Hebrew is an action language, so sentences are normally structured around the verb. What (the action or event) happened is more important than when (the time) it happened for God and ancient Israel. For this reason, the verb is often placed at the beginning of Hebrew sentences. Emphasis is thus keyed onto the verb or predicate (action) and the subject (the noun or the doer of the action) of the sentence. However, when the subject (noun) is placed first in the sentence, it points to a shift of emphasis to the subject in place of the action (verb).
The Hebrew verb shema is a significant word in the Hebrew Bible with the basic meaning “to hear”. This significance is evident in the 1474 occurrences of its root smh in the entire Hebrew script. A central tenet of Jewish prayer and worship is built on three passages in Deuteronomy 6:4–9; 11:13–21; and Numbers 15:37–41 and is known as the Shema. In Deuteronomy 6:4, the verb shema is an imperative or command: “Hear (shema) O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (NASB). This word is packed with practical and profound meaning for ancient Israel and for us today.
“To hear” is the first and primary meaning of shema. It underscores the importance of hearing God’s Word. In Deuteronomy 6:4 and throughout their desert wanderings, ancient Israel was constantly commanded to be on their “guard before him and obey (shema) His voice” (Exodus 23:21). Remarkably, the first occurrence of the verb is found in the failure of Adam and Eve “to hear” (shama) God’s Word to them in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8,10). The counsel to hear is heightened in the letters to the seven churches of Revelation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22; cf Romans 10:17).
Listening follows hearing. One can hear many things without listening. This was one of ancient Israel’s problems: hearing without listening–“Now, O Israel, listen (shama) to the statutes . . . that you may live and go in and take possession of the land” (Deuteronomy 4:1; 11:13,27; 12:28). In a world where there are a plethora of voices and noises, God’s people are called upon to hear the Word of God and listen to it attentively and not to the devil or his false prophets (Genesis 39:10; Deuteronomy 13:3).
The next step is to take heed of God’s Word. Israel must take the Word of God to heart. Presumption must be avoided like a plague (Deuteronomy 17:12,13). Adam was charged for listening to his wife more than God’s instruction (Genesis 3:17). Taking heed of God’s Word is followed by willful obedience (cf James 1:22). God blessed Abraham because of his obedience: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed (shama) My voice” (Genesis 22:18). Moses reminded the children of Israel to “obey” (shama ta) the LORD and observe all His commandments” (Deuteronomy 13:18; 15:5; 30:8).
Finally, as the people of God hear, listen, take heed and obey His Word, understanding will fall into place. It is guaranteed. In today’s generation understanding God’s reason for His Word may be desired first, but it always comes last. It is a test of faith. God is faithful and none of His promises fail or fall to the ground (Joshua 21:45; 23:14; 1 Samuel 3:19). Shema thus means to hear, listen, take heed, obey and understand God’s Word–in that order!
Dr Tabua Tuima is a theology lecturer at Fulton Adventist University College.