Hear, oh Israel

Interesting thing about hearing – we so often misunderstand other people, even when we think we’re hearing them right. How many times have you had someone say “I hear you, I feel exactly the same…” and as they continue, you see that they’ve completely missed your point and gone off on their own tangent…

There’s a bit in the Bible that’s super central in Judaism and it starts with a call to hear, and yet we’ve been misinterpreting it for ages. We’ve been hearing the words, and missing what they really mean. It’s so easy to do that with a well-known text, with stuff you’ve been hearing and reciting again and again and again since forever. And especially when everyone around you shares the same understanding – I never noticed it until it was pointed out to me, but once you see what’s really going on there, it seems so obvious that you think, wow, how did I miss that…

What am I on about? It’s about what it means to be one.

Deuteronomy 6:4 (known as the Shema) is commonly translated into English as: Hear, oh Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.

This is traditionally taken to mean: only one. a single being. one as opposed to many.

Which gets kind of interesting when you realise that the Hebrew word translated as God is actually a plural noun (Elohim).

Yes, really. It’s literally a word that means: gods.

Oh, and the bit translated as “the LORD” is not, as it seems in English, a noun with a definite article – it’s a name, the name known as the Tetragrammaton, the sacred name of God which Jews don’t say out loud, and is sometimes transliterated as YHWH.

So a more literal way of rendering that verse in English would be:

Hear, oh Israel, YHWH our gods, YHWH is/are one.

[I added is/are to make it readable in English – in Hebrew there’s nothing there, as we don’t have the verb “to be” in present tense.]

So let me just repeat that, and let it sink in. A more literal translation of the Shema is:

Hear, oh Israel, YHWH our gods, YHWH is/are one.

It’s just that we don’t read it as that even when we know Hebrew, because we’re so used to regarding Elohim as a name for God and not thinking about it being a plural noun, and we’re so used to interpreting the word “one” in this verse in the “not many” sense.

But then this guy turns up in Roman-occupied Jerusalem and he’s asked if he’s the Messiah (because people have been hearing rumours about how he’s been healing the sick and making the blind see and raising the dead and that kind of stuff – the sort of stuff they were expecting the Messiah to do) and his answer includes this statement:


That’s not “one” as in “only one”. It’s not one as in: more than zero and less than two. It’s not “one” as opposed to many. It’s “one” as in: totally united. Like husband and wife are one. Like a nation can be one.

And the reaction of his hearers – here we’re going back to hearing: sometimes people misunderstand what they’re hearing, but in this case I’d say they understood perfectly well! – their reaction shows that they understood exactly what the “one” in the Shema really means, and what he was claiming. Because here’s what happened straight after he’d said that:

The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them: “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered him: “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” (John 10:31-33)

They were right: he was claiming to be God. He was making a reference to a verse they were very familiar with, a verse talking about YHWH, our Elohim, being one – united, as opposed to the idols worshipped by other nations at the time, idols who faught and squabbled among themselves. He was referring to that verse and saying: I’m part of this. I and the Father – we’re one, we’re united, we’re Elohim.

If this wasn’t true then what he said would have really been blasphemy.

As the writer C.S. Lewis pointed out:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said… would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.


p.s. Another bit of Hebrew trivia for you: we do have a word that can be used if you want to specify “single”, “one as opposed to many” – that word is Yachid. It appears in the Bible in several places, so if that was the point of the Deuteronomy verse, that word could have been used. But the word used here is Echad, which sometimes means single but other times it means: united. Plenty of times actually. 35 times according to Even Shoshan’s Hebrew Concordance, and he takes the traditional approach.



One thought on “Hear, oh Israel

  1. Pingback: What’s a nice Jewish girl doing in church? | Meirav's Soapbox

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