"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!" This simple declaration by Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4, beginning what is now commonly referred to as the Shema (pronounced sh'MAH, Hebrew for "Hear"), has caused considerable consternation to many who try to understand who and what God is.
Reading here that God is one, most Jews for centuries have ruled out the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth could be the Son of God, on the same divine plane as God the Father.
Early Catholic theologians, reading the same verse, struggled to formulate in the doctrine of the Trinity a God consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with these being distinct persons yet at the same time a single triune God.
How, then, should we understand this verse?
One of the primary principles for understanding the Bible is that we must consider all the scriptures on a subject. Only then will we come to a complete and accurate understanding of the matter.
Other biblical passages clearly tell us that two distinct individuals, the Father and Jesus Christ the Son, are both God (Hebrews 1:8; John 1:1, John 1:14). Therefore we should consider whether the Shema is commenting on the numerical oneness of God, or something else entirely.
The Hebrew word translated "one" in Deuteronomy 6:4 is echad. Its meanings include the number one, but also such associated meanings as "one and the same," "as one man, together [unified]," "each, every," "one after another" and "first [in sequence or importance]" (Brown, Driver and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1951, p. 25). It can also be rendered "alone," as the New Revised Standard Version translates it here (William Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1972, p. 9). The exact meaning is best determined by context.
In this case, several interpretations could be both grammatically correct and consistent with other biblical statements.
In the Shema Moses may have simply been telling the Israelites that the true God, their God, was to be first—the highest priority—in their hearts and minds. The young nation had risen from slavery in a culture in which the Egyptians deified many gods, and they were poised to enter a land whose inhabitants were steeped in worship of many supposed gods and goddesses of fertility, rain, war, journeys, etc. Through Moses, God sternly warned the Israelites of the dangers of abandoning Him to follow other gods.
This interpretation—that God is to be the Israelites' first priority—has support in the context. In the very next verse Moses continues, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength."
This passage is at the heart of a several-chapters-long discussion of the benefits and blessings of wholeheartedly following God and avoiding the idolatrous practices of the people who were to be driven out of the Promised Land. Jesus Himself quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as the "first and great commandment" in the law (Matthew 22:36-38; Mark 12:28-30).
The translation "alone" fits this context as well. That is, the true God alone was to be Israel's God; the Israelites were to have no other.
This may be how a scribe who heard Jesus quote the verse in Mark 12:29-30 understood it. The scribe responded in verse 32 (NRSV): "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one [Greek heis, which corresponds to echad in its multiple meanings], and besides him there is no other'"—which seems to indicate that this is what he understood the word rendered "one" to mean in the expression (in essence, "alone").
This would not rule out Christ from being God along with the Father. Rather, there is no other God apart from the true God—that is, outside the God family now consisting of two divine beings, the Father and the Son. In short, the God family alone is God.
Another view of the Shema is based on the root word from which echad is derived—achad. This word means "to unify" or "go one way or other" (Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible). In other words, echad can also mean in unity or a group united as one.
In several verses echad clearly has the meaning of more than one person united as a group. In Genesis 11:6 God says of those building the tower of Babel, "Indeed the people are one [echad] . . ." In Genesis 2:24 He says, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one [echad] flesh."
When we read of a large group of people being one or a man and wife becoming one flesh in marital union, we understand that multiple individuals are involved. We do not assume that separate individuals, though united in spirit and purpose, have physically merged to become a single being.
God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son are clearly of one mind and purpose. Jesus said of His mission, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work" and "I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me" (John 4:34; John 5:30).
Describing Their relationship, Jesus said, "I and My Father are one" (John 10:30). Christ prayed that His followers, both then and in the future, would be unified in mind and purpose just as He and the Father were. "I do not pray for these [disciples] alone," He said, "but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us" (John 17:20-21). Further exposition on God's oneness, in the sense of unity, may be found throughout this chapter of the booklet.
No matter which translation we accept—whether "The Lord our God, the Lord is first," "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone," or "The Lord our God, the Lord is one [in unity]"—none limits God to a singular being. And in light of these scriptures we've seen and others, it is clear that God is a plurality of beings—a plurality in unity. In other words, God the Father and Jesus the Son form a family perfectly united as one.