Deuteronomic theology in a nutshell is remember, remember, remember!
Memories are tricky things. It comes as no surprise that memories often change: they twist and produce ill-feelings; they blossom and touch tenderly; they recede into “I forgot” or “I don’t care” mental boxes; or they glue themselves at the forefront of our minds.
Memories play an integral part on relationships. Often how we remember a person affects (to cause, think more internally) and effects (to produce, think more externally) how we feel and treat said person. Other irrelevant memories can impinge on the relationship too. Almost without permission a thousand related and unrelated incidents come to fore as we see the other person’s face: “He said he was busy that day,” “she was late again,” “ah… I left my charger at home.” For the health of the relationship, memories have to be nurtured and pruned. Not all memories are equal, however. Remembering that the charger is left plugged by the couch is of less relational weight than that this person have hurt you in the past.
The same can be said about our self-perception. “Identity is formed when memory is aroused” (Johann Metz). Memory bits are building blocks of who we think we are, what we have done and do, and why we we are the way we are.
Nurturing and pruning memories is what Moses does for Israel in the first four chapters of Deuteronomy. He lists what to remember, but he also house-checks the memories. Surprisingly, accuracy, though important, is not the golden standard. Memories are notoriously subjective: different minds and the same event produce a Venn diagram of memories. An accurate memory from one vantage point might differ in detail and sometimes in substance than another accurate memory from a different vantage point. Israelites and Moses might agree on what happened (e.g., Israelites wandering in the desert) but disagree on how and why: Israelites thought God left them for dead, and Moses thought it as God’s severe discipline but also unyielding care. Nurturing and pruning memories is a theological act that brings the what, how, and why to produce the twin-prong effect of love of God and neighbor.
Martin Luther agrees: “For the best preparation of all for hearing the Law and for moving the hearer is that which takes place through the evangelical praise of the mercy and the wrath of God” (LW 9:16). Memory that raises praise is a theological one. Such pruned memory becomes then good soil for good works. Thus, memories refined by grace regulate relationships, form identity, lift praise, and prepare for good works.
Left unchecked, doubt can dimorph memories into blasphemy that says the most untrue thing: the Lord hates us (LW 9:22). These four words can tear down what grace works so hard to build up. Blasphemy obscures relationships, unravels identity, stifles praise, and locks us in self-loathe and self-preservation.
When this happens there’s no golden key that magically unlocks us. There’s no executive elevator to cloud nine. Deep and long-lasting relationship with God and people just doesn’t work like that. I’m sure Deuteronomy 1-4 is not the first time Moses retold Israelites their story, and it shouldn’t be the last. Theological memory keeps some blasphemies at bay and chips away at others. Sometimes there’s breakthrough, but most times it’s mundane. But day-by-day solace is reassured near the end of Moses’ first speech:
“Because the LORD your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them” (4:31).
Tucked away in long list of memories, Moses includes this small reminder. Just as a small seed of doubt can grow into cancerous blasphemy, a small seed of grace can eradicate the most ungodly growth and produce life abundant. Therefore, let us remember unto life.