In the context of giving the Law to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai and the promise that if they follow God’s commands as a nation, God will bless them, we find a statement that stands at the core of biblical religion:
While the Ten Commandments were themselves a summary of the Law, this declaration was an even more concise summary of the first four commandments regarding their worship; Jesus would later indicate this when he named this as “the great commandment in the Law” and summarized the rest of the commandments with, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He indicated, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:36–40).
Several characteristics of this statement, known as the “Shema” (from the first word, “Hear” in Hebrew), reveal important connections between biblical religion, worship, and culture.
First, the statement is a concise statement of Israel’s theology: The Lord is one. This doctrine separated Israel’s worship from the worship of all other pagan nations that were either polytheistic (worship of many gods) or henotheistic (worship of one god among many). Israel’s theology was explicitly monotheistic, unique among all the religions of the world to this day.
Second, notice that the central command of this statement addresses a heart orientation, what I have elsewhere characterized as worldview. In other words, according to the Shema, biblical religion consists of both right theology and right worldview—explicitly believing right things about God and then having the heart rightly oriented toward God.
Immediately following the Shema, God instructs the people concerning how they can cultivate this proper religion (theology + worldview):
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut 6:6–9)
Cultivating biblical religion involved more than just an intellectual exercise; it required structuring a cultural environment, both in the family and the community at large, that would over time orient their hearts properly. This meant establishing practices, routines, and rituals that kept God regularly before them and embodied a sensibility toward him that would form both their theology and worldview. Every aspect of what they did in both everyday cultural activities and in their dedicated solemn assemblies of worship was to be directed toward the end of truly knowing and loving God.
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