Essay

God is One (of heart)

By September 10, 2016 4 Comments
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Thomas A. Boogaart

I have often thought that the role of a biblical scholar is a little like that of a shaman. We journey from our familiar world and to a strange new world, the world of the Bible. Having sojourned there, we return to our world and tell others what we have seen.

Leaving the familiar world behind is harder than one might think. Cultural forces are so pervasive and shape us at such an early age that we are often unaware of their influence on us. We cannot hear our own cultural accent. Second, we have few reliable guides on the journey. Many of my would-be guides have encouraged me to adopt western values and use them to dissect texts, not to bracket them and try to indwell texts.

One reliable guide has been Abraham Joshua Heschel, who captured the challenge and excitement of the journey with these words: “The thing to be kept in mind [when studying the Bible] is to know what you see, not see what you know.

By whatever name we give cultural forces—predispositions, predilections, assumptions, values, or biases—they are part of us and predispose us to see the world in certain ways. They have us under their spell. As Heschel says: “Our sight is suffused with knowing instead of painfully feeling the lack of knowing what we see.”

We cannot break this cultural spell fully, but we can in part. Using our rational and imaginative gifts, we can bracket our predispositions and indwell the world of the people of Israel. We can see biblical texts afresh, and the insights from these texts can refresh our theological endeavors.

One text that I now see afresh is the Shema. I have always wondered how Moses’ first statement: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one,” was related to his second statement: “And you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Many students of the Scriptures treat them as distinct, the first a creedal declaration about monotheism and the second a moral exhortation to faithful living. But the grammar suggests that the second statement answers the first, similar to a poetic couplet. I puzzled over this for a long time, and then one day while reciting the Shema together with students, it hit me.

When Moses told the people of Israel that their God was one, he was not primarily affirming a truth about God’s relationship to other gods. He was affirming a truth about God’s heart. He was telling them that God’s heart was undivided, that God was fully present to them. God’s oneness of heart was Moses’ way of defining the meaning of God’s love.

Suddenly, the second line in the couplet made perfect sense: “And you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Moses is calling on the people of Israel to love God in the same way that God loves them: undivided—with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

The call to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves is a peculiar challenge in our world. The information super-highway and all the devices that it spawns are dividing our hearts and affecting our relationships in ways we have yet to fully comprehend. We have all seen some version of the couple sitting at table in a restaurant, never taking their eyes off their smart phones and never saying a word to each other while eating. This situation repeats itself in classrooms, worship centers, and homes around the country.

You do not have to be a Luddite to see that the much ballyhooed digital revolution is leaving people less and less connected to each other and the communities that sustain them. Everyone is traveling the information superhighway and no one is home anymore. Are we losing our capacity to love and to join with others as the body of Christ in the world?

Tom Boogaart teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart recently retired after a long career of teaching Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

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