The meaning of “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Many religious individuals are familiar with the Great Shema. In fact, its words are recited by many with ease. But despite this vast and common familiarity, the precise meaning of the Great Shema is somewhat uncertain and rather debated. Namely, how is יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד to be translated and understood on a grammatical level? Further, is the Shema commenting on the nature of God, that is His oneness (monotheistic interpretation); or is it speaking to the uniqueness of God in relationship to Israel (exclusivity interpretation)? These matters will be investigated in the following brief paper.

Tigay translates יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד into English as “The LORD is our God, the Lord alone.” With such a rendering, he understands the phrase as “a description of the proper relationship between YHWH and Israel.” Rather than being a statement of monotheism, i.e., there exists only one true God, the Shema specifies YHWH, and YHWH alone, as Israel’s God. He provides the following two arguments for this position. (1) The first person plural pronominal suffix on אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ focuses attention on how Israel it to apply the Shema. (2) A parallel with Zechariah 14:9, which uses אֶחָד to designate exclusivity, supports this interpretation. “On that day,” Zechariah states, “the LORD will be one and his name one” (ESV). Clearly, אֶחָד in this instance does not refer to the divine nature (monotheism), for YHWH is and always has been one. On the contrary, according to Tigay, both Deuteronomy 6:4 and Zecharariah 14:9 use אֶחָד to refer to exclusivity, i.e., YHWH alone. Zechariah depicts a day in which YHWH will reign over all peoples. YHWH will be universally recognized as God; His reign will be unrivaled. He will be “one”; His name will be “one” (Tigay, 76). Merrill claims that the nearly poetic structure of יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד favors the rendering, “Yahweh (is) our God, Yahweh is one.” In other words, both incidences of יהוה are to be treated nominatively while אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ and אֶחָֽד serve as predicate nominatives. Provided this translation, Merrill seems to favor an overlapping view between the monotheistic and exclusivity interpretations. He states, “there is sufficient ambiguity as to allow the idea of God’s oneness as well as his uniqueness.” He argues that the monotheistic witness in the Shema testifies to God’s unity, self-consistency, and united purpose in creation and history (Merrill, 162-163). Although recognizing the possibility for various renderings, Craigie seems to assume a monotheistic understanding. For Craigie, the Shema tells of the uniqueness, unity, and oneness of God. It can even be described as “the fundamental monotheistic dogma of the OT.” Here YHWH is not presented merely as the first God among many, but the one and only God (Craigie, 168-169).

In conclusion, it would appear that the exclusivity interpretation provides a much more appropriate introduction to the subsequent commands (vv.5-9). In other words, the declaration of YHWH’s unique position in relationship to Israel segues directly into Israel’s obligation to love YHWH alone wholly and undividedly. Therefore, given this point as well as the parallel to Zechariah 14:9 mentioned by Tigay, I favor the exclusivity interpretation. Nonetheless, it should be noted that this interpretation does not preclude the monotheistic view. If YHWH, and YHWH alone, is to be treated as our God, it is no doubt because YHWH alone is God. Finally, Merrill’s comment that the seemingly poetic structure of יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד should be rendered as two predicate clauses, i.e., “YHWH is our God; YHWH is one,” is compelling and seems to make best sense of the grammar.