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“Echad” in the Shema

shema

by Paul Sumner

 

A case is often argued by some Bible expositors that the Hebrew adjective echad means a "compound unity." Thus, they say, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) literally means:

Hear, O Israel:
The LORD our God,
The LORD is a compound unity.

This translation is then taken to be primary evidence that the "Jewish Bible" teaches the triune nature of God. In my view this interpretation of echad in the Shema isn't correct. There are three reasons why.

First
Echad has a spectrum of meanings in the Hebrew Bible. To say it means "compound unity" puts the word in a tiny box that doesn't match its varied uses by the biblical writers. It's like saying the word elohim only refers to the true God. When, in fact, elohim is used for false gods or goddesses, angelic beings, the judges of Israel, the king of Israel, and the Messiah.

Second
The "Shema" (="Hear"; Deut 6:4) is not a creedal jewel suspended in mid-air. It exists within a theological context. It exists in the early, foundational chapters of Deuteronomy, and Deuternomy exists as the final chapter of the Chumash, the Torah. The specific placement of this crucial passage must have a bearing on how we interpret it.

Third
Yeshua told his disciples that he and the Father were "one" (John 10:30). He didn't define their oneness here. Later when he prayed to his Father on behalf of his disciples, he asked that they "may all be one, just as we are one" (John 17:21-22). Whatever this oneness may entail, we assume it doesn't mean his disciples would enter into cosmic spirit unity with transcendent deity, as in Neo-Platonism or modern New Age pantheism.
    Paul provides one definition of the unity of Yeshua's disciples: "The one who joins himself to the Lord [Messiah] is one SPIRT with him" (1 Cor 6:17). Elsewhere, he writes of those who "are standing firm in one SPIRIT, with one MIND striving together for the faith of the Gospel" (Phil 1:27). See synonyms of RUACH/SPIRIT. Elsewhere, he equates this SPIRIT with the "new man" or new nature, the nature of the Messiah.

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What Does echad Mean?

The Hebrew adjective echad occurs 970 times in the Tanakh. (Its feminine form, achat, is included in this total.) [Note 1]

"One"
By far, the most common meaning of echad (600+x) is the simple cardinal number "one."

Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place [maqom echad]. (Gen 1:9)

He took one of the man's ribs [achat mitzalotayv]. (Gen 2:21)

The man has become like one of Us [ke-achad mimmennu]. (Gen 3:22)

We are all sons of one man [ish echad]. (Gen 42:11)

The youngest is with our father today and one is no more. (Gen 42:13)

"First"
In its first appearance in the Bible echad is an ordinal number and means "first":

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day [yom echad].
(Gen 1:5b)
Some expositors say "yom echad" alludes to the composite nature of the day, since it consists of an evening and morning. Yet the subsequent days are also made of an evening and a morning, but they are numbered the "second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth" days of the week (1:8, 13, 19, 23, 31). This pattern shows that echad in v. 5b means "first," not "compound (day)."

The ordinal echad occurs elsewhere in Genesis:

The name of the first [ha-echad] is Pishon. (2:11)

On the first day [be-echad] of the month, the tops of the mountains became visible. (8:5b)

In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the water was dried up. (8:13)

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"Same"
Echad can signify "the same" or "one and the same."

Behold, they are one people [am echad] and they all have the same language [safah achat, fem.]. (Gen 11:6)

They both had a dream the same night [layelah echad]. (Gen 40:5)

Pharaoh's dreams are one and the same [halom echad hu]. (Gen 41:25)

"Singularity"
Echad can denote oneness as "singleness."
[The Passover] is to be eaten in a single house [bayit echad]. (Exod 12:46a)

The [menorah] was a single [achat] hammered work of pure gold. (Exod 37:22b)

They . . . cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes [eshkol anavim echad]. (Num 13:23)

Not a single word [davar echad] has failed of all He promised, which He promised through Moses His servant. (1 Kgs 8:56b)

Look to Abraham your father,
And to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain;
When he was one [single man] I called him,
Then I blessed him and multipled him. (Isa 51:2)

I will remove the iniquity of that Land in a single day [yom echad; same as Gen 1:5b] (Zech 3:9)

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"Undivided Oneness"
At times, echad denotes a unity of purpose or effort, or a shared condition.

The people answered with one voice [kol echad].(Exod 24:3)

Then I will give to the peoples purified lips,
That all of them may call on the name of YHVH,
To serve him with one shoulder [shechem echad]. (Zeph 3:9)

The Hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart [lev echad].
(2 Chron 30:12)

Genesis 2:24
This passage is a common focus of attention in discussions of the Shema.
[Adam and Eve] shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24)
Some expositors propose that our First Parents' oneness of flesh is a compound unity consisting of each other's physical being. But the verse points to the opposite. Before her creation, Eve was "in" Adam (Gen 2:22). Upon creation, she became a separated, though obviously related, distinct person.

Then God reversed the operation and rejoined them in a new way, in marriage. They are no longer apart: they are one single body. Eve is not now "in" Adam, but "with" him as his counterpart [kenegdo, v. 20b]. Their unity is not composite, but singularly whole. The two, as male and female, are now one Human — one "Adam" (Gen 3:22, 24).

Ezekiel 37
Similarly, in Ezekiel 37 God plans one day to bring together the two rebellion-split houses of Israel and Judah. There will not be a king in the Northern Kingdom Israel and a king in the Southern Kingdom Judah. God will take their two "sticks" (symbols of their authority) and rejoin them as one scepter under "David," the future Messiah.

I will make them an undivided nation [goy echad] in the Land . . .
One single King [melech echad] will be king for all of them,
And they will no longer be two nations,
And they will no longer be divided into two kingdoms. (Ezek 37:22)

Some believe this union of the two kingdoms is also a compound or composite unity of two parts. But that's precisely not the point here. Their once individual, self-willed identities will disappear; they will become one nation, indivisible, under God.

As originally intended, the one people will be ruled by Messiah, the One.

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"Uniqueness"
Finally, echad has another nuance of meaning that sheds light on the Shema.

We saw above that echad usually denotes the number "one" (as opposed to two, three, or 10 million). There is something about one thing that is like no other — a solitary "one-ity" that highlights uniqueness, one-of-a-kind-ness. Several things are unique in the Bible.

King David, in overwhelmed prayer, after being given the privilege of leading God's redemptive program on earth, asks the Lord:

Who is like Your people Israel,
a unique nation [goy echad] on earth? (2 Sam 7:23)
In the future, God will return to Har Zetim with his armies and radically change Jerusalem's geography. And that
will be a unique day [yom echad; same as Gen 1:5b]
which is known only to the LORD . . . . (Zech 14:7)

And on that Yom Echad . . .

YHVH will be king over all the earth;
in that day YHVH will be Echad [the only one],
and his name Echad [the only one]. (Zech 14:9)

In the Song of Songs, the young man describes his singularly peerless, inimitable, incomparable beloved:

My dove, my perfect one, is unique [achat; fem.] (Song 6:9a)

Yachad — The Real Word for Unity
When commentators declare (without making qualifications) that "echad means compound, composite unity," they haven't done the required lexical study. For example, the standard Hebrew word to denote joining, unity or togetherness is yachad, not echad.

He was King in Yeshurun,
When the heads of the people were gathered,
The tribes of Israel together [yachad]. (Deut 33:5)

My heart is turned over within Me,
All together [yachad] my compassions are kindled. (Hosea 11:8b)

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity [gam yachad]! (Ps 133:1)

In the Dead Sea Scrolls document The Community Rule (1QS, The Manual of Disciple), the group of priests and their disciples abiding at Qumran is called The Yachad: the Union, the Comm-Unity.

This is the rule for the men of the Yachad ... (5:1)
... the Yachad of the eternal covenant (5:5)
Whoever enters the council of the Yachad enters the covenant of God (5:7-8)

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How to Translate the Shema

In light of these sample passages, we must be open to reading the Shema with an open mind about what echad denotes. What are our options? What makes most sense, within the Bible?

The LORD is first.
The LORD is one [God].
The LORD is the same [as whom?]
The LORD alone.
The LORD is a single [Being, Deity, Elohim].
The LORD is a unified [Being, Deity, Elohim].
The LORD is unique, one and only [God].

Given the theme of YHVH's centrality in Deuteronomy (see below), and given the command aspect of the Shema ("and you shall love YHVH your God"), the sense of uniqueness seems most appropriate in this verse.

Here is how some Jewish versions render the Shema:

    Isaac Leeser: Hear, O Israel! The Lord, our God, is the One Eternal Being.
    Jewish Publication Society (1917): Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
    Joseph Hertz: Hear, O Israel, The LORD is our God, the LORD is one.
    Jewish Publication Society (1985): Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.

[Echad occurs in Deuteronomy at: 1:2, 3, 23; 4:42; 6:4; 12:14; 13:12; 15:7, 7;16:5; 17:2, 6, 6; 18:6; 19:5, 11, 15; 21:15, 15, 16 [Heb v. 17]; 24:5, 5, 11; 28:7, 25, 55; 32:30.]

The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Shema quite literally, except it does not transliterate the Tetragrammaton (YHVH):

greek-shema
[akoue israel, kurios ho theos kurios heis estin]
"Hear, Israel: (the) Lord our God (the) Lord is one."

He is God of Gods
The Bible never denies the reality of other "gods" (elim, elohim), though it calls them demons (Lev 17:7; Deut 32:17; 2 Chron 11:15). The commandment "You shall have no other elohim before me" is thus quite meaningful, else God would not have said it. [Consider the study Elohim in Biblical Context.]

All parts of the Hebrew Bible have a unified testimony:

Who is like You among the gods, O YHVH? (Exod 15:11a)

Who is a god like You . . . ? (Micah 7:18a)

For great is YHVH, and greatly to be praised;
He is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols. (Ps 96:4-5a)

YHVH your God is Elohim of elohim,
And Lord [Adonim] of lords [adonim]. (Deut 10:17)

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The Shema in Historical Context
The jewel of the Shema is mounted in an intricately crafted setting.

The book of Deuteronomy is the concluding "Law of Moses." It depicts the time when Moses is preparing the Second Generation to enter Canaan (without him). Their parents had escaped from Egypt and most died in the wilderness. He is instructing the children in their national history and teaching them God's torah about who He is and what they should do as His people in the Land.

Beyond this moment, in the wider biblical context, Israel is about to join a centuries-long battle with the people of Canaan and their primary god, Baal, son of El and Asherah (Astarte).

The Egyptians had numerous deities, whom the LORD humbled in the Ten Plagues. Following their decimation, he gave a spiritual banner to new-born Israel: "I am YHVH your God who brought you out of Egypt . . . you shall have no other Elohim (God or gods) before me" (Exod 20:2, 3).

For more details on the Ancient Near Eastern pantheons, see The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible [PDF, 26 pages].

Forty years later, in full view of the western hills of Canaan, Moses now gives the Second Generation the foundational doctrine about their unique ancestral God and about them, his unique people.

What great nation is there that has a god so close at hand
as is YHVH our God whenever we call upon him? (Deut 4:7)

Has anything as grand as this ever happened:
or has its like ever been known? . . .
Has any god ventured to go take for himself one nation
from the midst of another . . . as YHVH your God did for you in Egypt
before your very eyes? (Deut 4:32, 34)

It has been clearly demonstrated to you that YHVH alone is God
[YHVH hu ha'elohim ein od milvado]
in heaven above and on earth below;
there is no other [ein od]. (Deut 4:35)

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In effect, Moses then takes the premiere doctrine of the Decalogue and forms it into a national banner for the Second Generation to march under as they enter into Canaan:

Shema Yisrael — Hear, O Israel!
YHVH is our God. YHVH is Unique, He is the One and Only God.
The other elohim are idols and demons.
Because of this, you shall love YHVH your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut 6:4-5 my paraphrase)
[Note 2]

The Five Shemas
But this is not the only "Shema Yisrael" in Deuteronomy. There are others in this pre-Canaan primer for the Second Generation. And each one encourages the people to listen, obey, and trust the Lord their God.

Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I am speaking today in your hearing, that you may learn them and observe them carefully. (Deut 5:1)

Hear, O Israel! You are crossing over the Jordan today to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you . . . (Deut 9:1)

Hear, O Israel! You are approaching the battle against your enemies today. Do not be fainthearted. Do not be afraid, or panic, or tremble before them, for YHVH your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you. (Deut 20:3-4)

Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the LORD your God. (Deut 27:9)

Within the historical, pedagogical setting of Deuteronomy, the Shema Yisrael in 6:4 shines as a banner of faith in the unique God. It also reminds the hearers that His uniqueness and love for them should rightly produce reciprocal love for Him. [See The Seventh Shema.]

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The Shema in Later Times
Some six centuries after Moses and the national entry into Canaan, a later generation was apostacizing from the Lord. To bring them back, the prophet Elijah (whose name means "My God is YHVH") called for a spiritual Identity Contest on the mountain of Carmel. His question to the people was very simple:

Who is the true God?
Is it Baal, the fertility/storm god of the Canaanites [whom most Israelites are fawning over]?
Or is it YHVH, the Lord, the God of our fathers?

At the flaming conclusion of the contest — when Baal failed to send fire from heaven, but YHVH did — the wavering people made loud confession of the ancestral faith:

"YHVH hu haElohim, YHVH hu haElohim —
Yahveh he is the true God, Yahveh he is the true God ... [Baal is not]!"

(1 Kings 18:38)

The Shema, long before given through Moses, was now vindicated. A generation in peril chose it as their own creed and bowed the knee to the one, true, unique God. Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.

Finally, in some future era, prophet Zechariah foresees a time when the God of Israel is the only deity recognized on earth. In an apparent allusion to the Shema, he predicts.

The LORD will be king over all the earth;
in that day the LORD will be the only one (or "one") [YHVH echad]
and his name the only one [shemo echad] (Zech 14:7, 9)

The Hebrew and Ugaritic scholar Cyrus Gordon notes that Greeks in the 6th century BCE, at the time of Zechariah, called their Creator god "The One." Perhaps Zechariah's message contains a contemporary anti-Hellenist polemic along the lines of:

Only YHVH, the God of Israel, will be "The One" . . . and his name "The One" — contra any gods of the Greeks.

[C.H. Gordon, "His Name is One," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 29 (1970): 198-99]

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Context, Context, Context
Thus, in the whole expanse of Israelite history, the Shema declares YHVH's singular uniqueness as Israel's God. She was to listen (shama) to that declaration and obey (shama) its implications, and love the One who chose to reveal himself to her.

There is no internal evidence in the Hebrew Bible that any generation of Israelites understood the Shema as a reference to a compound unity in the Godhead.

Nor is there such evidence in the New Testament. [See the parallel idea that Yeshua is "unique," as is God, in the study HaYachid—The Unique Messiah (PDF).]

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Yeshua and the Shema

When a Torah scribe asked Yeshua which was the foremost commandment in the Law of Moses, he quoted the Shema and its appended command:

The foremost is, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your understanding, and with all your strength." (Mark 12:28-30)

He added the command to love one's neighbor found in Leviticus 19:18 as a corollary of loving God.

The scribe responded by affirming Yeshua's answer. Then he shifted focus to what seems to be a veiled reference to monotheism — perhaps to tempt Yeshua to make a statement about his identity. [Note 3]

Rabbi, teacher, you have truly stated that He is one,
and there is no one else besides him . . . (v. 32)

Yeshua didn't take the bait. Instead, "When Yeshua saw that he had answered intelligently [about the command to love], he said to him, 'You are not far from the kingdom of God' " (v. 34).

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Yeshua didn't take this discussion of the Shema as an opportunity to affirm a theoretical compound unity in the Godhead or his place in it. Rather, he pointed the scribe to the extraordinary passage in Psalm 110:1, which speaks of a "Lord" who sits next to YHVH.

YHVH said to my Lord [Adon],
Sit at my right hand,
Until I put your enemies beneath your feet.

Then Yeshua tested him with an exegetical question about that Lord's identity: "How is it that the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? [Ps 110:1] David himself calls him 'Lord': and so in what sense is he his son?" (Mark 12:25-37).

The scribe and his theological comrades apparently could not, or dare not, answer Yeshua. Instead, "No one was able to answer him a word . . ." (Matt 22:46).

Yeshua's diverting attention from the Shema to Psalm 110:1 is a significant move. In fact, Psalm 110:1 is the most quoted Hebrew text in the NT, more than Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22. He set the exegetical agenda for all his followers — and for Israel.

In essence, Psalm 110:1 is the other Shema in Hebrew Scripture. The one that completes the revelation of the one God to his people and to all peoples on earth.

Yeshua's shift of emphasis could become a vision-changing lesson for modern interpreters to follow his example — instead of the example of their teachers and rabbis.

Paul Sumner

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Notes

(1) According to Kohlenberg & Swanson's Hebrew English Concordance to the Old Testament, echad occurs 970 times in the Tanakh. Brown-Driver-Briggs' Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament says echad occurs 962 times. And, inexplicably, Abraham Even-Shoshan's Konkordantzia Hadashah Le'Torah Neviim Ukhtuvim says echad occurs only 699 times.   [return to text]

(2) Here are some renderings of the Shema in English Bibles, Jewish and Christian.

Hear, O Israel! The Lord, our God, is the One Eternal Being. (Isaac Leeser, The Holy Bible)

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Jewish Publication Society, 1917)

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. (Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society, 1985)

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. (New Revised Standard Version)

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (New International Version; New American Standard Bible; English Standard Version)

Listen, Israel! The LORD our God is the only true God! (Contemporary English Version)

Israel, listen to me. The LORD is our God. The Lord is the one and only God. (sic, New International Reader's Version)

[return to text]

(3) The statement by Yeshua, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), begs to be interpreted in light of this discussion of echad. In context, it seems clear that he was affirming a unity of purpose, will, and power with God the Father. His Father, who is "greater than all" (v. 29), had given him authority and divine power to keep all his sheep safe within the protected sphere of eternal life.
    He asked his Father that his disciples "may all be one, just as we are one" (John 17:21-22). What all their unity may be, it does not mean they become united into the one Deity, as in New Age pantheistic religion.
      Notwithstanding the accusations of the Jerusalem theologians that Yeshua, "being a man, [made himself] out to be God" (v. 33), he stood his ground that, as "Son of God" (v. 36), the Father was "in" him — not that he was God the Father. [Compare the study
The Two Lords.]
[return to text]

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