Standing in the plains of Moab, and reminding the Israelites of their encounters with God in the wilderness years, Moses was preparing the people to enter God’s chosen place and live as his kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6). At the centre of their lives, therefore, would be the call to love God, witnessed to in the ‘Shema’ of Deut 6:4-5:
“HEAR, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
By Jesus’ time these words were seen as definitive of the heart of the Law (Mk 12:29-30, cf the lawyer in Lk 10:27). But the call to love was not an appeal to the emotions, as the next verses in Deuteronomy show: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart (etc)” (6:6ff). The key to loving God was the engagement with his word, for the word of God reveals the ways of God, as can be seen by a comparison of 6:7a with Gen 18:17-19. There, the world blessing promised through Abraham is shown to be conditional on his dependants and successors keeping ‘the way of the LORD’, which is the doing of righteousness and justice. But this itself depends on God revealing his ways to Abraham, for when God reveals himself by his word, later generations (who have not received direct revelation) can nevertheless be brought into a proper relationship with him.
However, the engagement with God through his word does not stop at mere recitation. We are not Muslims, blessed simply by hearing the sound of the text. Rather, the power of the word is to be found in the dialogue of the believing community: “you shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise”. However poor our sermons and Bible studies may be, they are nevertheless a godly response to God’s word. Moreover, they show that (far from being a hindrance to understanding) the ambiguity and multi-valency of words and the explanations and explorations these entail are essential to the way in which the word of God works. It is as we add our words to his that the word of God leads us into the love of God.
Finally, the word of God demands to be placed at the centre of the community of God, for it is itself part of the saving activity of God. Deut 6:8 says of these words, “you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes”. However, this is not a call for the wearing of phylacteries. Rather, it is to make the word of God a ‘sacrament’ of salvation as much as was the sacrificial system, for the sacrifice of the firstborn males was also to be “as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes” to remind the people of the deliverance from Egypt (Ex 13:16). Perhaps this is also why Deuteronomy refers to the words being “on the doorposts of your house and on your gates”, for the doorposts were where the blood of the Passover lamb was daubed, and the gates marked the boundaries of the community.
We should therefore keep both Bible reading and expository teaching high on the agenda of our churches, with, however, the ultimate aim not of producing a better educated people but a more loving people.
John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London