“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is one,” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this text for Israel or for the follower of Jesus.
For Israel, it was spoken to them as they were f-i-n-a-l-l-y about to enter the land of Canaan. The previous generation of Israelites was supposed to inherit the land but they had died in the wilderness due to their unbelief. Even their leader Moses would not be entering the land due to an act of unbelief on his part (Numbers 2:2-12; Deuteronomy 3:23-26). So, it’s a monumental moment for the nation and God wanted them to be prepared for it. That’s why Moses ties the law in with the land in v. 1-3. They are inextricably related and the principal law is “The Lord our God, The Lord is one.”
Following Brueggemann (who follows McBride), I think we are to understand “the Lord is one” as a self-revelation made with idolatry in mind. After all, that’s what Israel came out of in Egypt, it was part of their wilderness experience, and it’s what they were going to be exposed to in Canaan.
Like the golden calf pictured, idolatry appeared sleek and shiny. What could be wrong with bowing down to a beautiful image? But idolatry never stopped in the abstract stage. It always served as a catalyst for evil (Exodus 32:5-6; Numbers 25:1-3) and the worst kinds of destructiveness (Leviticus 18:21). Yes, it was sleek and shiny but underneath as Jesus would say in another context, it was full of “dead people’s bones and all uncleanness,” (Matthew 23:27 ESV).
But there was something more. At the heart of idolatry was chaos, fragmentation, and destruction. There was no overarching unity or harmony to life or the universe. Only a multiplicity of gods with conflicting agendas and competing interests. It was up to people to sort through all of the confusion and somehow keep the gods placated. In Athens, they felt this uncertainty and had built an altar to the unknown god because . . . well, you just couldn’t be sure and you didn’t want to offend any of the gods. Predictably, here was little peace or refuge to be found in idolatry. Appeasement was the best one could hope for.
In Yahweh’s self-revelation that “The Lord is one,” Israel was not only to understand that idolatry and its attendant behaviors were wrong, but to hear these words about Yahweh as a statement concerning the most fundamental realities of the universe. Despite appearances, despite idolatry’s reflection of those appearances, there was and is a oneness and an overarching harmony to the universe and life because “the Lord is one.” The Creator and Sustainer of all things is one and so ultimately is everything He made. Understanding this would bring peace and refuge and keep the nation from falling into the abyss of idolatry.
These words are equally important to the follower of Jesus. In answering a question about the most important command, Jesus didn’t demur, hesitate, or say something about how they all were important. He identified what Moses said in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as “the most important one” (Mark 12:29). I think they serve the same purpose for us that they did for Israel. They push us away from our idols of self, status, comfort, wealth, entertainment and whatever else we might be tempted by. They remind us that life is in God and in nothing else. He is not a niche god who controls only a small sector of reality and must compete with other gods of individualism, media, science & technology, and the like. As Paul would say to those who those whose lives were dominated by the regional gods of idolatry, Yahweh is the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He isn’t part of the picture; He is the picture!
When you have relationship with this God in all His immensity, it allows you, like Israel, to live in the land of promise. If your God is something less, then you’re probably still knocking around in the wilderness.
Where are you living these days?