Leadership in the Shema

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Leadership in the Shema[1]
adapted from Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader
edited by Benjamin K. Forrest & Chet Roden
written by Ellis Brotzman

The Shema is one of the central theological affirmations of the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is One.”[2] This affirmation of Yahweh’s nature and his relation to Israel is immediately followed by a passage that spells out Israel’s responsibility to Yahweh. That responsibility is couched in terms of both personal covenant loyalty, as well as parental leadership. Deuteronomy 6:5–9 (niv) reads as follows:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Verse 5 actually begins in Hebrew with the conjunction “and,” although it is not translated in NIV. An imperative followed by “and” and an indicative verbal form can express the idea of consequence. We could easily translate it, “Hear (with understanding) this central theological affirmation regarding Yahweh, so that you will love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The close connection between theology and covenant loyalty is clearly evident. But verse 6 also begins with “and” in Hebrew, so what follows in verse 6 is intimately connected with the contents of verse 5, and both are closely linked with the contents of verse 4. “These commandments” in verse 6 likely refer to the commands that follow in verses 7–9. So two issues are confronted in this paragraph as they relate to affirmations of Yahweh’s nature and covenant loyalty: the personal covenant loyalty that Yahweh desires from each Israelite individual; and the place of the parents in developing that covenant fidelity in the lives of their children, and ultimately, in succeeding generations.

How is that covenant loyalty to be continued in following generations? It will only happen as Israelite parents “impress” these truths on their children.[3] This action refers to a continuously repeated process of verbalizing the truths and passing them on to the minds and hearts of the following generation. But there is much more involved than simple repetition. The next phrases add that this repeated teaching must be carried out “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road.” And it must be carried out “when you lie down and when you get up.” Both of these phrases should be understood as examples of the figure of speech that is known as a merism. A merism refers to a totality by the coupling together of two extremes. When we say that we have searched “high and low” for something, we do not mean that we have just searched high and then searched low! We are trying to communicate that we have searched everywhere. In a similar fashion, these two phrases that describe parental teaching of theological truth refer to teaching everywhere (one is either at home or away from home) and throughout the entire day (beginning when you rise and ending when you lie down at the end of the day). Heeding this requirement will have at least two clear results. First, it will indeed impress, inculcate, and teach diligently these covenant truths to a family’s children. But second, the fact that parents do this everywhere and all the time will help the children to realize that these covenant pronouncements have relevancy to all of life! This kind of teaching of God’s Word will go a long way toward guarding against the ever- dangerous tendency of viewing life as divided into two unrelated spheres, the religious and the ordinary, or the holy and the secular.

But there is an even further step required in this mandate for godly parental leadership. The text adds that Israelite individuals were to bind these words as “symbols on your hands,” “bind them on your foreheads,” and even “write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” Anyone acquainted with Jewish practices knows that these requirements have been fulfilled in a very direct and literal way. A phylactery is a small box that contains the Shema. One is wrapped around the arm and another is wrapped around the forehead. A mezuzah is a small container that contains the words of the Shema and is attached to the front door of a Jewish house or the gate of a Jewish city. Both phylacteries, on people, as well as mezuzoth (the plural of mezuzah) on houses or gates, can be seen in many locations in the land of Israel today! Now I would certainly not want to criticize Jews for how they have practiced carrying out these covenant requirements down the centuries. But I do think the passage may refer to something even more profound. The phylacteries were not merely physical objects bound to the hands or foreheads. They were to serve as memory aids to the wearer of the words of the Shema, and the memory of those foundational words was to exercise its influence on all thoughts a person had, thoughts provoked by what is seen with the eyes, and all activities that a person carried out with their hands. The words contained in mezuzoth were also to serve as a memory aid to everyone entering or exiting a house or a city gate. In other words, the teaching of the Shema applies at home and away from home (undoubtedly another merism). And it also applies in the city where one lives and also outside of that location! The paragraph of the Shema contains both the central truths of who Yahweh is and how he is related to Israel. And it also contains words that underscore the great parental responsibility of serving as effective spiritual leaders/ teachers for the children who will grace the parents’ home. These words were given to ancient Israel, but they have been repeated for new covenant believers in the inspired words of the Old Testament. The times and circumstances may have changed, but the principles espoused in these words are still true and still apply to us today. May God grant us the strength to fulfil our responsibilities as the leaders that Christian parents are intended to be.


[1] The name comes from the initial Hebrew word of Deuteronomy 6:5. It is a masculine singular form of the imperative from the verb “to hear.” An approximate transliteration of the Hebrew is shema.

[2] Personal translation

[3] The English “impress” of NIV renders a Hebrew verb that in the qal stem is rendered “whet, sharpen.” In the piel stem it may be translated “inculcate.” KJV and ESV render “teach diligently.” NLT renders “repeat them again and again,” a very good translation that can be developed from the analogy to the idea of “whet, sharpen” in the qal stem. Whoever sharpened a lawnmower blade with only one pass of the file? Whoever sharpened a blade once, and it remained sharp for all time?

This post is an excerpt from Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader edited by Benjamin K. Forrest and Chet Roden, adapted from the chapter, “Godless vs. Godly: Leadership in the Pentateuch,” written by contributor Ellis Brotzman. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Biblical Leadership

Biblical Leadership takes the best of evangelical scholarship to make the leadership lessons of Scripture tangible for today’s readers. All contributors are biblical scholars who not only think seriously about the texts covered in their individual chapters, but have committed their lives to teaching and living the truths therein.

This volume walks through the sections of the Bible, gleaning insights from each biblical writer. Every chapter analyzes the original setting of the writing, extrapolates the leadership principles in the text, and provides advice on applying that theology of leadership. Presented in everyday language understandable to both professionals and practitioners, these lessons will equip current and upcoming leaders to make a Christlike impact.


Benjamin K. Forrest is associate dean of the college of arts and sciences at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is coauthor of Good Arguments: Making your Case in Writing and Public Speaking and co-editor of The History of Apologetics: A Biographical and Methodological Introduction.
Chet Roden is chair of biblical studies at Liberty University, specializing in Old Testament and archaeology.

About Author

(PhD, New York University), now retired, was senior professor of Old Testament at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands for more than twenty years. He has taught at a variety of institutions around the world and continues to teach in his retirement.

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