Sunday, April 25, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #17 "Beware Lest Thou Forget"

(Deuteronomy 6; 8; 11; 32)


There is tremendous significance in the little parenthetical statement that opens the Book of Deuteronomy:  "There are 11 days' journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir unto Kadesh-barnea" (Deut. 1:2).  It took the children of Israel 40 years to make an 11-day journey (Kerry Muhlestein, p. 89).  Obviously the physical arrival in the promised land was not the object of the journey.  There was a more important object that took 40 years to accomplish:  learning to be free through obedience and trust in the Lord.  By being placed in a hostile desert environment, they were forced to learn to rely on the Lord, as He was their only means of survival.  By the time they were ready to enter the Promised Land, had they finally learned that?  Yes!  What a relief!  Now there was no reason to worry about them anymore, right?  Wrong.

What are some of the things you have learned in your journey of life?

Can you name the nations of Africa?
Can you tell the date of the Louisiana Purchase?
Can you recite the Periodic Table of Elements?
Can you say which musical key has five sharps?
Can you write down the Pythagorean theorem?
Can you recite the names of all 50 United States?
Can you remember when the Battle of Trenton occured?
Can you tell the date that the Declaration of Independence was signed?
(Outside the U.S., substitute your own historical dates.)

As you can see, the greater part of learning is remembering.  Those things you have "learned" but not continued to use become forgotten.  Those things you repeat frequently, you retain.


At the point of entry into the promised land, the problem was no longer whether the children of Israel had learned obedience and trust in the Lord.  Now the concern was whether they would retain that understanding.  This is where Deuteronomy comes in, the last words of Moses to the children of Israel before they entered the promised land.  Leviticus was information for the priests, Numbers was for the Levites, and Deuteronomy was for the people, to help them remember what they had learned (Philip A. Allred, p. 55).  "Lest when thou has eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Deut. 8:12-14).

Most people over the age of ten can remember their address with no difficulty.  Why?  Because they have employed many mnemonic (memory) devices to remember it:  They write it over and over, they hear it over and over, they see it written over and over, they say it over and over.  The most important component of all effective mnemonic methods is repetition.  Remembering one's own address is easy because the repetition is constant, daily.

Deuteronomy means "repetition of the law" (Allred, p. 56).  It is a constitutional covenant for the Israelites to live by, and as a matter of fact, United States citizens today live by it, too:  Our Constitution is based on Deuteronomy, as is our criminal law, our tort law, and our civil law (Timothy W. Durkin, p. 84-86).  It was vital for the children of Israel to remember this law, and the Lord who gave it, in order to retain the Lord's protection.  As Moses said, "It is not a vain thing for is your life" (Deut. 32:47).


Moses used many memory devices, each a brick in the wall of a spiritual fortress for the Israelites, each of which incorporated the all-important factor of repetition.  (Allred lists more than I do here, including types and symbols, the Sabbath, significant years, circumcision, religious attire, and culture.)

Feasts and Festivals
First of all, why can few people remember the date of the Louisiana Purchase, but almost all Americans remember the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence?  Because it's a national holiday!  We wave the flag, we have picnics, we watch fireworks, we listen to patriotic speeches and music.  From our childhood we are taught about the Fourth of July through all of our senses, repetitiously.  The children of Israel likewise remembered the Lord through their feasts and festivals, as outlined in Deuteronomy 16. They were a major part of the lifestyle of the Israelites.  These feasts and festivals are also found carrying over into the traditions of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon.  Author Jacob Neusner says these "shape life into rhythms of sanctification" (Allred, p. 64).  We have our own feasts and festivals.  All of our national holidays are designed to help us remember something and they can work very well.  Sometimes, however, we go beyond the mark, just as the Jews did with the Law of Moses, and let the celebration become much more important than the object of the celebration.  We need to be careful that we don't become spiritually shallow in the culture in which we live; for example, we need to keep Christ as the obvious focus of our Christmas and Easter celebrations, our fallen patriots as the focus of our Memorial Day observances, and gratitude for blessings as the focus of our Thanksgiving feast.

"And the Lord said unto Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go a whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them...Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel...Moses therefore wrote this song the same day, and taught it the children of Israel" (Deut. 31:16, 19, 22).  Chapter 32  is called "The Song of Moses."  It was literally a song, designed to remind the Israelites of the Lord and His greatness, and warn them of their propensity to forget him every time they sang it. 

One of the phrases introduced in this song is still widely used in the English language today.  "He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye" (Deut. 32:10).  We, of course, also use songs to teach and remember important things: national songs, religious songs, educational songs.  I can name the 50 states in alphabetical order perfectly any time, any day, because my elementary school teacher taught us a song about them.  Memorizing hymns and Primary songs can help us remember gospel concepts, and bring us closer to God quickly when troubles arise.

Poems and Stories
The Hebrews had an incredibly rich language, which doesn't bring all of its meaning with it when it is translated.  One of their most beautiful literary techniques is chiasmus, a form of poetry in which all the lines of the poem lead to the main point, after which they all repeat in reverse order with slight variation.  In chapter 8 of Deuteronomy, Moses applies this mnemonic device, re-telling the whole story of the Exodus and the Lord's role in it, in a chiastic poem (Allred, p. 57-58).  In this poem, the most important point is found in verse 11: "Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statues, which I command thee this day."

The outline of this chiastic poem is as follows:
A. Obedience ensures life (8:1)
     B. Wandering in the desert (8:2-6)
          C. Richness of the promised land (8:7-10)
               D. Do not forget the Lord (8:11)
          C. Richness of the promised land (8:12-13)
     B. Wandering in the desert (8:14-16)
A. Apostasy ensures destruction (8:19-2).

We apply poetry to help us remember things:  "I before E except after C" helps us spell, "right-tighty, lefty-loosy" helps us know which way to screw on the garden hose or the jelly lid.  We would be wise to memorize poems that teach a message, as our prophet President Monson has done, so that we can repeat them at will when the occasion for teaching or remembering arises.

Stories also make great tools for remembering lessons learned.  "And when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?  Then thou shalt say unto thy son, We were Pharaoh's bondmen in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand: And the Lord shewed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his household, before our eyes: And he brought us out from thence, that he might bring us in, to give us the land which he sware unto our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us" (Deut. 6:20-25).  Chapter 8 of Deuteronomy tells the story of the wanderings of the children of Israel, and the blessings of the Lord to them.

Repeating stories of our ancestors, our scripture heroes, our church leaders, and most of all, ourselves, at our family nights and family reunions can help our families remember miracles and seek the Lord's help in their own lives.  President Eyring has counseled us to record the hand of of the Lord in our lives in a journal (Henry B. Eyring, "O Remember, Remember," Ensign, Nov. 2007).

Chapter 6 of Deuteronomy contains the first part of the Shema, a twice-daily ritualistic prayer.  The word shema means "hear." 

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (Deut. 6:4-5).  This is the great, all-encompassing commandment, according to Christ: to "love the Lord thy God."  To the Israelites, the heart was the seat of wisdom, intellect, feelings, emotions, and intentions (Blair G. Van Dyke, p. 37; Allred, p. 49).  In our terms it would equal the heart and head both.  These verses, then, are talking about a conscious effort to be loyal, an intentional obedience. The "soul" refers to life itself.  To love with all the soul meant with enough devotion to die for the other person, to love with your entire existence.  To love with all your might indicated a military meaning, a willingness to join forces to aid the other and to fight on their side (Amy Blake Hardison, p. 25). 

We might reflect the same diligence to prayer by praying twice daily as a family, praying at mealtimes, offering personal prayers throughout the day, and married couple prayers at bedtime.  We can strive to love the Lord with our whole being, as did the Israelites.

Visual Reminders
This is only the first bit of the Shema.  The entire thing is Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21: and Numbers 15:37-41, in that order (Stephen and Shirley Ricks, "Jewish Education in the Meridian of Time," Ensign, October 1987).  "And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates" (Deut. 6:8-9).  Binding them upon the hard or arm would remind them to make their actions and dealings consistent with the Law.  Putting them on the forehead between the eyes would make their vision and their thoughts consistent with the Law.  Putting them on the doorposts would remind them to carry the Law with them out into the community.  Whether Jehovah really meant for them to literally put the scriptures in little boxes on their foreheads and arms and the doorposts of their houses, or whether it was just figurative is debatable (Van Dyke, p. 49), but the symbolism is beautiful.  The phylacteries and the mezuzot evolved from this directive.

We use phylacteries of a sort:  We wear things that remind us of our covenants:  temple garments, CTR rings.  We can also use a form of mezuzots:  The Proclamation on the Family, pictures of Christ and the temples, plaques that say, "Return with Honor," "I Am a Child of God," or "Remember Who You Are."

Deuteronomy also authorized the establishment of a national monument (Deut. 27:2-3). To put up a monument is a worthwhile thing to do. It's another way of reminding people of important things. In the United States, we have the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, etc.  We also have religious monuments scattered throughout the world wherever the saints have been:  monuments to pioneers, statues of Christ, memorials of great saints, historical markers.  When we see one of these, we are curious about its meaning, and we learn about it, photograph it, remember it.


The Lord wanted the children of Israel to be peculiar, meaning "set apart from the world" (Allred, p. 68), a "purchased personal treasure" (Van Dyke, p. 39).  As long as they remembered him, and kept themselves unstained from the world, He fought their battles, watered their land, guarded their prosperity, and protected them from their enemies.  Each time they faithfully exercised these little mnemonic devices, they added a brick to the wall of their fortress from the world.  When they stopped doing this, they lost their defense.

We are told to live "in the world, but not of the world."  Like the Israelites, we also must work to remember the Lord our God and what He has done for us.  It takes constant effort to create "rhythms of sanctification," but as Moses said, "It is not a vain thing for you.. it is your life" (Deut. 32:47).  Any enhancements we make to our environment and our routine that help us to remember our spiritual heritage add to the fortress of strength that we need to survive in these wicked days, and qualify us for the protection and guidance of the Lord.

Kerry Muhlestein, "Believing in the Atoning Power of Christ," Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament: The 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 89-99.

Philip A. Allred, "Moses' Charge to Remember," Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament: The 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 55-70.

Timothy W. Durkin, "Deuteronomy as a Constitutional Covenant," Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament: The 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 74-86.

Blair G. Van Dyke, "Profiles of a Covenant People," Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament: The 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 35-52.

Amy Blake Hardison, "Being a Covenant People," Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament: The 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 19-32.


Michaela Stephens said...

Thanks for this post. I especially liked that last part--"Any enhancements we make to our environment and our routine that help us to remember our spiritual heritage add to the fortress of strength that we need to survive"

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

Thanks, again, Michaela. I love your feedback.

James said...

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Jami said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. It really puts many of the aspects of Deuteronomy into perspective. Like many, I always respond better to effective analogies. Thanks!

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

Thanks, guys. It's nice when you can find relevance in the Old Testament, isn't it?

dwbrinton said...

Great stuff Nancy, I use it often to prepare for my lesson, thank you for your efforts!

What is the 30th Annual Sidney...? Is there a copy for the public?

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

The annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium is a scripture symposium sponsored by BYU and CES. I have never attended it, but each year Deseret Book publishes the talks presented there in a book. This particular book was published in 2001, so I don't know whether it is still in print, but I just checked Amazon, and they have it, both new and used. Here's the link:

2001 was a particularly informative one!

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