Hear O Israel
- Main Text: Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9
- Accompanying text: Mark 12:28-31
What this passage means to us
“The moral life is far from simple” reflects author and columnist Alexander McCall Smith. “There was a time when most of us had no doubt about what we should do or what we should not do. We were told what was done and what was not done. There were Commandments” .
For the Israelites, as they made the exodus from Egypt, there was no clear moral compass and no easily understood guidelines re behaviour and worship. They knew they were following Moses, who had declared that he represented the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but what did God want if anything? Was he to be worshipped like one of the gods of Egypt, and were there behavioural implications for his followers? Just like it is for us today in some ways, they inhabited a moral wilderness. What would make God’s chosen people stand out from those who worshipped other gods? Moses was leading them into a covenant with God, the wording of which became known as the Ten Commandments. “And he (Moses) wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant — the Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34:28). “Here, at the centrepiece of the covenant, stand the Ten Commandments. For the Ten Commandments are not ten different things. They are one thing in ten forms…(they) outline a path to follow to make God ‘your God’”  — “I am the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 5:6).
As we consider the implications of these passages, it’s important to view them through the lens of Jesus Christ and of the New Testament writers. Jesus, who had not been trained in Judaism as a Rabbi, understood the Old Testament scriptures intimately and would quote them, often from the book of Deuteronomy. In Mark 12 “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” along with the Sadducees, “Pharisees and Herodians” conspired together against Jesus in order “to catch him in his words” (Mark 12:12-13,18). They questioned Jesus about aspects of the Mosaic Law, and his replies infuriated and frustrated them all the more. One of them asked him, what is the most important commandment in the Law? Jesus quoted from two separate OT passages: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30, Deuteronomy 6:4-5), which became a well-known and often-recited part of the Jewish Confession of Faith called the Shema. “The second is this:”, Jesus continued, “‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 31, Leviticus 19:18). Jesus went on to warn believers about the teachers of the Law who used Scripture for their own ends and who lived a life of hypocrisy (Mark 12:38-40).
Jesus contrasted his own teachings to Mosaic teachings, and explained that his words, not the words of Moses, were the rock on which his followers should build their spiritual life. In referring to some of Ten Commandments and to parts of the rest of the Law, he contrasted “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago” to “But I tell you”, “You have heard that it was said” to “But I tell you”, “It has been said” again to “But I tell you”, “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago” to “But I tell you”, etc (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32,33-34). Jesus wanted his followers to know not just how to behave, but how to react in their hearts. “Therefore”, he concluded in the Sermon on the Mount, “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). The words of Jesus, who instituted a “New Covenant” for us (1 Corinthians 11:25), are of greater import than the words of Moses.
In New Testament times both Jewish and Gentile believers needed more instruction about how to live in the midst of legalistic and moral confusion. Was the Christian life to be built on the Law of Moses or on something else, or rather on someone else? For the Christian, a change in heart was to lead to a change in outlook, attitude and desires. Conversion would flow from turning in faith to Jesus. “Set your hearts on things above…Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature… put on the new self…as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:1-17).
Context and Story-line
“Why is it that the Ten Commandments needed to be repeated a second time? Furthermore, there are 613 laws of Moses in total, and many are repeated. Why? Deuteronomy was written 40 years after the book of Exodus. During those 40 years a whole generation died. These consisted of all the adults who had come out of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, camped at Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments for the first time. By the time of Deuteronomy, they were all dead (with the exception of Moses, Joshua, and Caleb). They had broken the law so quickly that God said they would never get into the Promised Land… The new generation were only “little children” who “would barely remember what had happened when their fathers came out of Egypt, and certainly would not recall the reading of the Law at Sinai. So Moses read and explained the law a second time” .
The concept of covenant was used extensively in the Ancient Near East and it is not unique to the biblical text. Archaeology provides examples that describe a similar pattern to how the Old Covenant is described. For example, a conquering king might make a treaty with his new subjects. “This was an agreement which in basic terms said that if the conquered behaved themselves, the king would protect them and provide for them, but, if they misbehaved, he would punish them”. The pattern of such treaties “is exactly the same in outline as the book of Deuteronomy…Presumably Moses saw and studied these treaties when he was educated in Egypt” .
After the second giving of the Law Moses appointed Joshua to succeed him, and Moses died, not having made it to the Promised Land. Before his death he instructed that the Law be read aloud every seven years lest the people forget God and his words. When Moses died the Israelites mourned for thirty days at the loss of their great leader. But, as Moses himself predicted, they would “soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them” (Deuteronomy 31:16).
As wonderful as the Law was, keeping it did not change the people’s hearts or inclinations. Real, meaningful, personal change would occur only through the grace of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).
- Hebrews 3:1-6
- Romans 13:9-10
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- https://inews.co.uk/opinion/is-it-ok-to-eavesdrop-on-the-next-table-in-the-coffee-shop/– accessed 5th September 2019.
- Jacob Neusner, Judaism: The Basics (Abington, UK; Routledge, 2006).83
- David Pawson, Unlocking the Bible: A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible (UK: HarpersCollinsPublishers, 1999-2001, 2015). 180.
- Ibid. 183.