Several months ago, I volunteered in my friend's 3rd grade classroom. The morning began with ant colony-like precision as students made their way to their seats, pulled out their books, and started working. Before beginning the first lesson, my friend led his students in a Q & A session of the following classroom rules:
Rule #1 Follow directions quickly
Rule #2 Raise your hand for permission to speak
Rule #3 Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat
Rule #4 Make smart choices!
Rule #5 Keep your dear teacher happy
I was somewhat surprised, as these were the exact same rules, expressed in the exact same Q & A format as when I volunteered at the beginning of the school year. I thought to myself, “Come on guys, really? Is this necessary? I know you’re 3rd graders, but don’t we have these memorized by now?”
Apparently not, as this is how they had started class every day for the last nine months.
My silent judgment quickly dissipated however, as I remembered that the Old Testament is chalk full of such repetition; it’s replete with exhortations to remember God’s character, commands, and covenant.
Deuteronomy, the last book in the Torah, takes place as the Israelites are camped on the plains of Moab, ready to enter the Promised Land. This has been a long time coming, but it’s also been a rough road. The Israelites have experienced a lot of family drama, have moved from slavery to deliverance, have gallivanted in the desert, battled other tribes and nations, and experienced numerous faith crises along the way. Moses, their fearless leader through it all, now gives a series of three speeches as the Israelites prepare to claim what God promised back in Genesis.
Central to these three speeches is a call to remember. Moses uses the Hebrew word זָכַר (zä·kar’), meaning “to remember, recall or call to mind,” fourteen times in Deuteronomy.* He exhorts the Israelites (men, women, and children) to remember God’s mighty acts of deliverance from Egypt; to recall God’s provision in the wilderness; to meditate on the covenant forged on Mount Sinai; to constantly recite the statutes and ordinances that make them a unique nation and God’s chosen people. Just as my friend posted his rules on the classroom wall and paired the verbal recitation with hand movements, so too Moses commands the Israelites to remember by binding God’s words on their hands, fixing them on their foreheads, writing them on their doorposts and on their gates (6.8-9, 11.18-20). Perhaps Moses already knew what learning theory is coming to understand—that visual, kinesthetic, and auditory reminders are crucial for memorization.
I can’t help but wonder though if the Israelites felt exasperated by this redundant memory talk. Did they feel like saying, “Yea, yea Moses, we got it. We’ve had plenty of time to memorize this stuff. We know our story, we know the rules, we know Yahweh’s expectations for us.”
Apparently, they didn't, for the rest of the Old Testament is replete with Israel’s forgetfulness. They forsake Yahweh, forget their story, and abandon the commandments, resulting in a fragmented nationhood and identity. They suffer the consequences of disobedience, and while redemption is still Yahweh’s ultimate plan, they don’t escape his judgment.
This is why Moses so adamantly calls them to remember. He’s been with them for a long time. He knows their shortcomings, he’s acquainted with their faults. He knows they are a forgetful people.
Like the Israelites, we too are a forgetful people. We often forget God’s greatest act of mercy—Jesus’ death—which moved us from slavery to deliverance. We forget how God faithfully provides for our needs and are quick to selfishly demand more. We forget to adhere to the morals that separate us from the world, and fail to act obediently to the higher ethic to which God has called us.
To combat this forgetfulness, and remember our responsibilities as God’s people, we need to seriously heed Moses’ exhortation, recognizing that when it comes to faith, belief, and obedience, we need as many reminders as 3rd graders.