by Lois Tverberg
Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient (shema)! (Exodus 24:7)
The word that means “hear or listen,” shema (pronounced “shmah”) is an excellent example of the difference between Hebrew, which stresses physical action and Greek and Western culture that stresses mental activity.
Listening, in our culture, is a mental activity, and hearing just means that our ears pick up sounds. But in Hebrew, the word shema describes hearing and also its effects – taking heed, being obedient, doing what is asked. Any parent who yells at their children, “Were you listening?” when they ignore a command to pick up their rooms understands that listening should result in action. In fact, almost every place we see the word “obey” in the Bible, it is translated from the word shema.
The word shema is also the name of the “pledge of allegiance” that Jesus and other observant Jews up until this day have said every morning and evening. It is the first word of the first line,
“Hear (Shema), O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might… ” (Deut. 6:4-5)
By saying this, a Jew would remind himself of his commitment to love God, to dedicate himself to following God and doing his will. Some Jews teach their children the Shema as soon as they learn to talk! It is the central affirmation for a Jewish person of his or her commitment to the Lord. The word shema here again means, “take heed!” or “listen and obey!”
This gives us a clue of why Jesus says,
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” He is calling us to put his words into action, not just listen. He wants us to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. (James 1:22)
We as Westerners put all our stress on what is in our minds, and tend to consider action as “dead works.” But Hebrews understood that we have not truly put what we have heard into our hearts until it transforms our lives as well.
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).