The Christian Memory

In my most recent sermon from Deuteronomy I taught about how the act of remembering is so central to Christian worship. This reflection came from the fourth commandment (Dt. 5:12-15) which gives this reason for the observance of the Sabbath Day: “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath Day” (Dt. 5:15). The verb “to remember” occurs at least 14 times in Deuteronomy, and so this in this article I will deal with some of those passages in order to expand on the importance of memory in our relationship with God.

First, memory of God’s faithfulness and power is the antidote to fear. In Deuteronomy 7:17-19 Moses said to Israel, “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?’ 18 you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the Lord your God brought you out. So will the Lord your God do to all the peoples of whom you are afraid.” Israel originally refused to enter the Promised Land because they were afraid of the nations which lived there (Numbers 13-14). That generation had forgotten what God had done to Egypt and therefore their faith failed. Moses called the new generation of Israelites to remember how God had delivered them from Egypt by his mighty power, and on that basis to trust God to defeat and drive out the nations in Canaan. As followers of Jesus we too can remember how God has demonstrated his faithfulness and power in our lives, and we can find in that memory the antidote to the fear which so often threatens our faith. As I have been preparing to go to Kenya over the past few months, there have been times when I have been nervous about travel and safety concerns. In those times of nervousness, I have often called to mind how God provided for and protected me when I went to Peru, South America eleven years ago. The memory of my experience of God’s faithfulness and grace at that time has strengthened my faith and calmed my fears in the present.

Second, memory of God’s good gifts, and of our sinful failings, leads to humility. In Deuteronomy 8 Moses warned the people against becoming prideful and forgetful once they entered the Promised Land: “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God… lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them… Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth” (Dt. 8:11, 12, 17). The danger was that once Israel was settled into their new home and enjoying God’s many blessings, they would forget God and believe the delusion that they were responsible for the good things they were enjoying. Against this pride Moses said, “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Dt. 8:18).

Then, in Deuteronomy 9 Moses warned the people against the pride of imagining that God was blessing them because they were more righteous than the other nations (Dt. 9:1-5). Against this self-deceit Moses reminded Israel of their recent history in which they had proven to be very sinful indeed again and again: “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord” (Dt. 9:6-7).

If we are tempted by the pride of self-righteousness, memory of our moral and spiritual failures can lead us once again to humility and repentance. If we are tempted by the pride of independence, thinking that we don’t need God and have provided for ourselves, memory of the fact that God in faithfulness has given to us all of our abilities and opportunities, can return us to our rightful place of fearing and trusting God our Father.

Third, memory of our own suffering can lead us to treat others with compassion and justice. Many of the laws in Israel’s covenant relationship with God are concerned with establishing Israel as a just society which equally provided for and protected all of its citizens and residents. Several of these laws are rooted in Israel’s past as a nation of slaves in Egypt.

  • Hebrew men and women could become “enslaved” to fellow Hebrews as debt-slaves. They would repay their debt through their labor. However, Hebrews could not be sold into permanent slavery. In the seventh year, also known as the Sabbath year, debts were to be cancelled and slaves were to be set free (Dt. 15:1-12). In this context Moses instructed Israelite masters to generously provide for their newly freed slaves, and he grounded this rule in their memory of slavery in Egypt: “And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today” (Dt. 15:13-15).
  • Additionally, the Law of Moses very carefully called for the protection and provision for the most vulnerable members of society: sojourners (foreigners living in Israel), orphans, widows, and the poor. Once again the basis for these laws is the memory of how Israel had been so badly mistreated and abused by the Egyptians. “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, 18 but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. 19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.” (Dt. 24:17-22)

Two principles are at work in these laws.  First is the essence of the golden rule (Matthew 7:12): the Israelites did not want to be mistreated by the Egyptians, and so they should not mistreat people within their own land.  Rather, they should treat the vulnerable with special care, just as they would have wanted the Egyptians to treat them.  Second, Israel was not to become like their former Egyptian slave masters by taking advantage of and oppressing foreigners, or by neglecting and abusing orphans and widows. Instead, Israel was to be like the Lord their God who had great compassion on that nation of slaves by delivering them from Egypt, making them his covenant people, giving them his law, bringing them into the Promised Land, and blessing their homes, families, fields, and livestock. The justice of God – his very evident concern for the poor and oppressed – was to guide Israel in how they treated foreigners, widows, and orphans.

As followers of Jesus we should remember in the same ways that Moses taught Israel to remember. We should remember when we were dead in sin and outside of Christ, and therefore we should have compassion for people who are far from God and suffering in slavery to sin. We should remember the losses and heartaches we have experienced, and be prepared to extend kindness to someone else who is going through a difficult time. We should remember when God has treated us with mercy instead of as our sins deserve (all the time!) and we should extend the same love and forgiveness to others (Eph. 4:32-5:2). We should remember that God desires justice for all people – especially for those who are most vulnerable to abuse from the powerful – and we should use our voices to advocate for people who cannot defend themselves (Isaiah 1:16-17; Proverbs 31:8-9).