When It’s a Theology of Remembering

During the past few months, I’ve been mulling over, kneading out the idea of a theology of remembering, specifically within Deuteronomy (though I can see it throughout the larger Old Testament and in the New Testament as well). I was able to direct my thoughts into more coherent statements by writing my course paper for my Old Testament Theology class about this subject. Here is an excerpt: 

. . . YHWH’s desire that the Israelites return to Hezekiah-style living is not contained within his holy contempt for evil. While, yes, YHWH is holy and both despises and condemns evil, he has not set up a sterile system of right and wrong that his people must follow for the sole reason of his character. It is more than that. As J. D. Douglas explains, “the Bible is insistent that isolated external acts of homage to God cannot make up for a lack of consistent obedience in heart and conduct” (904). YHWH desires more than rote behavior that may or may not be rooted in sterility and apathy; he desires an overflow of obedience from the heart, for this heart-attitude leads to life. Yet what he desires would not mean anything unless he is an authority on the subjects of life versus destruction, obedience versus disobedience. He is: he is owed obedience because he maintains the two requirements for obedience – having a right to command and being able to make known his commands (904). Whoever may be Deuteronomy’s author, he understood that “the inner certainty of those who have had communion with Yahweh is to override everything else” (Nicoll 283). Certainly, this understanding reveals the reason why YHWH would command his people to remember their past: remembering leads to obedience.

In order to best understand a theology of remembering, one must first grasp Deuteronomy’s theology of rescue. Deuteronomy repeatedly reminds the reader that YHWH is a God who rescues. The primary example assigned to this theological principle is that YHWH led the Israelites out of Egypt, a land of oppression, and into a land flowing with milk and honey. Based on the exceeding repetition of this reminder, it seems that YHWH wants his people to remember him in this way first and foremost. But he also reveals that he is a God who rescues in other ways. YHWH rescues his people by fighting their enemies: the Anakim (1:30), Sihon (2:32), and Og (3:2), for example. He fights their enemies so that he can successfully lead them through the wilderness (the in-between time between Egypt and the Promised Land) to their anointed destination; unless he fights, the Israelites will not make it. YHWH also rescues his people by giving them the choice of obedience and by encouraging and urging them to obey. For example, he prefaces the giving of the Ten Commandments with a reminder that he is the God who rescued them from Egyptian slavery; then he gives the Ten Commandments; and he ends with a heartfelt plea that his people will obey “ . . . that it may be well with them and with their sons forever” (5:29). Over and over again, this plea is repeated throughout the Book of Deuteronomy. It is important to understand that while, yes, Deuteronomy consists of many laws given by YHWH, they are given alongside his personal plea that his people will obey for their own good.

Deuteronomy also describes YHWH as a God who encourages remembering. Although YHWH’s people seem to be the ones on the receiving end of this theology of remembering (because Deuteronomy outlines its practicalities), a theology of remembering also helps them understand who YHWH is. They know that he wants them to remember their past (the bad and the good) and what he has done for them. This commandment is given clearly in 8:2: “You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years . . .” But why? Because YHWH is trustworthy (in the sense that he makes extraordinary promises and brings them to fruition), he wants his people to remember what life was like without his help, what life has been like with his help, and what a difference his presence makes in the midst of hardship. If the Israelites remember these things, then they will be more likely to obey YHWH’s commands, which will ultimately lead only to good for them. It is when they do not remember – when they forget – that they walk far from him, that they disobey, and that they begin to follow other gods, which will lead to their destruction (8:19). So, the Israelites can conclude that YHWH wants them to remember and to obey because he desires their good. He cares for and about them, enough to warn them about destruction and to encourage them to walk along life-giving paths. For this reason, he encourages his people to participate in remembering. These two theologies – of rescue and of remembering – go hand-in-hand in the sense that because YHWH cares for his people, he rescues them from destruction and encourages them to remember what he has done for them. In summary, YHWH cares about his people, and this compassion is reflected in what he does for and says to them.

Within the Book of Deuteronomy alone (specifically the New American Standard Bible version), the word “remember” is used fifteen times. Each time, this word is used to refer to a specific event in the audience’s past. Five times it is used to refer to the Israelites’ experience as slaves in the land of Egypt (5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18; 24:22), and nine times it is used in a direct link to the name of YHWH (4:10; 5:15; 7:18; 8:2; 8:18; 9:7; 15:15; 24:9; 24:18). Given what is known about the biblical authors’ understanding of literary craftsmanship, one may assume that this use of repetition was intentional. What, then, was the intention behind it? Each time the word “remember” is used, it is in the context of specific instruction to the Israelites; YHWH tells them to remember specific events in their past and expects their obedience. But these specific events are all negative and refer to times of Israelite captivity, which leads one to wonder why YHWH would ever ask the Israelites to call to mind memories that would assuredly have been very painful, memories that perhaps they had repressed out of a great desire to forget them. Yet YHWH, their loving and good Creator, asks them to remember their pain. These two facts, when lined up side-by-side, seem contradictory. The only way they can be logically aligned is if we are mistaken and, in fact, YHWH is not loving or good, or if the Israelites’ remembering of their pain will lead, somehow, to blessing.  The answer to this predicament may be found, again, within the Book of Deuteronomy.

Not only does Deuteronomy continuously repeat the word “remember,” but it also presents this word in the context of outright instruction. Considering that what the Israelites are asked to remember is painful and distressing (their experience as slaves, for example), theological concerns about YHWH’s character may legitimately be raised. Yet the preceding three Old Testament books present convincing evidence that YHWH is good, loving, compassionate, and trustworthy. Given this information, it is no mistake that YHWH may be trusted even in the midst of this seemingly absurd command. In the Book of Deuteronomy, YHWH tells the Israelites five separate times that if they obey his commandments, they will be blessed, but if they do not obey, they will be cursed (28:1; 28:2; 28:15; 30:10; 30:17). So, then, if the Israelites obey his command to remember their past, they will be blessed. Memory, apparently, is both sustaining and convincing. For when YHWH instructs his people to remember, he also supplies a reason why: when they remember their past hurts and then remember what he has done to redeem and to heal them, then they will not turn away from him but will continue forward in an obedient relationship with him. That is the key: to not just dwell on past hurts but to remember them in the context of YHWH’s redemption of them, his transformation of evil into good . . . 

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