What Does Deuteronomy 6:4 Mean?

This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” —Deuteronomy 6:4

God’s Instruction to Moses

These words of Deuteronomy 6:4 have unique significance in Deuteronomy as they begin the essence of the instruction God gave Moses. They are well known as the summary of the teaching of Moses and are among the oldest confessions preserved from antiquity. A document called the Nash Papyrus (c. 100 BC) was discovered in Egypt in 1902.1 The composite text, used in liturgy, contains the Decalogue, followed by the introductory formula of Deuteronomy 4:45 and the Shema. In contemporary time these two verses are the centerpiece of daily Jewish worship called the Keriʾat Shemaʿ (“Recitation of the Shema”). The name Shema derives from the first Hebrew word of the recitation.

ESV Expository Commentary

Four Old Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.

Although the Shema is one of the best-known confessions of the OT, its precise translation is uncertain. The NJPS interprets the verse as a statement of allegiance: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This is syntactically defensible, though not common. “The Lord our God” occurs twenty-two times in Deuteronomy, but in virtually no other case can it be read as a subject and a predicate (i.e., “The Lord is our God”). Further, use of the word “one” (ʾechad) to express “alone” is unusual. In any case, this interpretation stresses that, for mankind, the name Yahweh will be unrivaled (cf. Zech. 14:9). The traditional translation of the Shema makes a statement about the nature of Yahweh: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This makes the God of Israel unique and incomparable, which is the usual meaning of ʾechad (“one”). The Shema has come to be the preeminent expression of monotheism. Deuteronomy elsewhere makes explicit declarations that there is no other God (Deut. 4:35, 39; Deut. 32:39). Whatever other gods or powers may be supposed, they are utterly subordinate under the dominion of Yahweh. Both interpretations focus the instruction of Moses in the Torah into a single sentence.

The love required by Israel’s God demands action. The second word concluded with the blessing that would come to “those who love me and keep my commandments” (Deut. 5:10). It is impossible to love God while not fulfilling the requirements of the relationship. Love and loyalty toward God are synonymous with a way of life. The emotional attachment of love is expressed in behavior. God loves humans, as conveyed in his actions of providing the stranger with “food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18). If Israel loves God, the people will walk in all his ways and serve him with every thought and desire (Deut. 10:12). To love is to act in a loving manner, as described in Deuteronomy.

The love required by Israel’s God demands action.

Deuteronomy is the first book of the Bible to demand love for God. Previously the emphasis was on fear of God, an awe of his grandeur and a dread of his judgment that serve as motives for obedience (Deut. 4:10). Deuteronomy demands both love and fear as the motivations for keeping the covenant (Deut. 10:12). Heart, soul, and might are ways of describing every aspect of personal commitment. The heart (lebab) is the center of thought and intention. Most often it is equivalent to the mind. God tested Israel to know what was on their mind and to determine whether they would obey (Deut.8:2). Thus the people must know in their mind that God is disciplining them as a person corrects a child (Deut. 8:5). The word nephesh (“soul”) is not exclusive to humans; God created every creature that moves on the ground or in the air with breath (nephesh; Gen. 1:21). In reference to humans, this term expresses desire. Once in the Promised Land, the nephesh of Israel would crave meat, and the people would eat meat according to the craving of their nephesh (Deut. 12:20; cf. Deut. 14:26). Strength (meʾod) is found as a noun only in this verse and at 2 Kings 23:25, the only other place in which these three words are used to express complete devotion to the covenant. It includes all the resources of a person’s life. Since Yahweh is “one” and he alone can be the God of Israel, his people in turn must love him as “one,” that is, as persons undivided in thought and desire, with all the strength that they have.


  1. F. C. Burkitt, “The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten Commandments,” JQR 15/3 (April 1903): 392–408.

This article is by August H. Konkel and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Deuteronomy–Ruth (Volume 2) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., Jay Sklar.

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