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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Deuteronomy 6

Verses 1-25

The Great Commandment and Israel’s Obligation (6:1-25)

God’s revelation to Moses, the mediator nominated by the people and accepted by God (5:27-31), now begins to be delineated. Its importance is stressed repeatedly in chapter 6 and following. It is on hearing and obeying it that the nation’s future in the land soon to be possessed will depend.

Moses rightly sees that God’s central requirement is recognition of his unity and uniqueness, and love of and loyalty to him on the part of man’s whole being (6:4-5).

That verse 4 stresses the unity and uniqueness of God, and thus puts positively what the first commandment of the Decalogue states negatively, seems clear in spite of the ambiguity of the Hebrew phrase which, literally translated, is simply: "The LORD our God the Loan one." The several possibilities of translation are listed in the margin of the Revised Standard Version. The problem centers in the meaning of the word "one." Does it affirm that Deity is not to be thought of as comprising many beings, each with differing characteristics, functions, and places and forms of worship, but rather as a unity? Does the passage affirm monotheism as against polytheism, "one" in contradistinction to "many"? Probably so; and if the Deity is truly one, then he is the only One. His unity and his uniqueness go together.

Having affirmed what God is, the passage next defines what man’s attitude toward him should be. It is not to consist in a fearful and servile recognition of his sovereignty, and therefore a dutiful obedience to his will, but in a glad and wholehearted response to him—a response of the total self, which only the word "love" can express.

The command to "love" the Lord can be understood only in the light of later statements about God’s lavish and unconditioned love for Israel (7:7-8; 10:15; see comment). It is necessary to see here that the command to love God has meaning and compulsive power only in relation to God’s prior love.

The Hebrew verb, like our English word "love," has a wide range of usage in the Old Testament: such as loving food (Genesis 27:4), sleep (Proverbs 20:13), the soil (2 Chronicles 26:10), wisdom (Proverbs 4:6), the good (Amos 5:15), evil (Micah 3:2), oneself (1 Samuel 20:17), one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:34), one’s offspring (Genesis 22:2), and the opposite sex (licitly or illicitly—1 Samuel 18:20; 2 Samuel 13:4). Hosea apparently was the first to use the word in a religious sense, for God’s love for Israel (Hosea 3:1; Hosea 9:15; Hosea 11:1; Hosea 11:4; Hosea 14:4). The earliest use of the word to characterize man’s proper attitude toward God seems to be in Deuteronomy. Here it is said again and again (5:10; 7:9; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20) that what God basically wants of the people of Israel is their wholehearted love and loyalty and the obedience to the terms of the Covenant relationship which love and loyalty will inspire.

The importance of the Lord’s commands is emphasized by practical instructions: commit them to memory; impress them upon your children; talk about them incessantly; hold them before your eyes always.

The injunction to bind the commands on the hand, to wear them on the forehead, and to write them on the doorposts may originally have been meant figuratively (see Exodus 13:16), but Jews of the time of Jesus and later followed the command literally. They inscribed Exodus 13:1-16, and Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21 on tiny scrolls of parchment, inserted them in cases of skin or metal, and bound them on the left arm and on the forehead at the time of reciting the Shema (see below). In addition, they affixed a mezuzah (a small cylinder enclosing a parchment inscribed with Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21) to the upper part of the right-hand doorpost. The "phylacteries" of Matthew 23:5 are the cases worn on the arm and the forehead.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is one of the great passages of the Bible, judged both by its contents and by its influence on Judaism and on Jesus and the Church. It is one of three passages comprising Israel’s basic affirmation of faith (the other two being Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41). It is called the "Shema" (meaning "Hear"), from the first Hebrew word of Deuteronomy 6:4. Loyal Jews for more than two millennia have been reciting this confession twice daily. Jesus joined Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 into a summary of the heart of the Law (see Mark 12:28-34).

The material surrounding and including the great commandment, like much of the contents of the Book of Deuteronomy, falls into a simple pattern: what Israel should do, what it should not do, and why in both cases. Israel has just been commanded to love the only true God. It is now instructed concerning the dangers ahead with respect to the fulfillment of this command, the tragic consequences of failure (6:10-15), and the rewards of obedience (6:2-3, 18-19, 23-25).

These dangers are, first, that unearned material abundance, lavished on the conquering nation, will dull its awareness of God and the memory of his gracious deliverance from Egypt (6:10-12). Jeremiah found that prosperity freely bestowed by God led not to gratitude and loyalty to God’s will but only to selfish indulgence and gross immorality (Jeremiah 5:7-9). Jesus warned his disciples repeatedly concerning the seductive and soporific power of riches (Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 12:13-21).

The second danger is that Israel will fall to worshiping the gods of the peoples around. It would be natural to attribute the prosperity of the Canaanites to the fertilizing power of the god Baal. In the Ras Shamra tablets of the fourteenth century B.C., Baal is said to make the heavens rain fat and the wadis (gorges) to flow with honey. Hosea had to remind the people of his time that Israel’s God, not Baal, was the giver of agricultural abundance (Hosea 2:5-23). It is emphasized once again in 6:15 that the Lord is a "jealous" God. He demands exclusive loyalty. To love him means to fear (reverence) him, to serve him alone, and to invoke only his name in oaths (6:13).

Thirdly, there is the danger of unbelief, of questioning God’s presence and providence in the life of Israel (6:16-19). At Massah (meaning "testing," "proving"), Israel openly doubted by asking, "Is the LORD among us or not?" (Exodus 17:7; compare Deuteronomy 9:22; Deuteronomy 33:8). Of what significance is it to believe that God is one if he is unconcerned about his worshipers? To deny that he is graciously active in the life of his Chosen People is as great a sin as to deny his unity and uniqueness. The God of Israel is the God who acts dependably and persistently in fulfillment of his Covenant promises and responsibilities. To deny his presence is to accuse him of infidelity and inconstancy. His fidelity to the Covenant in spite of Israel’s infidelity was one of the chief emphases of the great prophets; and likewise of Paul, who wrote: "What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every man be false . . ." (Romans 3:3-4).

The last paragraph of this chapter (Deuteronomy 6:20-25) is concerned not with the obedience of the generation about to enter the Promised Land but with the fidelity of its descendants, a subject briefly mentioned in verse 7. There it is suggested that the responsibility lies with the parents, but here the initiative comes from the children. These curious little creatures are always asking "Why?" and intelligent answers are due them. If the faith of the fathers is to become a living faith in the children, something more than parental commands must become operative. The answer to be given them, the passage suggests, is in chief part a story: We obey God’s laws because of what he has done for us.

It is widely held today that the story of the deliverance from Egypt, as here formulated (see also Deuteronomy 26:5-9 and Joshua 24:2-13), comprises one of the earliest confessional statements of Israel, long antedating the Book of Deuteronomy. For centuries children had been told the story of God’s love for Israel as manifested in his deeds, culminating in the giving of the Law and the gift of their homeland. But besides gratitude as a motive for obedience, the consequences of obedience are pointed out. Obedience is "for our good always" (vs. 24). Later chapters show again and again that through obedience to God’s righteous will the nation will find life, peace, and prosperity in the good land appointed for it, but catastrophe through disobedience. The assertion that "it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment" (vs. 25) probably does not mean merit before God or uprightness of life but salvation, deliverance, vindication.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 6". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-6.html.