Is it possible to summarize, in just a few words, what the ancient Hebrews believed about almighty God?
The ancient confessional statement known in Hebrew as the Shema (see part 1) was to serve that very purpose. Known as the watchword of Israel’s faith, [Deuteronomy 6:4] reads as follows in the New International Version of the Bible:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
The doctrinal truths contained in the Shema were what separated the Israelites from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. And those same theological truths would later undergird historic Christianity.
Theology of the Shema
The Hebrews believed in a single, personal God (monotheism) who was a morally perfect being (holy, wise, just, and loving). Yahweh, as the Israelites referred to him, had no limitations with regard to power, space, and knowledge (thus being omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient). This God was the Creator and sustainer of all things, and thus, the sovereign Lord of the cosmos (the universe). The ancient Israelites recognized the Creator-creature distinction that set God apart from his creation.
As Yahweh’s chosen and covenant people on the earth, the Israelites owed their Lord complete loyalty. The Hebrews were to make Yahweh the distinct object of their worship, allegiance, and loving affection. For the Hebrews, life was all about loving and serving God through obeying his revealed commandments in the Torah (the Pentateuch, the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament).
Israel’s pagan neighbors, on the other hand, adopted a form of religion that constituted polytheism (many gods) with their numerous deities being finite and imperfect in nature. The cultures of the ancient Near East also embraced animism (the primitive view that natural objects and entities are embedded with spirits) as well as forms of occultism, especially astrology and divination. These various religious ideas are today associated with basic or folk religion.
In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia biblical scholar M. R. Wilson summarizes the Shema’s importance to the religion of Judaism:
“Of the 5,845 verses in the Pentateuch, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one’ sounds the historic keynote of all Judaism.”
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.
The next article in the series will explore how the Shema has been used devotionally both in biblical times as well as today.
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.
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