Deuteronomy Part One: Deep Dive

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“Listen up!” This is the cry of someone who wants to get our attention. Have you ever had a teacher or a boss say that to you? If so, we know that they mean business and what they’re about to say is of importance for us. It is this phrase, often translated as “Hear, O Israel” (shema’ yisra’el) that we come across multiple times in the book of Deuteronomy (5:1; 6:4; 9:1; 20:3; 27:9).

The most famous instance of this imperative phrase is Deut 6:4, the beginning of what is known in Judaism as the Shema’, the ultimate declaration of what the Israelites (and later Jews) believed. The Shema’ covers verses 4-9 and is recapitulated by Jesus in Mk 12:28-34 as the greatest commandment. The Shema’ calls for both inward and external expression of love for God. Further, it sets a responsibility on the people to teach future generations about God and to meditate on His “words” (i.e., His commandments, teachings, expressions of His love and character) all the time. Really, what the Shema’ is saying is, “God loved us first, so we can love him. Think about Him all the time and let your inner thoughts and outer actions bear witness to your relationship with Him” (cf. 1 Jn 4:19; Jas 2:14-26).  

Verses 8 and 9 add further to this commandment by saying of God’s words, that “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.” These verses have been interpreted quite literally in Judaism, with the result being phylacteries/tefillin, and mezuzot (this is the plural of the word. The singular is a mezuzah).  A phylactery is a small prayer box that is tied to the arm and affixed to the forehead. Inside of the box are Bible verses written on small scrolls (typically the following texts are used: Ex 13:1-10 and 11-16; Deut 6:4-9 [our Shema’]; 11:13-21; and sometimes the Ten Commandments). The mezuzah also contained a rolled scroll with, traditionally, either the Shema’ or Deut 11:13-21 (though an early mezuzah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls contained all of Deut 10:12-11:21).

Another approach, however, is to take the injunctions in vv. 8-9 metaphorically in light of Prov 3:1-3; 6:21; and 7:3. If we do so, then we see that God’s words are supposed to be tied to everything we do with our hands—what we produce and do with our hands is in line with God’s commandments and will—and they serve as our focal point as we move forward, navigating any of life’s obstacles. They are to be discussed and engaged in our homes and in our communities (which comes from the term “gates”, which refers to the city gate in ancient Israel—a place of commerce, legislation, and ritual/worship. Cf. the Greek agora or the modern shopping centre to a certain degree).

When we step back and consider the other occurrences of our imperative phrase shema’ yisra’el “Hear, O, Israel,” there is an interesting pattern.

There is no other God but Yahweh/God (Deut 4:39)
Remembrance of what has happened (4:44-49)

 5:1 Ten Commandments (yes, they appear here too, not just in Ex 20) – God made a covenant and Israel agreed to the terms
Remembrance of what has happened (5:22-33)

6:4-9 The Shema’
Remembrance of what has happened and why (6:10-25)

Israel is God’s chosen people (7:1-26)
Remembrance of what has happened (8:1-20)

9:1 Not by your righteousness will you take the Promised Land (cf. Eph 2:8-10; Tit 3:3-7)
Remembrance of what has happened (9:7-10:11)

Love God and honor your covenant with Him (10:12-11:1)
Remembrance of what has happened (11:2-12)

Recap of the Shema’ and an injunction to put the Shema’ (i.e., right relationship with God) into practice (11:13-25)

Interspersed between injunctions to remember the past and what God has done are the imperative commands that ultimately convey the characteristics of God along with a clear call to mirror those characteristics, while at the same time recognizing that we fall short of God.

This makes the last two imperative occurrences all the more important because they are about moving forward in faith and obedience (which implicitly take into consideration that we do fall short of God). Once the past has been remembered and there is a right view of God and a right relationship with him, He will help Israel to move forward.

20:3 Don’t be afraid because God is with us

27:9 We are God’s people, so obey Him

These last two commands bring us back to the Shema’: our relationship with God demands an inner and outer expression. For us today, we may consider Deuteronomy and the call on Israel along the following lines (as interpreted through the New Testament): God wants to have a relationship with us. We can know who God is by looking at the past and seeing what He has done. What He calls us to is righteousness and holiness. These things are possible through Christ’s death and resurrection and through the infilling of the Holy Spirit. We believe in what Christ has done, and who he is, and we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us, drawing us ever closer to the perfect work that God intends (Phil 1:6; Ps 138:8). Our faith is manifest in our works, just as Israel’s faith and commitment were to result in victory in battle and prosperity in life and land.


Dr Kyle Keimer

Dr Keimer is a Lecturer in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel. He received a B.A. in anthropology from the Ohio State University, an M.A. from Wheaton College in Biblical Archaeology, and a Ph.D. from UCLA in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, with a specialization in the archaeology of the southern Levant. He was both the George A. Barton Fellow and an E.C.A. Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Dr Keimer has excavated remains from the Middle Bronze Age to the Ottoman period in Israel and Cyprus, digging at: Hazor, Beersheba, Jaffa, Khirbet Qeiyafa, Caesarea Maritima, and Idalion. In addition to excavating, he has led numerous study tours in Israel with a focus on the historical geography of the land. His research interests include ancient Near Eastern warfare and its relationship to geopolitical and socioeconomic developments, historical geography, state formation in the ancient Near East, and the Hebrew Bible, in particular the Pentateuch and the book of Isaiah.



archaeology resources

deuteronomy part one

deuteronomy part two

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