A study on Shema Yisrael

Posted Jul 29, 2012 by Adrian Zaranski in General Hits: 2,793

While I wrote some remarks on the Shema in recent discussions, I feel obliged to write them down in a blog entry as a research paper.


Very often we are pointed to the Shema for the oneness of God, when we are faced with a claim, that it means, that in the Universe there is only one divine Being in terms of nature (that is: omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent). I believe this is an incorrect claim, because in this text I do not find any reference to any of the omni- characteristics. The term we translate as "God" doesn't provide such notions.


So what is Shema (Deut. 6:4) about? Here we have the text:


"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD" (KJV)


In the original Hebrew, it spells:


"Shema Yisrael: Yahweh Eloheinu Yahweh echad"


I'm not an expert in Hebrew language, but I think it can be literary translated like this:


"Hear Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh one/only"


Please notice, that the whole sentence comprises of three parts, which I think are clearly seen. What is of our interest, are the two latter parts: Yahweh Eloheinu and Yahweh echad.


Let's look at the words:
- Yahweh - it means "I AM" or "I AM THAT I AM" (Ex. 3:14),
- Eloheinu - it means "our God" and comes from "Elohim", which we translate as simply "God", itself being a form of "El" - another word for "God", or just "god", or simply somebody superior to us (including men),
- echad - it means "one", but in this specific context I believe it means "only" (I'll explain this later).


Now let's make some explanations on these words.


"Yahweh" means "I AM" or "I AM THAT I AM". While I will not go to the Hebrew language for the original wording from Ex. 3:14 (it is different than "Yahweh" itself), we should note, what this actually means. The "I AM" seems to denote somebody, who exists of Himself, who has life in Himself, who actually exists from always. "I AM", not "I was" or "I will be", but "I AM", "I exist", "I live". Still it's not just a simple expression of somebody who exists (otherwise we could also say, that "We are"). The simplicity of this expression actually tells us, that here is something much more. We understand, that it denotes having life in Himself, existing by Himself, and also giving existence and life to every other living being. So the notion of this word is selfexistence, not omnipotence.


The next word, "Eloheinu", or actually "Elohim" (plural of "El"). Like I wrote before, it generally denotes someone, who is superior to us men. Sometimes "El" or "Elohim" are used for men, who are superior in authority over other men. Therefore the word denotes an authority figure, not omnipotence.


Here we need to mention something in regard to authority and omnipotence. When trinitarians or unitarians speak of God as being omnipotent, they are speaking about His nature, His capability. But please note, that the ancient pagan gods and pagan rulers were also considered omnipotent, but in their nature they weren't. They were considered omnipotent, because they were having total authority over people. We could call it virtual omnipresence. Rulers had total patronage over their lands, while pagan gods had total patronage in their aspects of nature or life. Still, even such rulers could be overthrown, and pagan gods were limited in their power by other gods, they also could be abandoned. So, they were not omnipotent because they had such powers of themselves, but they were virtually omnipotent because they wielded absolute authority ("I say, you do").


Having this in mind, let's go back to Shema and our true "Elohim". In Egypt, Hebrews were surrounded by such pagan gods and authorities and they took their gods with them into the wilderness. Therefore their need was to be driven back to a true authority, to a true God. This was the real purpose of Shema Yisrael. It was not to say, that there exists only one Being, who is capable of doing everything He wants (omnipotence, and other omni-s as well), but that there is only one true authority in the Universe, to Whom people owe their existence and life, and Who is worthy of their worship and love. The "I AM" is the ultimate authority in the Universe. But still it does not mean, that it means only one personal being.


Now let's go to "echad". Of course, as simple as it may sound, it means "one". But in the context of Shema I believe it means not simply a numerical "one", but that it denotes "only". Why so? Let's go back to the subject of pagan gods. We have learned, that they were not omnipresent by themselves. Moreover, they were not sources of life, as the "I AM" is. So they were not other "Yahwehs". If "echad" needed to mean a numerical "one" here ("Yahweh is one"), it would mean, that other gods were also "Yahweh" or "I AM" to the Hebrew minds. But I don't think they have ever seen them like this. Instead, Hebrews had to be driven back to the only true God.


Notice, how both translations of "Yahweh echad" sound:
- "Yahweh is one" - it sounds as if there was only one Yahweh, as if the pagan gods were also considered Yahweh - but I think that is unlikely; some may also see here an evidence, that there is only one Yahweh being.
- "Yahweh only" - it sounds as if only Yahweh should be our "Elohim" and the focus of our worship, as opposed to politheistic worship; here we do not have any notion, that Yahweh is only one being.


I believe, that the second version of translation is more accurate here (the main Polish translations, the Millenium Bible and the Warsaw Bible or New Translation, are examples of such translations).


Yahweh is our only true Elohim, our only supreme authority in the whole Universe. But who is Yahweh?


The answer to this question can be found in these texts:
- "Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58)
- "For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself" (John 5:26)
- "Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they" (Hebr. 1:4)


The Father and the Son both share the same name Yahweh. The Son, Christ, had by inheritance obtained this beautiful name and nature, that's why, along with God the Father, He is the focus of our worship, and it's not a robbery for the Father to worship His Son. We are told:


"That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him" (John 5:23)


With Son's authority having been derived from the authority of the Father, we can say, that Son is the voice of the Father, His Word. So the authority of the Son is the authority of the Father Himself. That's why the Son, like the Father (both being Yahweh), is our Elohim. And although the Hebrews didn't know it, He was Elohim for them also:


"And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4)


I believe the claim of the trinitarians and unitarians, that Shema means only one divine being, is inacurrate. It is of philosophical, Greco-Roman origin. Roman Christianity, influenced by Greek thought, understood the Shema as saying about God as the only omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent Being in the Universe. Actually, it seems, that the focus on the nature of the divine has been the product of Greco-Roman minds, it was not present in Hebrew faith. Having such view on Shema, the trinitarians were trying to accommodate the Shema and the threefold name (Mat. 28:19) together, which resulted in the Trinity doctrine. But as it was shown in this study, the correct view on Shema does not allow for such speculations, and it perfectly fits within the threefold name.


I hope you will benefit from and be blessed by this study. Blessings!