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Relevant Verses: Deuteronomy 1–3

Theme: Remembering the Ups and Downs of the Past

Leading Question: Why should we remember the past?

In the first four chapters of Deuteronomy Moses recalls key events that have occurred during the forty years of desert wanderings. He recaps the history of their journey for a couple of reasons: (1) the young generation of the Israelites did not live through the significant events of the exodus, and (2) he reminded them of what God has done to bring them to this historic moment when they are ready to enter the Promised Land. To understand what is to come, we must understand what has gone before.

Question: What do you remember about the important events in your life? Do you vividly recall every detail of the scene, who was there and what you were wearing? Or do you remember more of how it made you feel at the time?

In these chapters when Moses recalls the past, he becomes emotional. He focuses specifically on those times that were difficult for him, for example, when he needed help in managing the large group of people, when the spies presented their negative report to the people, and when he was told that he would not enter the Promised Land. He surely carried a tremendous burden over the course of the forty years in the desert. In a few places, when he recounts the past, he seems to tell his personal perspective of those events, which, some commentators perceive as contradictions to the original narrative in Exodus and Numbers. For example, Moses implies that it was his idea to appoint judges, whereas in Exodus the idea came from Jethro and in Numbers it was from God. Also, Moses suggests that it was the people who wanted to send spies into Canaan before they took possession of the land. Most surprising of all is Moses’ claim that it was due to God’s anger over the Israelites’ refusal to enter Canaan at Kadesh Barnea that he was refused entry as well (Deut 1:37). He mentions this perceived injustice three times in the first four chapters of Deuteronomy (cf. 3:26; 4:21). It seems that for Moses, time is telescoped into events that tell of the rebelliousness of the people and the consequences of these events.

Emotion seems to be the anchor that keeps memories in our minds. A new study from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, shows that objective and subjective memory can function independently, involve different parts of the brain, and that people base their decisions on subjective memory — how they feel about a memory — more than on its accuracy (published in “News Medial” on March 11, 2021). Anne Wilson, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University whose research broadly focuses on memory, time and identity, put it this way, “We reconstruct what happened in the past on the basis of little bits and pieces of memory. We’re acting like archaeologists — picking up the pieces and putting them back together.”

Question: How does Moses’ subjective (or at least one-sided?) memory of the past make sense when we consider Deuteronomy as God’s inspired word?

For us who like to have precise information, it is difficult to understand why Moses’ account in the first chapters of Deuteronomy would be so selective in its detail and condensed in scope. This reminds of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Jesus condensed God’s laws of the Old Testament into eight statements that we call the Beatitudes. He didn’t do that for the sake of the disciples or for those who were familiar with the laws of the Torah. Jesus spoke to the crowds of people who followed him from all over Galilee, Decapolis, Judea, and beyond the Jordan, all those who were ill, suffering with various diseases and pains (Matt 4:24, 25). They did not come to hear a message of ‘don’t do this or that’—most of us know when we do things wrong—but they needed words of compassion and courage. Jesus as a speaker was aware of his audience and chose the right words for his audience. Moses chose to focus on the events that he identified as significant, and that pointed to one indisputable fact: the people of Israel had made it to the threshold of the Promised Land not because of the people’s faithfulness, but because of God’s faithfulness to His promises.

“We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.” There is also the counterpart to this wonderful quote by Ellen G. White. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” while British statesman Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Question: Why is it not only important to remember the past but also to let go of the past? How does one heal from a past that so often brings back pain and trauma?

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