Carl Ellis Nelson called the Shema, the “best brief, practical guide parents have for communicating the faith to our children.” These six verses contain God’s Plan A for generational faith transmission. God’s original design was for parents to teach faith to their children who would teach their children who would teach the generations to come:
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments… (Psalm 78:5-7, ESV)
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 provides the framework for accomplishing this task. The passage offers specific guidance to parents for passing their faith to future generations. My hope in this article is to provide a deeper understanding of this majestic passage. The following exegesis is not exhaustive, but I believe will prove helpful in better understanding this passage.
The Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The Hebrew title, “these are the words,” is helpful in gaining a greater understanding of the book as a whole. The book consists of a series of addresses by Moses to the Israelites as they were about to enter into the land promised to Abraham by God. The addresses center around God’s covenant with the Israelites. While there is some truth to the idea of Deuteronomy being the retelling of the law (i.e. “second law”), the truth is the book is actually a renewing of the covenant. In the book of Deuteronomy, God reminds the Israelites of the covenant He made with their forefathers, as well as the regulations He placed on them in His law.
The covenantal renewal of Deuteronomy occurred as the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. After Joseph was given favor by the Egyptians, he brought his tribe, the Israelites, to the land of Egypt. After some time passed, “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Ex 1:8),” and the descendants of Israel were enslaved. After a period of 430 years, God raised Moses up to deliver the Israelites out of slavery and into the land promised to Abraham (Gn 15:18-21). After spending forty years wandering in the wilderness for their refusal to enter into the promised land, the Israelites were finally ready to enter the land promised to their fathers (Dt 1:3-46). The words of Deuteronomy were spoken on the eve of the conquest of the promised land. Moses’ addresses were meant to remind the people of their relationship with God, God’s requirement of the people, and the continual reproduction of the covenant as they entered their new land.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (verse 4)
The opening verse of the passage calls the Israelites to attention. Following the opening call is what some have called the greatest statement of monotheism in the Bible. Moses referred to Yahweh (anytime the LORD is in all caps or small caps it is the name of God, Yahweh). Yahweh is the God of the Israelites and He is one. Moses used the word, echad, which can have several meanings. Echad could be used numerically to indicate that Yahweh was the only God. This is the way the phrase is translated in most English Bibles. However, echad, could also be used in an indicative or relational sense. In the former, Moses would be saying that Yahweh was uniquely God. In the later, Moses would be saying that God was Israel’s only God. While all three meanings are certainly true, the relational meaning makes the most sense within the context. The whole of Deuteronomy relates to the relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Therefore, verse 4 should be read in relational terms, “Our God is Yahweh, Yahweh alone!” However, even with this translation, the greatest statement of monotheism still holds true because the reason why Yahweh was to be Israel’s God alone was because He is the only God.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. (verses 5-6)
Jesus summarized all of God’s law by quoting verse 5, “…Love the Lord your God… (Mt 22:37).” The difficulty in understanding this passage is our contemporary American perspective on love. Our culture synthesizes love and emotion. The Bible does no such thing. The Hebrew word ‘ahad’ (love) is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to refer to adherence to the covenant with God. God’s command is not that the Israelites felt ooey and gooey over Him, but that they obeyed Him. While emotions and feelings are relevant to our relationship with God, they are secondary to obedience. We cannot claim affection for God if we do not submit to Him.
Israel was commanded to love (or obey) God with all their heart, soul, and might. In the past, I have too quickly divided these three areas of our lives into our intellect, emotion, and actions. The heart in the ancient Israelite culture referred to the control of the body which we would understand as our mind. The soul was the seat of emotions. Might was physical strength. Therefore, I reasoned, we are to love God with our intellect, emotion, and actions. However, after further study, I am not convinced this is the best interpretation. I believe it is a mistake to divide these into three distinct elements. Instead, Moses is commanding the Israelites to love God with their whole selves in every aspect of their lives. While this certainly includes their intellect, emotions, and actions, it carries the command into every aspect of human existence.
How were the Israelites to do this? Verse 6 gives us the answer: “these words…shall be on your heart.” God’s covenant and commands were to be continually on the minds of the Israelites. Only by giving constant attention to God’s covenant and commands would the Israelites be able to keep those commands. The command to love Yahweh with all heart, soul, and might was to be internalized and become a part of the life and culture of each person as well as the nation as a whole.
You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (verses 7-9)
The covenant was to be continually reproduced in each generation as parents taught their children about God’s covenant with Israel. Moses commands the Israelites to teach their children. The Hebrew word is shaman. Shaman literally means to sharpen but is often used with the idea of engraving. Parents were to engrave the covenant onto their children. To engrave is to repeatedly cut into which is why many translations use repetition instead of teach. Ancient Hebrew teaching primarily used repetition to teach their children. The parents would give oral instruction and the child would repeat it back to the parent until he had it memorized.
This instruction was to be given throughout the day, “…when you sit in your house…walk by the way…lie down…rise…bind them as a sign on your hand…frontlets between your eyes…write them on the doorposts.” As with heart, soul, and might, these instructions were not meant to divide literalistically the times of day and places where parents were to teach their children. Instead, the instructions are holistic: from morning until night and in the home and on the go. The Jews began to take these last instructions literally. They created phylacteries which were small boxes that would be strapped to the person’s head. They also created mezuzahs which were small boxes attached to the doorframe of the house. Inside these small boxes would be small strips of paper with Scripture passages written on them. They would remove these papers and recite the Scriptures throughout the day or when they entered into their house. However, while these practices are not wrong in and of themselves, they miss the point. The point is the home would be saturated by God’s covenant. You could practice these things literally and yet forget to love God with your whole heart, soul, and might.
Anytime we look at Scripture, we must not only ask what it says but must also ask what we need to do. I began with Carl Ellis Nelson’s quote that the Shema is the “best brief, practical guide parents have for communicating the faith to our children.” Since that is our goal, I’ll keep the application focused to that end. I believe there are three key application points for parents in this passage.
- Parents Must Exercise Personal Faith. The first half of the passage concerns the Israelite adults. Before they could teach their children, they must first believe in Yahweh alone, love Him through obedience, and internalize His commands. The same is true for parents. As parents, our greatest teaching tool is our lives. Are we living fully devoted lives to God through a relationship with His Son Jesus Christ? Are we living in obedience to the commands in Scripture? Are we reading and meditating on Scripture so much that it becomes a part of who we are? If we are not, then we cannot progress to the second step: teach them to our children. Kids are the ultimate hypocrisy detectors. If we expect to teach them, we must first teach ourselves. If we expect them to practice faith, we must practice it first. If we expect our family, kids, and home to be saturated in Scripture, we must saturate ourselves first.
- Parents Must Intentionally Teach Faith to Their Children. This is perhaps the most obvious application. Parents teach their children. Scripture gives some excellent advice on how this can be done. First, parents can utilize morning and evening routines. This may be Scripture reading, prayers, or faith conversations. Science tells us that kids hearts are most impressionable at the times when they wake up and go to bed. What happens during those moments make the biggest impact so we need to use those moments for an eternal purpose. Second, parents can use formal and informal times of faith transmission. Formal times can include family devotionals or worship. Informal times can be conversations in the car, waiting in line, or even after watching a movie. Deuteronomy 6 does not prescribe a set schedule, but offers some general guidelines; therefore, parents have much freedom to figure out what works best for them and their family.
- Parents Must Saturate Their Home in Faith. As parents saturate themselves in Scripture and teach their children faith, their home will become saturated in faith. Instead of sharing how that happens, let me offer a few implications. First, parents can demonstrate gospel hospitality by opening their home to others in the church. Second, parents can demonstrate gospel love by inviting their kid’s friends over often so they can see Christ-centered love in action. Third, parents can proclaim the gospel by leaving their home often for service and missions.
My prayer for us as we read this is two-fold. First, we would have a deeper understanding of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Second, we would take to heart these instructions and love God, not merely through emotional affection, but through obedience to His commands. And as we do so, we perpetuate gospel-faith to the next generation.
All Scriptures: The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. 2001 .
Standard Bible Society: Wheaton.