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D'varim/Deuteronomy 9:7 Remember, do not forget, that you provoked the L-rd your G-d in the wilderness;
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Moshe is just getting into the stride of his address to the Israelites on the plains of Moab as they wait to enter and possess the Land of Israel by crossing the river Jordan. Our text comes close to the beginning of a section where he is at pains to make sure the people understand that they are not getting the Land because of who they are or anything that they have done, but solely becauseHaShem has sworn that He will do this and to fulfill His purposes. "Don't think to yourselves", he warns them, that "The L-RD has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues" (D'varim 9:4, NJPS), because that is far from the truth. The people currently occupying the Land are being thrown out "because these nations have been so wicked that ADONAI is driving them out ahead of you" (ibid., CJB). Moshe is then going to go on to use the episode of the Golden Calf as an example of the people's rebellious nature and sinful tendencies.
My attention, unlike - it would appear - almost all of the classical and modern commentators, is drawn to the first three words of the text: "remember, do not forget." The first word, , is the Qal ms imperative from the root , to remember, recollect, call to mind (Davidson). Second, is the particle of negation - 'not' - used with volitional verbal voices.1 Hebrew has two such particles, and , neither of which is ever used with imperative verbs. Instead, Hebrew forms a negative imperative by using with the second person (singular or plural as appropriate) prefix form: "you shall not ...". In general, "the construction with tends to reflect urgency and that with legislation,"2 which essentially means that usually implies "not now", while implies "not ever". The third word, , is the Qal 2ms prefix form of the root , to forget, disregard, neglect (Davidson).
Targum Onkelos replaces the single Hebrew word with the two aramaic words , effectively adding the idea of a constant remembering: remembering should happen every day. He makes exactly the same change in Shemot 20:8 - "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy" NJPS) - where it is appropriate to remember Shabbat constantly, because that can be done all week: remembering the sweetness of past shabbats and preparing for the one to come. Onkelos doesn't add it in the parallel "Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy" (D'varim 5:12, NJPS) because Shabbat can only be observed on that one day. Very much along the same lines, Rabbi Hirsch comments that our key phrase can be read as, "Think of it always so that you do not come to forget it."
Let's look a little more carefully at the meanings of the root verbs. David Clines tells us that , which is used 231 times in the Tanakh, has a set of meanings covering "to remember, call to mind, recall experiences; remember, be faithful to; remember, take into consideration."3 The ODE suggests that 'remember' means "to have in or be able to bring to one's mind an awareness of (someone or something from the past)".4 Remembering something - a name to match a face, for example - can sometimes be a little tricky as we search for a hook to locate the information; it is not that the data has been lost, it is a matter of finding an appropriate cue or trigger to retrieve it from long-term storage. Things that we don't really want to remember, such as the follies of our childhood or the Israelites' less than perfect faith and obedience during the years of the wilderness journey, tend to be hidden or pushed to the back of our minds. The opposite verb , Clines informs us, is used 102 times in the Tanakh and its meanings are, "to forget (by failing to observe); forget (be unfaithful); deliberately dismiss from one's mind [hence our text], attempt to forget; forget (be careless about)."5 The ODE reports 'forget' as meaning, "to fail to remember, inadvertently neglect to do or mention something, deliberately cease to think of."6 We should notice that this second definition is entirely in negative terms of the first: either accidentally or deliberately not remembering.
It seems that to be sure of remembering well, it is necessary not only to take active steps to remember - such as learning, repetition, rehearsal or other memorisation techniques - but also to ensure that the natural process of forgetting do not take place. This is why Stephen Sherwood comments that our text has a "two-fold, positive/negative formulation."7 It not only tells us to remember, but amplifies that by telling us not to forget. Don't just tie a knot in your handkerchief, tie two! Moshe tells the Israelites that however well they seem to be getting on in the Land - however many battles they have won, no matter how nice their houses are, regardless of the fruitfulness of their fields and vineyards - they must remember that they behaved very badly in the past because what they were capable of doing once, they are capable of doing again.
This double-action terminology is rarely used for these two particular verbs - remember and forget - in the Scriptures. We can see it in Hannah's prayer for a son to HaShem, the vow she offered in the courtyard of the Tabernacle at Shiloh: "O L-RD of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the L-RD for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head" (1 Samuel 1:11, NJPS). We notice that both negative verbs used here, "not forget" and "not touch" are instances of not-ever. Hannah's words suggest that if HaShem will never forget her, then the son for whom she pleads will never shave his head. One permanent action in exchange for the other. After lamenting that people cut down a tree and use half as firewood but make an idol out of the other half, the prophet encourages the Israelites that they are to see through these lies: "Remember these things, O Jacob for you, O Israel, are My servant: I fashioned you, you are My servant -- O Israel, never forget Me" (Isaiah 44:21, NJPS). A third example reverses the direction of memory when HaShem addresses Israel after the Babylonian exile as if a childless woman: "Fear not, you shall not be shamed; do not cringe, you shall not be disgraced. For you shall forget the reproach of your youth, and remember no more the shame of your widowhood" (Isaiah 54:4, NJPS). In this verse the imperative is to forget and not remember, but the use of the back-to-back "do and don't do the opposite" structure emphasises that either one action on their own is not enough.
Other verb pairs, however, do appear in this structure. Joshua, for example, is told in a doubled pair as he takes over the leadership of the Israelites after Moshe's death, "Be courageous and be strong, you shall not be terrified and you shall not be dismayed" (Joshua 1:9). The first pair are both imperatives, linked by 'and'; the second pair are both 2ms prefix form with , linked by 'and'. Writing to the Colossians, Rav Sha'ul instructs husbands, "man, love your wife, and do not become embittered towards her" (Colossians 3:19). NT Greek allows negative particles with imperatives, so both verbs in this verse are imperative: "do! and don't!" Shortly after Sha'ul arrived at Corinth, after the usual opposition in the synagogue, the Lord spoke to him one night, saying, "Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent" (Acts 18:9, ESV). Here three verbs are lined up "don't! but do! and do!" with the last pair carrying the positive/negative commands: do speak and don't be silent. What choice did Sha'ul have? It was not enough just to speak, he must not be silent; there must be some volume involved! Not being silent was not enough - that might just have meant mumbling quietly where he wouldn't upset too many people - he had to speak out and be heard.
We too are to be deliberate in carrying out our mandate in the kingdom of G-d. We are not to be half-hearted, technically fulfilling the letter of our service - our evangelism, our teaching, our caring - but only doing so sotto voce or under our breath for fear of others or ourselves. Instead, like Avraham, who was "fully convinced that G-d was able to do what He had promised" (Romans 4:21, ESV), we are to "stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God" (Colossians 4:12, ESV) and press on, to "keep pursuing the goal in order to win the prize offered by God's upward calling in the Messiah Yeshua" (Philippians 3:14, ESV).
1. - The volitional voices of a verb are the cohortative (let me/us do ...), imperative (do! ...) and jussive (let him/her do ...).
2. - Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 34.2.1b, page 567.
3. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 100.
4. - Oxford Dictionary of English, page 1502.
5. - Clines, page 459.
6. - Oxford Dictionary of English, page 686.
7. - Stephen Sherwood, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry - Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 255.
Further Study: Joshua 1:5-7; Jeremiah 1:7-10; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Application: Do you sometimes wobble in your calling, trying to get by with a smaller or less embarrassing (or less inconvenient) job than you know you should be doing, hoping that no-one is watching? Then it's time to sharpen up and invest the same level of intention as Yeshua Himself did, fully sold out and committed to serving G-d. Ask Him what He has in mind for you today!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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