Old Testament scholar Bernard M. Levenson says that to regard the Shema as an assertion of monotheism is "a view that is anachronistic. In the context of ancient Israelite religion, it served as a public proclamation of exclusive loyalty to YHVH as the sole LORD of Israel..."
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.b (Deuteronomy 6:4) [NJPS]
Note b: Cf. Rashbam and Ibn Ezra; see Zechariah 14:9. Others “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” [And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name.d Zechariah 14:9]
Of the NJPS rendering of Deuteronomy 6:4 Levenson states:
NJPS correctly departs from the more familiar translation, “The LORD [YHVH] our God, the LORD is one” (see translators’ note b). Each of the two interpretations is theoretically possible because, in Hebrew, it is possible to form a sentence by simply joining a subject and a predicate, without specifying the verb “to be.” The Hebrew here thus allows either “YHVH, our God, YHVH is one” or “YHVH, is our God, YHVH alone.” The first, older translation, which makes a statement about the unity and the indivisibility of God, does not do full justice to this text (though it makes sense in a later Jewish context as a polemic against Christianity). The verse makes not a quantitative argument (about the number of deities) but a qualitative one, about the nature of the relationship between God and Israel. Almost certainly, the original force of the verse, as the medieval Jewish exegetes in translators’ note b recognized, was to demand Israel show exclusive loyalty to our God, YHVH – but not thereby to deny the existence of other gods! In this way, it assumes the same perspective as the first commandment of the Decalogue, which, by prohibiting the worship of other gods, presupposes their existence.
Levenson notes the similarly of meaning with the First Commandment:
You shall have no other gods besides Me. (Deuteronomy 5:7)
This first commandment takes for granted the existence of other gods; its concern is only to ensure Israel’s exclusive loyalty to YHVH. This perspective, called “monolatry,” is found frequently within Deuteronomy (see 6.4; 32.8-9, 43; 33.2-3, 27). The idea of monolatry is often expressed by representing YHVH as the ruler of the divine council (see 32.8 n.; Psalm 82; 89.6-8; cf. Exodus 15.11). That perspective almost certainly represents an earlier form of Israelite religion. Ancient Near Eastern sources similarly envision a chief god ruling over a council of other gods. During the Babylonian exile, perhaps under the influence of Second Isaiah, a very different understanding developed. Radical “monotheism” affirms God’s greatness, not by portraying Him as more powerful than other gods but, instead, by denying the existence of other gods altogether (see 4.15-31 n; Isaiah 43.10-12; 44.6-8, 45.5-6, 14, 18-19, 22).
In other words, where the Torah states there are gods (plural) and Israel is to worship only YHVH, under the Rabbinic teachings of the Second Temple period, the existence of any god other than YHVH was denied.
If this is so, then it seems the Fourth Gospel's statement "...the Word was God" is meant to serve as a correction to this wrong understanding of monotheism and the nature of God.
Is John 1:1 meant to correct what Levenson calls radical monotheism and to restore a proper understanding of the qualitative nature of God?
1. Bernard M. Levenson, The Jewish Study Bible, Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 380
3. Ibid., p. 375