Could you effectively summarize your deepest beliefs and values in a couple of sentences?
The ancient confessional statement known in Hebrew as the Shema serves that very purpose for the religion of Judaism (see part 1). The Hebrew creed contains the doctrinal elements that separated the ancient Israelites from their pagan neighbors of the Near East (see part 2 ).
Known as the watchword of Israel’s faith, the well-known passage of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 reads as follows in the New International Version of the Bible:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
The Shema clearly developed as a creedal statement for the ancient Israelites. Initially, it included only verse four (the first full sentence above). However, as time passed it came to include verse five, which calls the Israelites to love God with all of their being (thus heart, soul, and strength). Later, verses six through nine from Deuteronomy chapter 6 were added along with two other short portions also taken from the Torah (the Pentateuch, the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament).
Devotional Use of the Shema
The Shema is really more of a confessional statement than it is a formal prayer. However, it is prayerfully recited today by Jews living all around the world. According to the Old Testament, the Shema is to be recited twice a day: “When you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:7).
According to early Jewish sources (Mishnah), those not required to recite the Shema in antiquity were women, female children, and slaves. Male children, however, were taught the first verse (verse 4) when they were old enough to speak. The Shema was often the last utterance of the Jewish martyrs before their death. Therefore from childhood to old age, Jews were, and are, encouraged to recite the Hebrew creed.
The words of the Torah and especially the Shema were so important that the ancient Israelites were commanded by God to: (1) put them in their hearts; (2) instruct their children in the precepts; (3) make the commands part of their daily lives; and (4) set the commands ever before themselves (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).
Obviously, all of these devotional practices by the ancient Hebrews could be emulated by Christians today, with great spiritual benefit.
Biblical scholar M. R. Wilson summarizes the Shema’s importance to the Jews:
Thus Jews are taught to have the name of God on their lips from early childhood to the moment of death.
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 prayerful recitation of the Shema is also to be a part of the believing Jew’s everyday life.
The next two articles explore how this Old Testament creedal statement 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.
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