Translating the Shema

The Shema, the Jewish proclamation of faith in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, has been interpreted in a variety of ways.  In this paper, the four commonly debated interpretations will be assessed resulting in a more precise interpretation.

Translation demands that the context of the Shema must first be explored.  Craigie draws a connection to the Israelite revelation during the Exodus, “’Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?’ (Exodus 15:11) In the Exodus, the Israelites had discovered the uniqueness of their God and that the Egyptians ‘gods’ could do nothing to stop the Lord’s people leaving Egypt.” (Craigie 169)  Balentine chooses to apply the Shema as God’s formalization of this Israelite revelation into a creed, “…Torah’s vision may function more as a corrective of present failure than as an announcement of future success.” (Balentine 180)  No longer monotheistic, the Israelite theology had been shaped by the influences of regional theologies.  The golden calf illustrates this syncretism, a form of god never worshipped before the captivity in Egypt.  The Shema as a corrective mandate applied upon the revelation of YHWH as superior to all other gods would be digestible by the Israelite community.

With this in mind, the possible interpretations can be assessed.  Weinfeld provides four possibilities: “’Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one’….’Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone’…’Yahweh our God is one Yahweh’…’Yahweh our god, Yahweh is one’”  (Weinfeld 337)  Translating the first phrase as “Yahweh is our God” should not be considered. Throughout the Torah, YHWH Eloheinu, eloheinu always stands in apposition to YHWH, resulting in the translation “Yahweh, our God.”  The second phrase, YHWH ehad leads to a variety of possibilitiesChristensen points out ‘C.H. Gordon has suggested, “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is ‘One’.  The late M. Dahood translated the whole verse as follows ‘Obey, Israel, Yahweh.  Yahweh our God is Unique.’  S.D. McBride rendered it: ‘Our God is Yahweh, Yahweh alone!’”.   (Christensen 143)  Rad keeps the purpose of the Shema local in stating that “Yahweh alone” is more likely over “one Yahweh.”  First, the Shema could be in anticipation of the Baal cult.  Second, such a claim shows the uniqueness of Yahweh among all the various traditions without falsifying the other traditions.  (Rad 63)  Weinfeld further adds to the case of aloneness in looking for parallels in the local traditions.  “That oneness in reference to a god involves aloneness is also used in reference to the god Enlil in a Sumerian dedication inscription: ‘Enlil is the lord of heaven and earth, he is king alone’…  Similarly, we read about the god Baal or Mot in Ugartic literature, ‘I am one (alone) who rules over the gods.’  (Weinfeld 338)   To refine the translation, Kraut, in his research of the Shema, contends that the repetition of YHWH can be taken poetically and not semantically, making room for the possibility of merging the two YHWH instances into one during translation.  (Kraut 593)  Given the timeframe context, the history of the Jewish people, and the parallels of local traditions, the first verse of the Shema is most accurately translated as “Yahweh, our God, is alone (among other gods).”

The point of contention in the second verse of the Shema is the understanding of the emotion, love.  Rad shows the uniqueness of this proclamation of love by highlighting that, until now, God had not limited the response of Israel to a single emotion; therefore this usage of love must encompass all the other preceding emotional forms, forms such as “fear”, “honor”, “be faithful to”, etc…  (Rad 63)  However, as Weinfeld clarifies “In Deuteronomy the term love has a special meaning of loyalty, as in the vassal loyalty oaths…”  (Weinfeld 338)  This servant love for his master is the love that extends to all the aspects of the remaining components of the Shema.  A servant’s heart is loyal to his master.  As Janzen defines, a servant’s soul or being is revealed in his thoughts and desire.  (Janzen 251)  A servant’s might includes all his abilities and resources.  Keeping in mind the vassal loyalty model of love, the second verse of the Shema should be interpreted as “You will love YHWH your God with all your heart (passion and loyalty) and with all your thoughts and with all your strength (ability and resources).”

Therefore, the Shema, as understood by the Exodus community could be translated as “Yahweh, our God, is alone (among other gods).  You will love YHWH your God with all your heart (passion and loyalty) and with all your thoughts and with all your strength (ability and resources).”

Works Cited

Balentine, Samuel H. The Torah’s Vision of Worship. Fortress Press, 1999. Print.

Christensen, Duane L. WORD BIBLICAL COMMENTARY Volume 6A: DEUTERONOMY 1-11. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1999. Print.

Craigie, Peter C. The Book of Deuteronomy. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976. Print.

Janzen, J Gerald. “The Claim of the Shema.” Encounter 59.1-2 (1998): 243–257. Print.

Kraut, Judah. “Deciphering the Shema: Staircase Parallelism and the Syntax of Deuteronomy 6:4.” Vetus testamentum 61.4 (2011): 582–602. Print.

Rad, Gerhard von. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. 2nd Revised edition edition. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1966. Print.

Weinfeld, Moshe. Deuteronomy 1-11. 1st edition. New York: Anchor Bible, 1991. Print.



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