Although our church uses the New International Version of the Bible, I’ve taken to quoting the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of the Shema in my preaching and teaching: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Recently someone noticed. That was different from the translation we’re used to, she said, the one that ends “the Lord is one.” It is.
The NIV translators have good reason for telling us “the Lord is one.” Not only is it good theology, it’s also the Shema Jesus knew. The Old Testament’s Hebrew may be ambiguous (just check all the marginal readings offered by both the NIV and NRSV in their footnotes), but the New Testament’s Greek is not. Not in Mark 12 where Jesus quotes the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (v. 29).
So why insist on quoting the NRSV’s translation instead?
Moses was preparing the people to enter the Promised Land. There they would encounter not only Canaanite cities and peoples but also Canaanite gods. There they would be tempted to forget the Lord their God. There they would be tempted to follow the gods of the peoples around them (Deut. 6:12-14).
They would be asked, and would ask: Who is God? Who is our God, the God we worship and obey? The Lord who brought us out of Egypt, or the gods of the peoples around us? On the plains of Moab, Moses prepared them with this persistent profession: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”
No doubt the Shema, particularly the version Jesus quotes in Mark 12, is an important text for Christian orthodoxy, especially for the doctrine of the Trinity. “There are not three gods; there is but one God,” the Athanasian Creed says. “There are not three lords; there is but one Lord.” The Lord our God, the Lord is one. But that answers a question no one in the Old Testament asked, let alone understood: How many is God? Three or one? The more pressing question was, and is: Who is God? Who is our God, the God we worship and obey?
The former question is theological; the latter, confessional. The ever-present temptation is to address the former without ever answering the latter. We know all about God. We know that he is one. We have all the doctrinal details nailed down. Yet, we don’t know God. As Eugene Peterson says, we “read the Bible from a number of different angles and for various purposes without dealing with God as God has revealed himself, without setting ourselves under the authority of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who is alive and present in ever ything we do” (Eat This Book [Eerdmans, 2006], 30).
But confessional questions always take priority over theological ones. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder” (James 2:19). In the end what matters is not our theological acumen, but this humble confession: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”