For thousands of years, every morning and evening, Jewish people have prayed these well-known words as a way of expressing their devotion to God, they’re called the Shema.
“Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the Lord is one, and as for you, you shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
We’re going to look at the last word, strength.
The Hebrew Word Me'od [00:24-01:31]
The Hebrew word is me'od, and it occurs some 300 times in the Scriptures, and it doesn’t actually mean “strength.” There is a perfectly good word for strength in Hebrew (koakh), and me'od is not it. In fact, the Shema is one of the only places in the whole Bible where me'od is translated as strength. So what’s up with that?
The most common meaning of me'od is “very” or “much.” It’s what grammar nerds call an adverb, a word that comes alongside other words to augment their meaning.
For example, in Genesis chapter 1, God looks at the world he’s made and six times he calls it “good.” But then, the climactic seventh time, he says it is me'od good, (Genesis 1:31) that is, “very good.” Later in Genesis, in the story of Noah, the flood waters keep rising and they become “me'od powerful,” or “extremely powerful” over the land (Genesis 7:18). In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain wasn’t just angry at his brother, he was me'od angry (Genesis 4:5). Or when Saul became the king of Israel, he was me'od happy. (1 Samuel 11:15)
So you can see why me'od occurs hundreds of times in the Bible. It’s a really common Hebrew word that intensifies the meaning of other words, “very this” or “really that.”
Me'od in the Hebrew Bible [01:32-02:44]
However, biblical authors could use me'od in ways that are unique. Like when they want to increase a word’s force to total capacity, they’ll say me'od twice. So Jacob became me'odme'od wealthy, with flocks and camels and donkeys and servants [Genesis 30:43]. Or the Israelite spies went to investigate the promised land, and they say, “the land we passed through is me'odme'od good.” [Numbers 14:7]
So it’s pretty clear me'od doesn’t mean strength in terms of muscle power but rather “very” or “much.” Now let’s come back to the Shema, where people are called to love God with all of their heart, that is, their will and affections, and with all their soul, that is, their whole life and physical being, and with all their me'od, that is, with all of their “muchness.” And while that sounds kind of funny, you also kind of get it.
If me'od can intensify any word’s meaning to total capacity, then this final thing that you use to love God, isn’t a thing at all. It’s actually everything. Loving God with your me'od means devoting every possibility, opportunity, and capacity that you have to honoring God and loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s the most wide and expansive word in the Shema. Me'od can refer to almost anything.
Different Interpretations of Me'od [02:45-04:12]
Which raises one last and really fascinating point. Because this word was capable of many nuances of meaning, ancient Jewish communities interpreted me'od of the Shema in different ways.
So the ancient Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, when they came to me'od in the Shema, they translated it with the Greek word dunamis, that is, “power” or “strength.” This is the interpretation adopted by most modern translations.
But if you look at the ancient Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, you’ll discover that these scholars interpreted me'od to mean “wealth.” Money is a concrete thing that opens up all kinds of opportunities to love God by giving away resources.
And when Jesus was asked about the most important command in Scripture, he quoted the Shema, and he used two words to unpack the meaning of me'od. He said to “love God with all your mind and with all your power.” [Mark 12:30] Both are human capacities that can be used to love God in an infinite number of ways.
So which one of these interpretations of me'od is right? Does it mean strength or wealth or mind? That’s the wrong question. The word me'od doesn’t limit the number of ways you can show love for God. Just the opposite! The point is that everything in a person’s life, every moment and every opportunity, every ability and capacity offers a chance to love and honor the one who made you. It’s a call to love God with all of your “muchness.” And that’s the meaning of strength in the Shema.