Selective Amnesia

Out of love for Israel God develops selective amnesia. The God of Israel, the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps, chooses to forget. What do you make of this? Is this a metaphor, a dramatic play of words? Has God really forgotten their sins? The whole “golden calf” incident, just forgotten? And the worship of foreign gods — entirely wiped clean? Can God really forget? And, if so, what else might God have forgotten?

It is a startling, unexpected, and even a somewhat uncomfortable way of talking about God.


 

Selective Amnesia

 

 

The promise of a “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31: 27-34 may evoke  Christian scriptures, stories, and promises. In their original context these words signified the promise of a faithful God to a devastated people for restoration, perhaps even in their lifetimes.

Jeremiah lived through the Babylonians invading Judah, assaulting Jerusalem, and reducing the temple to rubble, killing the royal family, exiling the leadership including priests, prophets, and the majority of the population. The resulting chaos is unimaginable to us. Broken families would have been ravaged by grief and loss; those left behind would have had to scramble to find surviving relatives and a place to sleep if their homes had been destroyed. Produce and food animals were either destroyed or taken. Every object of value was plundered. Anyone with any authority or skill to help rebuild the society was dead or gone.

And for those who asked “Why?” there were the words of Jeremiah and Micah which predicted the conflagration: God would destroy Judah and Jerusalem for their sin, specifically the injustices of their officials. Now the day of Zion’s destruction had come upon them. They had only to look to the north to see the remnants of the fallen Northern Kingdom that had never risen from its defeat and destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. Surely all hope was lost.

Speaking to and through Jeremiah the new word is that God had not abandoned God’s people.

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and with the seed of beast. As I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD.

 “In those days they will not say again,
‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

 But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

The same God who planted the garden of Eden and crafted humanity from its soil commits to replant, tend, and nurture human and animal life amid the ashes of Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple. Perhaps most significantly God promises to cease holding subsequent generations responsible for the transgressions of previous ones: “In those days they shall no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.'” Instead, according to verse 30, “all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.” The remission of the sin of the past generations gives the survivors and their descendants an opportunity to start their lives over with God as they rebuild their homes and nation. This promise was so important that God also sent it to Ezekiel, exiled at the time in Babylon.

 

This new beginning will be at a time not specified – “the days are surely coming” – accompanied by a new covenant. God will make, literally engrave, this new covenant on the hearts of the people, instead of on tablets that can be lost, stolen, or broken. Of course, hearts can be broken and God alludes to God’s own heartbreak with previous generations of Israelites in verses 32-34.

One new thing about this covenant is that it is internalized. God will write it on the hearts of the people because apparently, even with the best teachers, preachers, prophets, and priests, people were failing to learn the lessons of the covenant. Therefore they failed to keep it. This new covenant will require no work on the part of the people to receive and adopt. It will be engraved upon their hearts.

The passage ends with a commitment from God to forget their sin for all time. These words promised desperately-needed hope to the survivors of the invasion. The God of Creation would re-create them. The God of Exodus would embrace them again. The merciful, tender loving God would forgive all their sin and absolve them of the sins of their ancestors. The sin that led God to surrender Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians would be forgiven.

 

But that’s not the end of the promise.

David Lose tells us that this action arises from both God’s heartache at the inability of Israel to keep faith with God and God’s relentless determination to preserve God’s beloved people: God says, It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord (v. 32).

Another way this covenant differs from the last and perhaps the most significant is that it is brought into existence, ratified, not by a sacrifice or any ritual practice but by God’s decision not to just forgive but to forget — to forget Israel’s sinfulness, betrayal, and infidelity.

Out of love for Israel God develops selective amnesia. The God of Israel, the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps, chooses to forget. What do you make of this? Is this a metaphor, a dramatic play of words? Has God really forgotten their sins? The whole “golden calf” incident, just forgotten? And the worship of foreign gods — entirely wiped clean? Can God really forget? And, if so, what else might God have forgotten?

It is a startling, unexpected, and even a somewhat uncomfortable way of talking about God. We are normally so afraid of losing our memory that it’s almost unthinkable. And yet if I’m totally honest there are things I wish I could forget. Indeed, a number of things. Like, for instance, every minor slight and injury I seem to hold onto, unsure at times if they were even intended as slights and yet unable to let them go. Or some of the painful things I’ve said over the years expressing our of anger or hurt feelings to some of the people I love most in the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to forget these things and in this way start anew?

I sometimes wonder, in fact, if part of Israel’s problem at this point in the story is precisely that they can’t forget. They can’t forget what it’s like not to trust God. They can’t forget what it’s like not to be so afraid — of life beyond Egypt or the power of a neighboring country, for instance. They can’t forget their penchant for running to whatever god or customs their more powerful neighbors held. And, most of all, they can’t forget their inexorable pattern of faithlessness. And not being able to forget these things, they seemed doomed to repeat them.

And so God does what Israel cannot: God forgets. In response to their failure, God refuses to recognize it. In response to their infidelity, God calls them faithful. In response to their sin and brokenness and very real wretchedness, God’s memory has to be pushed and prodded to find any recollection. God forgets.

And if God forgets, might we also?

Call to mind and hold onto one difficult memory of something you wish that God would forget: an unkind word or deed of which the were ashamed, perhaps. Now recall and hold one thing you wish you could forget: some slight or hurt or betrayal or disappointment that continues to prey upon you.

Imagine holding these in your two hands. I’ve got some good news for you here. As I read this passage about God’s intentional forgetting and as you hear these words let go of the thing you wish God would forget because, indeed, God already has. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” By God’s grace you are no longer held captive to that painful memory.  

 

Now, in this next week, as we prepare to recall Christ’s passion in the garden, abandoned in the court yard and tortured to death, explore whether you are able to let that other thing — the thing you wish you could forget — go. Some hurts have marked us so deeply that we can’t assume they are easily forgotten. And I don’t want you feeling like a failure for not being able to. But, at the same time we need to remind each other of God’s promise to do what we cannot: to forget — to forget all that keeps us from relationship with God so that we can imagine and live into a new future. The Jeremiah passage began “Behold days are coming”. A few verses later he says it again: “Behold, days are coming”. I want you to know that the days of God’s forgiveness and forgetfulness, the days of God’s restoration of relationship with humanity is here, the moment of the new covenant has come and God’s covenant is engraved on your heart and mine.

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