October 7, 2016

Selective Memory

Remembering only good things can be good; or not.

Gerald A. Klingbeil

I wish I could get my hands on some leeks and onions.”

“Yeah, do you remember the huuuuge melons we used to eat every week?” another voice said wistfully.

“I hope I’ll soon get some meat between my teeth,” opined a deep male voice. “This fluffy white stuff is getting to me.”

“Pots of meat, fish, fruits, and plenty of water. I just don’t get it; why are we sitting in this God-forsaken wilderness again?” piped a loud female voice. “Egypt was so much better than this dreary, dry, and dusty place.”

Silence. Sighs. More silence.

As we imagine similar conversations of those who had been saved for freedom, we may wonder why in the world Israel, God’s covenant people, suffered from the selective memory syndrome. Yes, terror and angst may have played a role. Just imagine yourself standing at the shore of the sea with hundreds of Egyptian chariots and thousands of elite troops thundering toward you. We can understand their cry to Moses: “What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?” (Ex. 14:11). Fear makes us wish for strange and irrational things.

But fear could not have been the only reason. As we continue to read Israel’s story, we hear God’s people exclaim: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Ex. 16:3). A death wish, following directly after the “near-death” experience at the shores of the sea where they had seen God’s mighty salvation in action. I always imagined that I would still be floating on cloud nine after such a mighty miracle, but would I?

When We Don’t See Clearly

We run across Israel’s selective memory again and again in the annals of their history. They don’t like manna and long for meat (Num. 11:4-9); they doubt God’s conquering power and prefer death in Egypt or the wilderness over conquest and settlement (Num. 14:1, 2); they want to go back to Egypt—again and again (verses 3, 4; cf. Lev. 18:3; Deut. 17:14-20). Their murmurings betray their lack of faith—and their short memory.

Forgotten were God’s mighty signs and wonders in Egypt; forgotten were the rushing waters at the sea that had vanquished the elite army units of one of the most powerful nations of the ancient world; forgotten was God’s thunder and fire at Sinai.

We often forget reality and remember fiction. Israel’s fiction sounded like liberating slavery or prosperous poverty. It’s nonsensical to those reading from the outside; apparently, it made perfect sense to Israel in the wilderness.

In fact, Israel’s prophets consistently urged their audiences never to return to Egypt. “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord” (Isa. 31:1; cf. Isa. 30:1-5; Eze. 17:15). Often their calls fell on deaf ears. It seems that we live in a different, parallel universe when we indulge in selective memory. Reality becomes fantasy world and dreams transform actuality—at least in our minds.

The Other Side

There is, however, another side to the issue of selective memory. I recently came across it when I read Hosea 2:14, 15: “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.”

God is speaking here through His prophet to His bride, Israel, anticipating Israel’s return to Him. Considering Israel’s attitude to Egypt and the reality described in the Pentateuch, what shall we make of the second half of verse 15? Why would God want Israel to respond “as in the days of her youth”? Is God suffering from selective memory? Does He view Israel’s time in the wilderness uncritically, forgetting the reality of murmuring, golden calf worship, and near-constant rebellion?

Hosea 11 may offer a helpful clue. Right from the outset God makes sure that we know His take on human history. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (verse 1). God’s love begins every human journey—including also Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. His compassion brought them out of Egypt; His power defeated their enemies; His grace forgave their murmurings and rebellions. Hosea tells us that God is aware of our wanderings and bad choices, but that as we run to Him He chooses to forget the past.

Instead of running to God, however, Israel chose Baal and other images (verse 2); they didn’t recognize the One who taught them how to walk and healed all their infirmities (verse 3); they didn’t like His “cords of human kindness” (verse 4) and were determined to turn from the Most High (verse 7). Yet with all of this, listen to this timeless promise: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you” (verses 8, 9).

Even more, the prophet Micah tells us that God will not remember our iniquities, because they have been disposed off in the deepest part of the ocean. “You will tread our sins underfoot,” writes Micah, “and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). God’s selective memory meant unmerited favor and unwarranted grace for ancient Israel. It means the same for us.

Learning From the Past

I love history. I love looking back and seeing the impact of human choices. But there is more to history than endless lists of important dates, well-known names, and significant documents. In the midst of human history I discover God’s presence in surprising places. He is not far removed and busy in another far-flung region of our universe (or another, for that matter). God is at the center of our history, because it is His history too.

When humanity messed up—God was there (Gen. 3). When Israel cried for delivery—God heard their cries (Ex. 1-3). Throughout history, God has been at work—visibly and behind the scenes. He knows our reality and doesn’t turn a blind eye to our bad choices. He is a realist when it comes to the all-pervasiveness of sin on Planet Earth. And yet, when we move to Him and run into His arms, He breaks the cycle of self-destruction that has become our modus operandi for millennia. He takes our sins, covers them in the blood of Jesus, and then dumps them in the deepest sea—and forgets. That’s one type of selective memory I can live with.

Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review who enjoys discovering God’s hand in history—on the grand and on the personal scale.