“Beware Lest Thou Forget”
Deuteronomy 6, 8, 11, 32
by Philip Allred
Deuteronomy is the record of Moses’ last words to Israel before they entered the Promised Land. Israel would be leaving the wilderness, where they had been in humble dependence on the Lord, for the literally green pastures of Canaan. Knowing that he would not be joining them, Moses warned Israel against spiritual amnesia. This great prophet repeatedly exhorted them not to forget the covenant they made with God. In fact, Moses employed the words remember, forget and their variants in Deuteronomy more times than in all the rest of the Pentateuch combined (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers).
If Israel would remember their deliverance-even “all the great acts of the Lord” (Deut. 11:7), then they would continue to receive “power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto [their] fathers” (Deut. 8:18). Yoseph Yerushalmi, an authority on Jewish memory, has written, “Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people. Its reverberations are everywhere, but they reach a crescendo in the Deuteronomic history and in the prophets.”
To reinforce and continually nurture Israel’s covenantal memory, Moses employed various mnemonic methods throughout the book of Deuteronomy. These tools of remembrance are collected as a whole only within that book, literally making Deuteronomy a how-to handbook for Israel’s memory. The memory-aiding methods Moses marshaled in Deuteronomy include repetition, types and symbols, the Sabbath, seasonal feasts and festivals, significant years, circumcision, altars and monuments, religious attire, the “song” of Moses, and culture.Repetition
President Ezra Taft Benson said, “Repetition is a key to learning. Our sons need to hear the truth repeated.” The English appellation of the book, Deuteronomy, means “repeated law,” “second law,” or “copy of the law.” This alludes to the fact that Deuteronomy is a selective revision of the Mosiac law and history found in Exodus through Numbers. “It is not a mere repetition, however. As Leviticus was for the priests and Numbers for the Levites, so Deuteronomy was for the people. Therefore, while it is not so detailed nor technical as the books which precede it, it contains all the essential elements which the individual must obey to insure continual blessings associated with the covenant life.”
Repetition and recitation help us to remember. Deuteronomy, as a book, was to be taught in the home to the children (4:4-9; 6:7). It was to be meditated upon constantly (6:7). It was to be studied by Israel’s king on a daily basis (17:18-19; also Joshua 1:8). It was to be rehearsed to the entire population of Israel, including the resident gentiles, every Sabbatical year, during the feast of Tabernacles (31:10-13). Repetition is utilized within the book of Deuteronomy as well. The Shema, or Jewish daily prayer, consists of passages from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. These references have the Lord’s injunctions to teach the law in the family, as well as, to talk of and ponder on the law continually. One translation of Deuteronomy 4:7 renders “talk” as “recite” and notes that Moses’ instruction “involves recitation and reading or murmuring” as an aid to remembering. On this point, another biblical scholar has written, “Consideration of the memory passages in Deuteronomy suggests that the mode of the remembrance was preaching or sacred recital in the sanctuaries and it is so prominent as to amount to a Deuteronomic presentation of remembrance.
Moses also stressed significant parts of their immediate history within the book of Deuteronomy. These specific historical references reminded Israel of the Lord’s delivering hand in their past.
Not only is Israel under no obligation whatever to remember the entire past, but its principle of selection is unique unto itself. It is above all God’s acts of intervention in history, and man’s responses to them, be they positive or negative, that must be recalled”. For the real danger is not so much that what happened in the past will be forgotten, as the more crucial aspect of how it happened.
In this way, Israel would always be reminded of the Lord’s miraculous measures in their behalf. “Memory of God’s past course of action and anticipation of his future course of action provide the framework for the present commitment to God in the renewal of the covenant.” So critical is this historical awareness that Yerushalmi declares, “Ancient Israel knows what God is from what he has done in history. And if that is so, then memory has become crucial to its faith, and, ultimately, to its very existence.” Thus, memory of the Lord’s temporal deliverance would serve to point Israel to ponder their greater eternal salvation only available through their true deliverer.
One final note on the virtue of repetition for memory as provided for in Deuteronomy is that the eighth chapter is arranged as a chiasmus. Chiasmus is an ancient form of poetry that serves to enhance its message through its form. John Welch notes that in a chiasmus “the repeating of key words in the two halves underlines the importance of the concepts they present”. The repeating form also enhances clarity and speeds memorizing.”
a-Obedience to God’s commands insures life (8:1)
b-Wandering in the desert (8:2-6)
c-Richness of the land (8:7-10)