One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `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 mind and with all your strength.'” Mark 12:28-30
Jesus’ words that the most important commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart are very familiar to us. Many readers also know that Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 when he said this. By starting with the words “Hear O Israel…” he was beginning to say the Shema, a prayer of daily commitment to God that Jews have said since Jesus’ time up until today.
One thing that might strike us as odd is that Jesus quotes the first line of that prayer that reads, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” in the New International version and others. Why is that so important to declare that God is one?
In Hebrew, the word is echad, which can mean one. It can also mean together, alone, only or unified. Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity or the deity of Christ. Christian evangelists say in response that echad can mean a compound unity, as when Adam and Eve together were echad (Genesis 2:24). This discussion of the word echad hinges on the idea that Deuteronomy 6:4 is meant as a creedal statement about monotheism, and what kind of being God is.
Interestingly, the most authoritative Jewish text, the Tanakh by the Jewish Publication Society, says that the best reading of this phrase really is not “one,” but “alone.” So instead of reading this sentence as, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is more accurate to read it as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Scholars in the past few decades believe that the original, ancient sense of echad here was much more likely to be “alone” than “one.” Part of why they conclude this is because of Zechariah 14:9, which says “The Lord will be king over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be one and His name one.” (Zechariah 14:9, JPS). Here echad really means “alone.” This is a vision of the messianic age, where all of humanity will cease to worship idols and revere only God, and call on his name alone.
Recognizing the true meaning of echad changes the whole sentence so that instead of being a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for a person’s absolute allegiance to God. God alone is the one we should worship, him only shall we serve. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.
Western Christians are used to reciting statements of belief, so we can misunderstand this as saying that Jesus saw it as extremely critical that we believe in God’s “one-ness.” But when properly understood, it shows that the greatest commandment is not just the mental belief in monotheism, but is actually a call to entirely commit ourselves to the true God, him and him alone.
 The Jewish Bible: Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1985).
To explore this topic more, see chapter 2, “Shema: Living Out What You Hear” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 21-41.
Photo: Yaniv Ben-Arie