One God & One Lord an essay in three-parts by Dwight A. Pryor
The Uniqueness of Ehad
When Israel affirms the Shema it declares that Y/H/W/H and he alone is God. Said another way, Y/H/W/H is utterly unique because he alone is altogether holy. The ehad in the Shema, therefore, speaks of God’s holiness, which is related to his very being or ontological essence. (Click the banner to read part one).
The Exclusiveness of Ehad
Secondly, when Israel affirms the Shema it pledges its exclusive allegiance to Y/H/W/H. More than a declaration of faith, the Shema is a summons to Israel’s faithfulness. It is a call to worship/serve the God of Israel and him alone. The justification for the Lord’s exclusive demands on Israel is two-fold: who he is, and what he has done.
Adonai is the One, True and Only Elohim. All creation comes from him, and nothing ever was, is or will be apart from him. Y/H/W/H is utterly uncommon, wholly unique, and quintessentially holy. Some scholars argue that Moses and the Torah held to a “modified monotheism”—believing that there were many gods, but that Y/H/W/H was the supreme One. He was the “Most High God.” In other words, Y/H/W/H not only was the Elohim of Israel; he was the Elohei HaElohim, the God of all gods. Every plague directed against the deities of Egypt, including the revered Sun god, demonstrated that Israel’s God was supreme. In this view, the plural intensification of the noun, Elohim, hints that Y/H/W/H is the most powerful of all the powerful ones. He alone is Ha-El Ha-Gadol, Ha-Gibbor, v’Ha-Nora—the Great, the Mighty and the Awesome God.
The rigorous and exclusive monotheism of Judaism—where ehad means One and only One—comes to its highest expression in the later portions of Isaiah, especially chapters 43-45. “Other gods” are but idols. Through prophetic voice, Adonai explicitly expresses his exclusive status as God and the prerogatives attendant thereto in language like: “You are my witnesses, declares the Lord … that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.” Or, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no God.” Or, “There is no other god besides me … for I am God, and there is no other … To me every knee shall bow and every tongue swear allegiance.”
In its original setting however the focus of Deuteronomy 6.4 was not monotheism but monolatry (the worship of the One God). In other words, the Shema of Moses was not so much a theological decree as a spiritual demand—for Israel’s exclusive allegiance and obedience to Y/H/W/H. The redeemed of the Lord were to love, fear, serve and obey “the Lord alone.” It is not just who God is that gives him the right to command exclusive fidelity. It is what Y/H/W/H has done on Israel’s behalf. He abounds in covenant faithfulness, and his righteous acts redeem, deliver, and save Israel, to whom he then imparts the gift of Torah, written and conveyed by his Spirit. When the children of Israel declare that, “God is One” and commit their lives to his service, they take upon themselves the “yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.” The overriding issue then becomes the obedience of faith. The Shema calls for the tzid’kot Adonai—the righteous, saving deeds of the Lord—to be reciprocated in Israel’s faithful and just actions.
Yes, Israel indeed holds to an exalted view of ethical monotheism, a belief declared daily in the recitation of the Shema. But equally important is the fact that Israel’s exclusive monotheism is expressed not abstractly but in actions, in liturgy and loyalty to Y/H/W/H. Conduct is at the core of Israel’s creed, and its most telling expression is evident in how they walk and whom they worship.
The “ehad” of Israel’s Shema reminds us of this. When we affirm it, we confess that Y/H/W/H is truly God, and him alone shall we worship and serve. To compromise on these claims of exclusivity is to worship amiss and to become bent towards idolatry.
The Unity of Ehad
Third, when Israel affirms the Shema it acknowledges the indivisible unity of Y/H/W/H. The Hebrew word ehad speaks of unity not singularity. The One and Only God is a unity of all that he is-was-will be, of all his attributes, actions and appearances. Though he has many names, there are not many gods. The plural noun, Elohim, always takes a singular verb in the Hebrew when referring to the God of Israel. God’s majesties are many and his manifestations manifold, but in himself he is indivisibly One.
In the Shema, two names of God are spoken, Elohim and Adonai. Elohim points to the creative power and righteous judgments of God; Adonai, to his mercy and covenant faithfulness, say the rabbis. But these are not two gods—not two powers in heaven—they are different aspects of the One God. This tension is affirmed in Jewish prayers that typically address God as Avinu, Malkeinu (“our Father, our King”)—two foundational aspects of the divine unity-in-plurality. This is not dualism of any sort, but a biblically balanced mindset that persistently affirms a dynamic dialectic within the ah’dut or unity of the Eternal One.
The textual revelation of ehad as oneness-in-unity is found from the very beginning of the Torah, in Genesis 1.5: “vay’hi erev, vay’hi voker, yom ehad” (“And it was evening, and it was morning, day one.”) This first occurrence of ehad in the Bible unites two parts of a day, evening and morning, into one/ehad. No less telling is the use of ehad with reference to adam or humankind in Genesis 2.4. When the male and the female unite as husband and wife, “v’hayu l’vasar ehad”—“they shall become one flesh (body).” Two persons, equal but distinct, become inseparably joined together as one/ehad. In another instance, looking toward the end of all things, the prophet Ezekiel foresees a time when the children of Israel will be fully united, when the two “sticks” of Judah and Ephraim are joined in God’s hand to become one/ehad.
That ehad is used this way in the biblical text is important. Ehad points to unity, not singularity (yahid), and the implications of that bear profoundly upon the nature and character of the God of Israel. Consider, for example, the creation of humankind (adam), made in the image of God. Why does God make one person, then from the one make two (Adam v’Havvah), in order that the two shall become one? If ‘one’ is the starting point, how can it also be the goal? Because man alone is yahid, a singularity, but when the two become ehad, a unity is achieved that far surpasses singularity. From the one, God forms two-that-become-one because he wants humankind to learn how to love. In singularity only self-love is possible; to love truly it takes an ‘other’. In learning how to love one’s corresponding other, one learns how to love God.
Love is the telos (end/goal) of the Torah, as emphasized in the “Great Commandment,” precisely because Y/H/W/H is love in his very being. But this is not true of all gods. Consider, by contrast, the god of Islam. He is “one” in splendid singularity. In direct rebuff to Christian claims about God, inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock (one of the first Muslim religious structures built outside Arabia) declare that Allah: “begets no son and has no partner”; “he is God, one, eternal”; “he does not beget, nor is he begotten, and he has no peer.”
Whereas the Torah extols Y/H/W/H as the One who abounds in lovingkindness (a term of covenantal partnership), the Koran exalts Allah as “the compassionate and merciful” (actions that a superior being extends toward an inferior one). The emphases are significant. Unlike the God of the Bible, Allah is not intrinsically a god of love, nor can he be, according to some Islamic scholars. To love another would bring contingency and therefore weakness into the godhead; but Allah is beyond all contingencies and any limitations.
The point is this: I do not wish to overdraw these contrasts, for there are similarities as well. I simply am noting that the severe monotheism of Islam differs from the unified monotheism of Judaism and Christianity in a way parallel to the differences between yahid (singular ‘one’) and ehad (‘one’ of unity). The God of the Bible has an inner harmony and indivisible unity of all that he does and is. In his oneness, there is plurality-in-unity—a unity that must not be broken, a plurality that must not be diminished. Unlike the uniformity of monism, biblical monotheism is irreducibly relational and characterized at its core by love.
The “ehad” of Israel’s Shema reminds us of this. When we affirm it, we confess that Y/H/W/H is incomparably unique and utter holy; he is the One, True God alone that we shall worship and serve. The Lord calls for our exclusive loyalty and undivided love because he is faithful to his covenant and abounds in hesed toward his beloved. He is incomparable, insistent, and indivisible. The Shema is the supreme affirmation of God’s unity.
(end of part two)