When I was a student, I felt that there was a never-ending list of facts and rules to remember. As a pastor and an academic my “to remember” list has transformed into a collection of appointments, committees, and deadlines.
The concept of remembering in Scripture, however, is not simply a matter of recalling snippets of information or the time of upcoming appointments. Remembering, particularly in the Old Testament, is almost always associated with action or conduct. A call to remember is a call to act on or in accordance with what is being remembered. Sometimes this is made explicit in the text such as in Exodus 20:8 where we are called to remember the Sabbath by resting and keeping it holy, or in the story of Joseph where the cupbearer is asked to remember Joseph by mentioning him to Pharoah (Genesis 40:14). At other times the action is implied such as the call in Ecclesiastes 12:1 to “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Here, the text is not calling for remembering information about God but rather, calling the reader to follow and obey God while they are still young. Remembering determines the individual’s conduct in the present and the future.
About one-third of the Old Testament uses of the word remember (zakar) refer to God remembering. Since God doesn’t forget, it is at first puzzling that God is so often described as remembering or called upon to remember. It makes more sense when we understand that God’s remembering is a declaration that He is acting. When God is described as remembering He is being pronounced as having acted in ways which demonstrate His faithfulness to His promises (Psalm 105:42) and His covenant (Genesis 9:15; Psalm 105:8; 1 Chronicle 16:15), or, in ways that are in keeping with his character (Psalm 98:3). On the other hand, a call for God to remember is a call for God to listen and act in keeping with these characteristics (Psalms 25:6; 119:49). There is however one important exception to God’s perfect memory: His promise in Jeremiah 31:34 where he uses an act of will to forgive and forget sins.
When humans are the subject of remembering in the Old Testament, they are frequently called to remember God (Deuteronomy 8:18), his mighty acts in their midst (Deuteronomy 5:15), and His law (Malachi 4:4). However, unlike God who always remembers, humans are often forgetful. This forgetfulness is sometimes equated with unfaithfulness to God and the covenant in the prophetic books (Ezekiel 23:35). Symbols such as the Sabbath, feast days (Deuteronomy 16:3), and even blue tassels added to clothing (Numbers 15:39) were designed to help them remember God and their relationship with Him.
To further enhance their memory, Israel was called to repeat the stories of the mighty acts of God to their children (Deuteronomy 6:20-25). As the Israelites remembered, they not only built up and reinforced a picture of a faithful and trustworthy God, they also developed an understanding of their identity as God’s beloved people. This provided them with a context to both understand and interpret their present circumstances.
The Old Testament concept of remembering is thus not only associated with appropriate action but also with relationship and identity. As we consider God’s calls to remember today, we should not see them as one more thing to add to our busy lives, but rather as a call to act in accordance with God’s will and to grow in our understanding of God and our relationship with Him.
Dr Wendy Jackson is Head of Seminary at Avondale University College.