wholeness–bordering the idea of shalom.

What if the word echad, one, in the Shema, “the Lord is one,” is expressing something other than the number? What if the author is not saying that there is one God, but God is united–not disparate?

It’s true that Hebrew hearers in the context of Deuteronomy would have known God’s injunction to avoid polytheism (worship of other gods), as their time was replete with worship of false gods. (You can read the whole Book of Judges to see that.) Therefore they would have well conceded that there is one God only, vis-a-vis the thousands of false gods.

But they, called to be a holy and set apart people, would also need to function as a united body and serve the Lord together, much like a cadre of prey form together to protect themselves from a predator. The Hebrews would see that the united behavior he had planned for his people would derive from his own character: one who is not divided in thought or being (cf. Jn 10:38).

Consider below some instances of echad in the Old Testament that allow for a wider semantic domain than just “quantity.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24)

Now the whole earth had one language and one speech... And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. (Gen. 11:1, 6)

[T]hen we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters to us; and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people. (Gen. 34:16)

Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has shown Pharaoh what He is about to do… (Gen. 41:25)

This is a small litany of examples and is in no way exhaustive, but you can see that a few of the examples are reaching deeper than simply cardinal numbers, than quantity. The ideas expressed in echad here seem to intimate unity and oneness–a non-dividedness that pervades the Hebrew culture and is a reflection of God’s character.

I concluded in another article that Scripture can have multiple meanings that are not immediately apparent or realized: much like God’s kingdom is here but not fully; Jesus’ work is done but not in entirety (for he will come again). I think this double entendre in echad is much the same.

The Shema can express both the quantity of one and the quality of one/oneness.

But why does this matter? It affects the way we see God’s word.

I was at a youth group some weeks ago that was lush with teenagers and budding adults, all there to have fellowship with each other and worship. The youth pastor emerged about twenty minutes in, and he began covering the rich theology in Hebrews 1, specifically verses 1-4 which highlight Jesus as nonpareil to angels and sets him apart unequivocally.

The teacher, in hopping between Old Testament verses to bolster his point, cited Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema, as an instance of there being one God, not many (quantity). He left no room for a double meaning, a portent of deeper meaning, or anything of the sort. And that’s okay.

But if you base your theology on single verses that appear so intuitively in favor of your point, you won’t be equipped to answer when someone has hard questions about your beliefs.

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear… (2 Pet. 3:15)

When we say “the Lord is one,” we should be declaring more than just number.

  • We are declaring there is one God, not many.
  • We are declaring God is united, not divided against himself.
  • We are declaring in him there is no change… that the promises he has made and the redemption we and creation groan for is coming.
  • We are declaring that as is his character, so will be ours: which means we are to be one as a people.

One day, the church will be united. There will be no great chasm between us, and the remnant that was holy and set apart by God will be together again.

One day, we will all be one. YHWH Eloheinu, YHWH echad.