Shema – To Hear or Listen

man and woman having troubled communication
09 Mar 2019

“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” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NASB).

For thousands of years, the people of Israel have prayed these words every morning and night expressing their worship to God. The prayer is called the “Shema.” The first word of the Shema is “hear” (Heb. šāmaʿ) a verb meaning to hear or listen. Shema is a common word in the Hebrew Bible. Obviously, hearing is a very universal activity that is connected with the ear. “Ears that hear [shema] and eyes that see, the Lord has made them both” (Proverbs 20:12 NIV).

Other meanings of Shema

There are other ways that Hebrew authors use the word, Shema. In Hebrew, Shema can also mean “pay attention to” or “focus on.” For instance, Leah wasn’t loved by her husband. She has a son and names him, Simeon (Heb. šimʿôn or Shim’on) because she says, “the Lord has heard [shema] that I am unloved” (e.g., Genesis 29:33). Still, yet, there are other ways Shema is used. It can also mean “responding” to what you hear. Many of the cries for help in the book of Psalm begin with asking God to listen, “Hear [shema] my voice, when I call O Lord, be merciful and answer me” (Psalm 27:7). So, asking God to Shema is at the same time asking God to act or do something.

This is similar to when God asks people to listen. When the Israelites came to Mount Sinai, God said, “if you obey [shema] me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5 NIV). In the original language of this verse the word Shema is repeated twice in the sentence (e.g., shema, shema) which gives it emphasis meaning “listen closely.” But from Gods point of view listening is basically the same as “keeping the covenant.” In other words, to God listening and keeping the covenant are the same thing. So, when God asks the people to Shema, what he means is that they “listen” and “obey.” The Bible says, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:18 NASB)

In ancient Hebrew, there is not a separate word for “obey.” Meaning to carry out the wishes of someone in authority over you. Therefore, in the Bible when you want to say, “I will listen and do what you say” you use the single word, Shema. In Hebrew, “listening” and “doing” are two sides of the same coin. This is why later in Israel’s history when the people were breaking their covenant promises to God the Hebrew prophets would say things like, “they have ears but they’re not listening.” In other words, the people had ears but weren’t actually listening. If they were, they would have acted differently. In the end, “listening” in the bible is about giving respect to the ones speaking to you and doing what they say. Real listening takes effort and action.

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JD Wilhite

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