Monday, December 28, 2009

To the Jew First: The Shema and the Trinity

As part of their prescribed daily prayers, observant Jews recite Deuteronomy 6:4, which as it appears in Hebrew text reads, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד. Transliterated into English it is pronounced, "Shema Yisra'el YHWH Eloheinu YHWH Echad" (though out of reverence for God's name, YHWH or "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" is typically replaced with adonai, meaning "Lord"). English translations render it something like, "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!" This verse is often called the Shema, named after its first word Shema meaning, "to hear."

Christians and Jews alike point to this verse as summarizing the Bible's teaching of monotheism, "the doctrine or belief that there is only one God." Christians, however, believe that the Bible teaches that the one and only true God exists nonetheless as a plurality, that within the one being God there exist distinct interpersonal relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As it is often summarized, "three persons" but "one being." Christians are unwavering in their affirmation of monotheism, but because the doctrine of the Trinity transcends human understanding, as well as human ability to communicate it effectively, Jews and non-Christians often confuse Christians as teaching some form of polytheism.

Therefore, Jews often object to Christianity based on either the misunderstanding that it teaches polytheism, or on the belief that the Bible does not allow for a plural understanding of the one God. Does the Shema really militate against any idea of a plural, or Triune, God?


The Hebrew word rendered "one" in the Shema is the word echad. Now, at this point, Jews familiar with Christian evangelistic efforts are likely thinking, "Oh no, not this again." This is because some Christians have argued that the word echad intrinsically refers to a compound oneness or unity, such as "one" cluster of grapes. In fact, there are several places in Scripture where it is used in this fashion.

For example, in Genesis 1:5 we read, "God called the light day, and the darkness He called night And there was evening and there was morning, one day." This "one day" is explicitly described as being comprised of multiple parts, evening and morning. Agan in Genesis 2:24 we are told, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." This "flesh", despite being "one", is nonetheless composed of a man and a woman. And in Ezra 2:64, "the whole assembly" is called "one" but is comprised of many people.

However, skeptical Jews are right to point out that this is not the only way in which this word is used. In Genesis 2:11, "one" river is called "the Pishon", and probably is not used with the knowledge that a river is a collective of numerous water molecules. In Genesis 2:21, God takes "one" of Adam's ribs, referring to a singe rib, not a collection of bones. And in Nehemiah 5:18, an ox is not likely called "one" because it is comprised of millions of replicating cells.

Thus, it does not appear as though the word echad intrinsically carries the meaning of "one in unity," but rather may just as often, if not more often, mean "one in number." However, it is nonetheless relevant that the word can refer to a oneness in unity, a compound unity. If the word has several meanings, we must look to the context to see which of those meanings are valid, and which are not.


In context, the Shema does not appear to be emphasizing the "oneness" of God. Instead, the text is emphasizing the unique nature of God, that He and He alone is God, and that there is no other. Moses is conveying God's commandments to Israel, the first of which was reiterated in the previous chapter:

[God] said, "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God..." (Deuteronomy 5:5-9)

It is interesting that the first of the "Ten Commandments," which sets the stage for the Shema, is to have no gods before the Lord. The reason, in fact, that we are to obey the rest of God's commandments is precisely because He alone is God. He is above all, His authority supercedes all, His nature transcends all. He deserves our obedience because He is God and there is no other. So whenever Moses is communicating God's laws to His people, it is based on the foundation laid with the very first commandment: God is justified in demanding obedience because He is God alone.

This sets the stage for the next chapter containing the Shema. Starting from the beginning of chapter 6,

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. O Israel, you should listen and be careful to do it, that it may be well with you and that you may multiply greatly, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. (Deuteronomy 6:1-6)

We see, then, a similar pattern as when the commandments were first given, and then reiterated in the previous chapter. The first command in the list emphasizes God's authority, which comes from His uniqueness, and the following commands are authoritative because God, by virtue of being God alone, deserves obedience. Hence, several translations render the verse slightly differently:

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord [the only Lord]. (Amplified Bible)

Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. (New Living Translation)

Listen, Israel! The LORD our God is the only true God! (Contemporary English Version)

Listen, people of Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. (New Century Version)

Israel, listen to me. The Lord is our God. The Lord is the one and only God. (New International Reader's Version)

These translations recognize the emphasis on God's uniqueness, and render the verse accordingly. And, sure enough, the definition of echad includes "only". So the Shema does not cast doubt on the doctrine of a Triune (plural) God. It merely militates against polytheism, and as already pointed out, Christians throughout history who've affirmed belief in the Trinity are unwaveringly monotheistic.

Does the Shema, however, hint at all to God's nature? Is there anything in the text of the Shema that can point us in one direction or another?


The phrase "our God" in the Shema is the translation of a peculiar word, elohim. In Hebrew, words are either masculine or feminine, and singular nouns are conjugated to make them plural. The word behema, for example, is a feminine noun meaning "beast", and is conjugated as behemoth to make a plural, feminine noun. Similarly, kohen is a singular masculine noun meaning "priest", and is conjugated kohannim to make a plural, masculine noun. Thus, generally speaking (like any language, Hebrew is more complicated than this simplification), a singular, masculine noun is made plural by modifying the ending syllable and adding "im".

In the same way, elohim is the plural conjugation of the singular word, eloha. In the Shema, the literal rendering of the word would be, "our Gods." This is not to suggest that the verse teaches polytheism; as explained above, the emphasis in this verse is God's uniqueness, that He is God and there is no other. And polytheism is militated against throughout the entirety of Scripture. However, the fact that one of the nouns most often used to refer to God is plural in its very nature may hint at something.


Verbs in Hebrew are modified based on the subject of the sentence. They, like nouns, have singular and plural forms, and when a verb appears in its singular form then the noun, too, is singular. In many places throughout the Bible, elohim appears with the singular form of a verb, and thus the plural nature of the noun emphasizes God's superiority and transcendence.

However, in other places elohim appears with the plural form of verbs. In Genesis 20:13, the text is rendered "when God caused me to wander from my father's house," but the plural noun elohim is used with the plural verb "they caused me to wander." Again in 2 Samuel 7:23 we're told "God went", and again elohim is used with the plural verb "they went." And in Psalm 58:11 the psalmist sings that "there is a God who judges" combining elohim with the plural verb "they judge."

So the plural nature of the word elohim that appears in the Shema intrinsically suggests a plural nature to God since it often appears with plural verbs. But it doesn't end there. In the same way that the plural noun elohim appears often with plural verbs, it also sometimes appears with plural pronouns. In Genesis 1:26 we're told, "Then God [elohim] said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.'" Again in Genesis 3:22 "the LORD God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of Us." The text is rendered "let Us" and "in Our" and "one of Us" because plural pronouns are being used, rather than the singular pronouns that would be expected of a wholly singular God.


Thus, though the text of the Shema is not in and of itself proof of the doctrine of the Trinity, it nonetheless does not cast doubt on it, either. Quite to the contrary, the plural noun elohim used there, often appearing in conjunction with plural verbs and plural pronouns, hints at the plural nature of God. Indeed, evidence of God's triune nature appears throughout the entirety of the Old Testament, as we will see in future posts in this series.


  1. Greetings Christopher Date

    For a better understanding of the words
    echad & elohim,
    I recommend this article:
    Elohim and Echad

    On the subject of the Trinity,
    I recommend this video:
    The Human Jesus

    Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

    Yours In Messiah
    Adam Pastor

  2. Thanks, Adam, for your feedback. I will definitely take a good look at the materials to which you linked in your comment. I've read some of the article, and you are right that echad does not by necessity refer to a plurality in unity; I go so far as to point that out in this post. You're also right that Elohim does not necessarily indicate a plurality within the nature of God.

    It is interesting, however, that in your article you state, "The form of the verb used in Hebrew when Elohim the true God is the subject is also instructive. It is virtually always singular in form throughout the Tanakh." In his article, Jewishness and the Trinity" (, Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum points out that this is not, in fact, the case:

    "The point made, of course, is generally true because the Bible does teach that God is only one God and, therefore, the general pattern is to have the plural noun followed by the singular verb when it speaks of the one true God. However, there are places where the word is used of the true God and yet it is followed by a plural verb:

    Genesis 20:13: And it came to pass, when God (Elohim) caused me to wander (Literally: THEY caused me to wander) from my father's house ...

    Genesis 35:7: ... because there God (Elohim) appeared to him ... (Literally: THEY appeared to him.)

    2 Samuel 7:23: ... God (Elohim) went ... (Literally: THEY went.)

    Psalm 58 Surely He is God who judges ... (Literally: THEY judge.)"

    You also state that "whenever the people of God speak of Him in the Hebrew Bible using a pronoun, they always employ the singular form." This may be true when people are speaking to or about God; I'm definitely no scholar of Hebrew, so I'll assume this to be the case. However, in Fruchtenbaum's article he points out that this is not always the case when God speaks in the first person:

    "Another case in point regarding Hebrew grammar is that often when God speaks of himself, he clearly uses the plural pronoun:
    Gen. 1:26: Then God (Elohim) said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness...

    The use of the plural pronoun can also be seen In the following:

    Gen. 3:22: Then the LORD God (YHVH Elohim) said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us''

    Genesis 11:7: "Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language.''

    Isaiah 6:8: Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?"

    This last passage would appear contradictory with the singular "I" and the plural "us'' except as viewed as a plurality (us) in a unity (I)."

    It is not surprising to the believer in the Trinity that we would see Elohim used in conjunction with both singular and plural verbs, with both singular and plural pronouns. He is, indeed, three (in one sense) and one (in another).

    One last point. As I explained in the post with which I started this blog, "Jesus: Jehovah, the LORD of the Old Testament" (, in his letter to messianic Jews (Hebrews), the author claims that Psalm 102 were words spoken to Jesus by God. Yet, it is clear that the psalmist is singing to YHWH.

    For these and innumerable other reasons, I believe the follower of Yeshua is, in fact, called to recognize and worship Him as God.

    In any case, thanks again for your feedback.