Relevant Verses: Deuteronomy 6:4, 5; 10:12
Theme: All You Need Is Love
Leading Question: How do you love God?
The book of Deuteronomy is saturated with the language of love. The Hebrew root a-h-v for “love” appears in Deuteronomy 23 times. Deuteronomy is a book about societal beatitude and the transformative power of love.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, nothing could be more misleading and unfair than the contrast that is so often drawn between the New Testament as promoting a religion of love and forgiveness and the Old Testament as speaking of a religion of law and retribution. Forgiveness is born in the stories of the Old Testament. Interpersonal forgiveness begins when Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. Divine forgiveness is central to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) as the supreme day of divine pardon following the sin of the Golden Calf.
Similarly with love: when the New Testament speaks of love it does so by direct quotation from the book of Leviticus (“You shall love your neighbour as yourself”) and Deuteronomy (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might”). As philosopher Simon May puts it in his splendid book, Love: A History (pgs. 19–20): “The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye,’ while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history. For the Hebrew Bible is the source not just of the two love commandments but of a larger moral vision inspired by wonder for love’s power.”
The love with which God created the universe is not just divine. It is to serve as the model for us in our humanity. We are bidden to love the neighbour and the stranger, to engage in acts of kindness and compassion, and to build a society based on love. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awesome God who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Soyou must love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:18–19). In short: God created the world in love and forgiveness and asks us to love and forgive others.
Genesis contains many references about love. Abraham loves Isaac. Isaac loves Esau. Rebecca loves Jacob. Jacob loves Rachel. He also loves Joseph. There is interpersonal love in plentiful supply. But almost all love in Genesis turns out to be divisive. It leads to tension between Jacob and Esau, between Rachel and Leah, and between Joseph and his brothers. Implicit in the stories in Genesis is the profound observation that love in and of itself is not sufficient as a basis for society until it is combined with justice. Hebrew tzedek, “justice,” turns out to be another key word of Deuteronomy, appearing 18 times. Love and justice must go hand in hand. As May writes in Love: A History (pg. 17):
[W]hat we must note here, for it is fundamental to the history of Western love, is the remarkable and radical justice that underlies the love commandment of Leviticus. Not a cold justice in which due deserts are mechanically handed out, but the justice that brings the other, as an individual with needs and interests, into a relationship of respect. All our neighbours are to be recognised as equal to ourselves before the law of love. Justice and love therefore become inseparable.
Love without justice leads to rivalry, and eventually to hate. Justice without love is devoid of the humanizing forces of compassion and mercy. We need both. This unique ethical vision – the love of God for humans and of humans for God, translated into an ethic of love toward both neighbour and stranger – is the foundation of Western civilization and its abiding glory. It is born here in the book of Deuteronomy, the book of law-as-love and love-as-law.
Question: How important is it for you to demonstrate your love for God by obeying His commandments?
One of the most important prayers in the Jewish religion is taken from Deuteronomy 6. It is known as “The Shema,” because of the first Hebrew word in v. 4, which comes from the root, shama‘, which means “to listen.” The first line of The Shema reads like: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai echad, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut 6:4).
The Shema has high significance in Jewish tradition from very early times. This is reflected by the fact that in a liturgical text, in the Nash Papyrus, dating to the second century AD, The Shema appears immediately after the Decalogue. Also, in a first-century phylactery text found in Cave 8 at Qumran, The Shema is written in a rectangle and surrounded by other texts. To this day, orthodox Jews recite The Shema twice daily as part of their prayers in the morning when they wake up, and at night before they fall asleep following the instruction in Deut 6:7. Some Jewish groups take the command “bind them as a sign on your hand and as frontals on your forehead” (v. 8) to mean that God’s laws in written form should literally be bound to the body. Others have understood these instructions as symbolic emphasizing the need to remember the commandments of God.
It would seem logical that in a book of commands as Deuteronomy to have a verb that means “obey.”
Yet there is no verb in biblical Hebrew that means to obey. This is an astonishing fact.
So glaring is the lacuna that when Hebrew was revived in modern times a verb had to be found that meant “to obey.” It was obviously necessary, for example, in the case of Israel’s defence forces. An army depends on obedience to the command of a superior officer. The word chosen was . . . an Aramaic word that does not appear in this sense in the Hebrew Bible. The Torah itself uses a quite different word, namely shema, meaning, “to hear, to listen.”1Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2019), 66.
In Deuteronomy, the verb “to listen” appears ninety-two times. It’s meaning is wide-ranging:
- To pay focused attention, as in “Be silent, Israel, and listen” (Deut 27:9)
- To hear, as in “I heard your voice in the garden” (Gen 3:10)
- To understand, as in “Let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Gen 11:7)
- To internelise, take to heart, as in “As for Ishmael, I have heard you” (Gen 17:20)
- To respond in action, as in “What Sarah says to you, do as she tells you” (Gen 21:12).
It is in the last sense that the verb “listen” is closest to a sense of “obey,” and yet, it is not the same. The Hebrew verb shama is untranslatable in its full and deep meaning of the word. To listen in Hebrew is not to obey blindly, without thinking or questioning. The commands in Deuteronomy are nor the arbitrary will of God. To the contrary, they were given for the benefit of the people.
Question: Why is love not enough to keep a relationship going?
In most cases, the laws in Deuteronomy are grounded in Israel’s history of slavery in Egypt. The people knew from personal experience what it meant to live in an unjust and tyrannical regime. For that reason, the people who have been freed from slavery must be just, compassionate, and generous. Slaves must rest on Sabbath, depts must be cancelled, the poor should not go without food. In other words, when God commands something or asks to refrain form something, it is not because of an arbitrary will, but because He cares for every human being. And so, God does no demand blind obedience, instead He wishes us to pay close attention and understand why the commandmant is important.
Shema Israel then means, “Hear. Listen. Give the word of God your most focused attention. Understand. Engage all your faculties, intellectual, emotional. Make His will your own. For what He commands you to do is not irrational or arbitrary but for your welfare and that of your people, ultimately for the benefit of all human beings.”
There is something profoundly spiritual about listening, both, listening to God and listening to one another. It is one of the most effective ways of conflict resolution. Many things can create conflict, but what sustains it is the feeling on the part of one who has not been heard. We have not “heard their pain.” There has been a failure of empathy, a failure of “love . . . with all your heart and with all your sould and with all your might” (Deut 6:5).
Question: Could it be that God needs us to listen to Him? Could it be that He wants us to hear His pain? How would it look like if we would truly show empathy for the God we so often say we love?