“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deut. 6:4)
The problem in translating this verse is not the meaning of the Hebrew term for “one,” but the division of the sentence “Yahweh Elohim Yahweh echad.” Since the Hebrew text has no punctuation, various renderings are possible, all requiring the addition of the verb “is.” The four most important possibilities can be found in the New Revised Standard Version and its footnote on this verse:
- Yahweh (is) our God, Yahweh alone.
- Yahweh our God (is) one Yahweh.
- Yahweh our God, Yahweh (is) one.
- Yahweh (is) our God, Yahweh (is) one.
These versions have major differences in emphasis. The question here is not about the psychological effect created by each possibility, but the meaning of the passage for its theological import. The King James Version of 1611 and the Revised Version took option 2, probably because the repetition of the subject of the sentence (“Yahweh”) in 3 and 4 seems forced, unnatural. Option 1 has the disadvantage of using “echad” (one) in a sense that is unusual and unexpected. In other passages, a different word is used for “alone.”
The theological possibilities behind Deuteronomy 6:4 are two. The first is that this verse stresses God’s unity, and the second is that it stresses God’s uniqueness. “Unity” means oneness (a state of being single). In a theological context, it does not mean harmony among people (unity of mind, etc.) – it means that there is only one God. “Uniqueness” means a state in which there is no equal. Although many gods may exist, only one is to be Israel’s God.
This passage, then, is announcing either that there is only one single being in the Godhead, or that Israel is not to worship any of the other (existing) gods. A possibility of the combination of the two need not concern us, because it does not alter anything significant, as will become clear below.
In determining which of these meanings is correct, it is necessary to give some thought to the second possibility, the notion that the Israelites are to accept Yahweh as their national God (rather than any other existing deity). This can be held by those who take Deuteronomy to be an anthropological account (one that explains the ideas current in a polytheistic Israel) rather than an actual revelation from the true God. Or it can be held by those who believe that God limited his self-revelation to accommodate the polytheistic ideas of the day. Both of these approaches clash with Deut. 4:35 and 39, which assert that only the Lord is God, and there is none other besides him. Deut. 6:4 should not be interpreted to imply that the people thought that other gods might exist, but that only Yahweh should be worshiped.
Although God is unique, Deut. 6:4 is not about his uniqueness. It is about God’s unity. This is not to assert that the Israelites totally understood the true God, or that they abstained from the worship of other (false, non-existing) gods – far from it; the record indicates the opposite. It would be equally wrong to assume that Deuteronomy 6:4 says that God is pure spirit. This concept is the result of abstract reasoning concerning God, which was foreign to the society that received and read the Torah.
Irrespective of what Israel thought about God (or about Deuteronomy), Deut. 6:4 is a divine revelation. It proceeds from the true God. The meaning is that there is no other divine being in existence, and that Yahweh is that being, a single being, whom we should worship.