Reasons to Believe

Israel's Creed: The Shema Part 1

What is the single most important verse in the entire Old Testament?

Some biblical scholars would identify [Deuteronomy 6:4] as carrying that kind of significance. Known as the watchword of Israel’s faith, the well known passage reads as follows in the New International Version of the Bible:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

What does this verse mean, and why does it carry such great significance for Judaism and Christianity? How does this verse serve as ancient Israel’s creedal statement?

A Biblical Creed

The term creed comes from the Latin credo, meaning I believe. Creeds are considered authoritative pronouncements that set forth in summary form the central tenets of a given religion. Creeds usually start out as brief statements that attempt to capture the essence of a religion’s beliefs.

Specific statements (recorded in Scripture) were used as creedal statements even in biblical times. In the New Testament the expression Jesus is Lord! ([Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:11]) is considered Christianity’s most primitive creed. In the Old Testament the ancient Hebrews used the Shema as a creed.

Shema is Hebrew for “hear” and the creedal statement appropriately begins by calling God’s people to hear the truth about their Lord and God. Ancient written statements and documents were often titled according to the very first word appearing in them.

This creedal statement emphasizes the ancient Hebrews’ uncompromising commitment to monotheism (one God), even though they lived amid the pagan, polytheistic (many gods) Near Eastern world. The Israelites were the unique people of God (chosen ones), and their Lord (Yahweh) was “one.”

Deuteronomy 6:4 therefore powerfully summarizes the theological essence of ancient Judaism. God’s covenant people (Israel) worship and serve the one, true and living God (Yahweh).

Yahweh is the Hebrew name of the personal God of Israel. The name is revealed in four consonants YHWH (technically known as the tetragrammaton and means Lord, King, or Ruler. When the Old Testament is translated into English, modern English translations distinguish the name by spelling it out in all capital letters: LORD.

The Shema, in effect, restates the first commandment contained in the Decalogue ([Ten Commandments]):

“I am the LORD your God … You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3).

Yahweh, and Yahweh alone, was Israel’s one Lord and God. As one commentator stated:

“Yahweh was to be the sole object of Israel’s worship, allegiance and affection.”

The Shema is ancient Israel’s creed. It underscores the fundamental Jewish belief in one God who is special and distinct from all other conceptions of deity, especially those prevalent in the ancient Near Eastern world. It also identifies the Hebrews as God’s special people who have a covenant relationship with their personal Lord and God.

Ensuing articles in this series will explore how this creed made the ancient Israelites distinct in belief as well as how this statement has been used devotionally among Jews. The last two articles will discuss how it impacts historic Christian beliefs.

For more on the meaning of the Shema, see the article in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley.

For more on how creeds have impacted historic Christianity, see chapter 4 of my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Subjects: Creeds

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.