How to Love the Lord

Learning about Jesus’ Jewish culture never ceases to add depth to his words. For instance, it appears that Jesus was involved in some of the same key discussions that other rabbis participated in. One important rabbinic discussion that was going on in Jesus’ time focused on the question, “Mah hu clal gadol b’Torah?” – literally, “What is commandment-big of the Law?” We can hear those very words being asked of Jesus in Mark:

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.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31, NIV)

Jesus didn’t use his own words to summarize the Torah for the lawyer. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the first two lines of the Shema (pronounced “Shmah”), the “pledge of allegiance” that Jesus as an observant Jew would have said every morning and evening. By doing this, a Jew would remind himself of his commitment to love God, to dedicate himself to following God and doing his will.

The rabbis of Jesus’ day said that when a person prayed the Shema, he “received upon himself the kingdom of God,” meaning that he was placing God as king over his life. 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. (Jesus’ next statement, “love your neighbor,” is from Leviticus 19:18. You can read about it here.)

Many have heard of the Shema. But it is helpful to unpack some of the richness of these lines that were central to Jesus and to his faith. Let’s look at some of what it means. First, lets look at the saying in Hebrew:

Shema (Hear)
Israel,
Adonai (the Lord)
elohenu (our god)
Adonai (the Lord)
echad! (one/alone)

Shema” is the first word and is usually translated “Hear!” But the word shema actually has a stronger meaning than that. It has the sense of “take heed” or “obey.” In fact, when we see the word “obey” in English in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word behind it is usually “shema”! When Jesus says “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” he really means, “you have heard my teaching, now take it to heart and obey it!” Likewise, the Shema is telling the Israelites to obey – to act out their belief in the Lord, not just to “hear.”

The word “echad” in Hebrew is the word for one. Jews and Christians have often debated its meaning, since Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity. Christians point out that it can mean a compound unity, like one bunch of grapes. But, the widely used Jewish translation of the Scriptures, the JPS Tanakh, says that the best reading of the word in this phrase really is not “one” but “alone.” So, instead of reading that 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!”

This changes the emphasis of the whole sentence so that instead of being a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for their absolute allegiance to God. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Let’s look at the next phrase in Deuteronomy,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

On the surface, we think we understand heart, soul and strength, but knowing the Hebrew background of the words adds great richness to this command.

Heart (levav) in Hebrew does not just mean your emotions, but also means your mind and thoughts as well. So we are to use all of our thoughts to love the Lord – as Paul says, we “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5). In the gospels the phrase “and all your mind” is there to emphasize that fact, but from Moses’ time it would have been understood that way as well. Whenever we read “heart” in the Old Testament we should understand it in terms of the intellect as well as the emotions, because in Hebrew, it can mean your mind.

Soul (nephesh) also can have a different sense in Hebrew than just your “spirit” or “emotions.” Nephesh means “life” as well as “soul.” So the Jewish interpretation is that you are to love the Lord with all of your life, meaning with every moment throughout your life, and be willing even to sacrifice your life for him. If Jews are able, they will quote the Shema at their death to make a final commitment to the God of Israel. Many a Jewish martyr has exclaimed the Shema with his last breath as a testimony to that fact.

Strength (me’od) is an unusual word usage which really means “much” or “very”. You could translate the passage “with all of your much-ness” or “with all of your increase”. It is interpreted to mean “with everything that you have” — your money, your time, your possessions and your family. Loving God with everything you have is a high calling indeed!

So, as we re-read Jesus’ favorite law from Jesus’ favorite book, we can capture it in this modern way:

“Listen up, Israel – The Lord is your God, he, and he alone!! You should love him with every thought that you think, live every hour of every day for him, be willing to sacrifice your life for him. Love him with every penny in your wallet and everything that you’ve got!”

AMEN!

~~~~~

To explore this topic more, see chapter 3, “Loving God with Everything You’ve Got” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 42-54.

Time to Pray

by Bruce Okkema

But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.” Luke 5:15-16

“It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God.” Luke 6:12

When I examine my life as to whether I am spending enough time in prayer, I have yet to be able to say that I am. Even when I devote a lot of time to this, it seems I can always do more. Is this true for you as well?

Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer everyday as we read in many accounts throughout the gospels. As a faithful Jewish man, he would have prayed the full Shema1 twice every day, as well as the “Amidah” or “18 Benedictions”2 at the very least. If you try this yourself, you might be surprised at how long it takes, but you will begin to realize why this was done.

Perhaps you do want to pray more, but you just can’t think of any new ways to make your prayer life deeper. You are not alone, there are many people who feel this way and as long as you make a commitment to do something about it, you can be encouraged that there are many places to turn for help.

The best place to start, is to pray specifically for God’s help in improving your prayer life. It is almost certain you will get a positive answer; can you imagine that the Lord would not help you in this? You can also begin using scripture as a guide for your prayers. Study some of the great prayers of Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter … praying them for yourself. Also, look at any Christian bookstore and you will find many books on prayer with good ideas about where to start and suggestions on methods to use.

Of course the difference is not made by the quantity of time you spend in prayer or about a particular method you use, but rather your sincerity in doing it. Try to follow Jesus’ example of praying often and praying long. You will find that that more time you spend in prayer, the more time you will want to spend in prayer.


(1) See the English Translation of the text of the full Shema
(2) ”The Amidah Prayer: A New Translation” by David Bivin

Humility in Prayer

by Bruce Okkema

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: `God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. `I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ ” Luke 18:9-12

It would be surprising if any of us reading this article would admire a prayer such as this. Yet one does not have to go far, perhaps only inside our own hearts, to find someone trying to justify himself through comparison to others. To do so, is to forget that the God to whom we pray already knows all about our accomplishments —and all our sins.

Picture an example in which a boy has stolen some candy from a store. The proprietor has reported the theft to the parents, but has left the discipline up to them. Then the child goes to confess his sin unaware that his parents already know exactly what he did. How forgiving will the parents be if their son makes excuses, or blames someone else, or lies about what was taken? Will anything less than a complete, truthful confession do any good? Likely not.

Some of you will remember that in our Water From the Rock article entitled “Da’at Elohim – Knowledge of God,” Lois wrote that the Hebrew word used for knowledge is “yadah” which means to know intimately.1 Several places in the Hebrew scriptures, in different contexts, this same word is used for “confession.” So one gets the sense that this is an intimate, personal knowledge of one’s own sin, perhaps a private act known only to ourselves in some cases. How can we rightfully petition Our Lord and expect Him to act justly if we are not honest with Him?

We can learn from the practice of observant Jews who recite the Sh’ma in the morning upon rising, and in the evening before retiring to affirm their commitment to God. Prior to the evening recitation, they will also say the following:

Blessed are You, Oh Lord our God, King of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me – whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought or notion … May no man be punished because of me. May it be Your will, my God and the God of my forefathers, that I may sin no more. Whatever sins I have done before You, may You blot out in your abundant mercies …. May the expressions of my mouth and thoughts of my heart find favor before You, my Rock and My Redeemer. (Ps 19:4)2

So in the words of James,” … confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (5:16). Finally, listen carefully to our Lord’s opinion of these prayers and apply it:

But the tax collector, standing some distance away, unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven, but rather was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’

I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. Luke 18:13-14


(1) See Da’at Elohim, by Lois Tverberg
(2) The Book of Jewish Values by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Day 270, quoting a prayer from the ArtScroll Prayer Book pg 288-89.

The Lord Alone

by Lois Tverberg

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.

Hebrew Text

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.” This 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.


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

Truth Before and After Jesus

by Lois Tverberg

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40

Jesus’ words that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor are paralleled elsewhere among the rabbis. About 100 years after Jesus, Rabbi Akiva commented about “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 18:19) that “This is the great principle of the Torah.”1 Akiva could have heard it indirectly from Jesus, but in the book of Jubilees, from about 100 years before Jesus, it is commanded that we should “love each his neighbor, and to behave towards all men as one treats oneself” (Jub. 20:2).2 So here we also read the “love your neighbor” command along with the Golden Rule in a text that precedes Jesus’ words.

It can be challenging to faith to hear that some of Jesus’ most famous teachings are found in the culture both before and after him. We often imagine that the world was utterly black and devoid of sense before Jesus came to utter the great truths of God. In reality, we find that God had spent centuries training up a people to understand him, and in the final years before he came, he had prepared them especially to receive him.

Ark of the CovenantA few hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people returned to their land and rebuilt their temple after being exiled for 70 years. Knowing that the exile was punishment for disobedience, they bore an earnest desire to observe God’s laws and study the Scriptures like never before.

Some returnees settled in places far from the Temple, and gathered in a new thing called a “synagogue.” There, instead of sacrifices, they emphasized study and memorization of the Scriptures, so that people became deeply literate in the Bible, learning much of it by heart. Even in their homeland the Jews endured terrible persecution by the Greeks and Romans for their piety. Together these things made Jesus’ audience long for God to send someone to save them from their suffering, and search the Scriptures to find God’s promises for the Messiah.

It was then, I think, that the Spirit started speaking to people through the Scriptures, pointing out great truths of God like “love your neighbor as yourself.” These ideas began to emerge from Jesus’ people even before he arrived. God loves all humanity and wants all to be saved, and he gives everyone some sense of truth. But God was preparing the Jewish people to understand Jesus’ profound words like no other time and place. Although some didn’t recognize him as the Messiah, hearing his words in light of the thought of his time is often tremendously helpful.

Jesus and Disciples
People mistakenly believe that none of the Jews of Jesus’ time believed in him. To the contrary, Acts 21:20 reports that “tens of thousands believed” in Jerusalem alone, an area that was more hostile to Jesus than elsewhere. Some scholars estimate that between 10 – 30% of all Jews may have believed in Jesus.3 If this is true, it’s possible that Paul’s struggle with “the unbelief of the Jews” was not that none believed, but that not all of them believed.

Instead of being threatened by hearing that similar ideas to Jesus’ came both before and after him, we can be encouraged that God was giving people insights that would help them see the One who was standing before them.


1 Sifra 89b; a comment on Lev. 19:18. Sifra is a very early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus.

2 The book of Jubilees is from the apocrypha, non-canonical Jewish writings that date about 200 years before Jesus.

New Testament scholar David Bivin discusses the possibility that a sizable fraction of the Jewish population believed in Jesus at this link.

Photo: Vassil and Museum of Málaga

Did Jesus Use Parables to Hide His Meaning?

by Lois Tverberg

“The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. “Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. “Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. “Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.”

As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. And He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. “Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. ” – Luke 8:4-10

Sometimes parables make us scratch our heads, and it can seem that Jesus was using them to deliberately confuse people. But even though they seem strange to us, they were a traditional teaching method that was always used to clarify rather than obscure.

Sower and SoilLooking at this passage in more depth, Jesus is actually explaining why his parables make sense to some people and not to others. Here he tells the parable of the sower – that the same seed that grows well in good soil does not take root on the path, and produces little in rocky or thorny ground. The seed is always good, but the soil of human hearts may or may not be. The reason people don’t understand Jesus’ teachings is not because he is hiding anything. The lack of understanding is a problem with the hearer, not the speaker.

The difficulty is beyond just the ability to understand, but to receive his teaching in order to obey it. In Hebrew, the word for hear, “shema,” also means to “obey.” In fact, almost every time the word “obey” is found in English, it has been translated from “shema.” That is how one can hear, but not “hear.”

Another way he says this is by his quotation from the Old Testament. He is quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, when God commissions Isaiah as a prophet to Israel. God did not send Isaiah to confuse the people with obscure teachings, but to clearly proclaim God’s word to them. But God says to Isaiah at his commission almost sarcastically,

Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed. – Isaiah 6:10

Really, God is not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though God knows his teaching will be rejected by many. Jesus is saying the same thing – that like the prophets he speaks to clarify God’s word, but from hardness of heart, many will not hear or obey him.


Photo: Sts. Konstantine and Helen Orthodox Church, Cluj, Romania.

Levav – Heart, Mind

by Lois Tverberg

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. – Deuteronomy 6:5

In Hebrew, the heart (lev or levav) is the center of human thought and spiritual life. We tend to think that the heart refers mainly to our emotions, but in Hebrew it also refers to one’s mind and thoughts as well.

Many cultures assumed that the heart was the seat of intelligence, and without an advanced understanding of physiology, it makes sense. The heart is the only moving organ in the body, and strong emotions cause the heartbeat to race. When the heart stops beating, a person is dead. Because the Hebrews were a concrete people who used physical things to express abstract concepts, the heart was the metaphor of the mind and all mental and emotional activitiy.

Other interesting physical terms are also used – when we read “inmost being” the Hebrew often is literally “kidneys” (Prov. 23:16), and the life was understood to be in the blood (Genesis 9:4).

Understanding that the word “heart” often meant mind and thoughts often helps clarify the meaning of passages. For instance:

“These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.” (Deut. 6:6)
means
These commandments are to be in your minds, a part of all your thoughts.

“The heart of the wise instructs his mouth and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” (Prov. 16:23)
means
The wise person’s mind considers his words so that he can speak persuasively.

One more lesson we can learn from the meaning of heart is from the greatest commandment, to “love the Lord with all your heart.” It means we are to use all of our thoughts as well as our emotions to love the Lord. In the Gospels the phrase “and all your mind” is there to emphasize that fact, but from Moses’ time it would have been understood that way. As Paul says, we must “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Shema – Hear and Obey

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.

Me’odeka

by Mary Okkema

“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” – Deuteronomy 6:5

“There are some words which no one should attempt to translate from Hebrew,” to quote my current Hebrew teacher. Sometimes the meaning is so rich, to translate it into one or two specific terms greatly diminishes it. Such is the case for the word me’odeka (mem aleph dalet chaf-sofit). In this portion of the second phrase of the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:5 we are told to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” … but what is all (your) “me’odeka”?

A local teacher threw out this challenge a few years ago and I took it personally. The challenge was, “if your body is flabby your faith tends to be flabby.” We had learned how hard it was to live in the land of Israel where everything seems to be uphill. As a result of this teaching and as I began preparing to live in that environment for awhile, I took up the challenge of trimming the flabby body. During this journey I learned many things, but the main thing I learned is the meaning of the word me’odeka. If you have ever undertaken a fitness regimen like Body for Life, you know the challenge of lifting that weight for just one more repetition or adding just one more pound to your weightlifting routine. The result can bring tears to your eyes. This kind of straining with all of your being is to experience what the word me’odeka means. Some people describe what it means as “umph.” The definition in the biblical glossary is: “exceedingly, much, force or abundance,” but it means so much more!

So take up the challenge! Hebrews 12:11 & 13 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful… Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees…” and love the Lord with all (your) me’odeka.