< type="text/css"


by Doug Ward

Currently our Bible study group is discussing Marvin R. Wilson's Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith [2]. One purpose of this valuable book is to help today's Christians bridge the gap between modern Western culture and the ancient Jewish culture that produced the Bible. When we learn to ``think Hebraically,'' we can gain a deeper understanding of the scriptures and, as a result, live out our faith in a more complete and balanced way.

Professor Wilson points out one notable characteristic of Hebrew culture on p. 153 of his book:

``The Semites of Bible times did not simply think truth-they experienced truth. As we have previously emphasized, truth is as much encounter as it is propositions. This experiential perspective on reality explains, in part, why Judaism never really developed vast systems of thought....To the Jew, the deed was always more important than the creed.''

This Hebraic connection between thought and experience is reflected in the meanings of some of the words we read in the Bible. For example, emunah, the Hebrew word for ``faith'' in Habakkuk 2:4 (``...the just shall live by his faith''), carries the connotation of constancy, steadiness, stability, or reliability. Biblical faith, then, is much more than intellectual assent to the truth of certain doctrines; instead, it is an unwavering trust that is backed up by actions (see James 2:17-24; [2, pp. 182-185]).

In this article, I would like to focus on a second example: zakar, the Hebrew word for ``remember.'' We may often think of memory as a purely mental faculty involving the retention of information. But when we examine the biblical concept of remembrance, we will see that ``remembering'' in the Bible usually leads to or results from purposeful action. We will also see that remembrance is an integral part of worship and of the function of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.

Remembrance Leads to Action

The Hebrew word zakar is almost always translated ``remember'' in the King James Version of the Bible. Occasionally, though, it is rendered as ``think'', ``mention'', or ``record.'' For instance, in Gen. 40:14 Joseph tells Pharaoh's chief butler,

``But think on me when it shall be well with thee, and shew kindness, I pray thee, unto me, and make mention of me unto Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house:''

In this verse, zakar is the Hebrew word for both ``think'' and ``mention.'' These variations in translation give an indication that zakar includes both thought and deed. Joseph would like the butler to do more than just be aware of the fact that he is still incarcerated. He is urging the butler to take positive action to help him get out of prison.

In the Hebrew scriptures, zakar is often used in expressions about God ``remembering'' His covenant with His people (Gen. 9:15-16; Exod. 6:5; Lev. 26:42, 45; Ps. 105:8, 42; 106:45; Ezek. 16:60). For example, we read in Exodus 2:24 that as a result of Israel's suffering in Egypt,

``God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.''

In this case, God's remembering His covenant leads to His active intervention to rescue Israel from slavery. The connection between remembrance and rescue is made very explicit in Numbers 10:9:

``And if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the LORD your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies.''

The word zakar also appears prominently in the prayers recorded in the Bible. People like Moses (Exod. 32:13), Samson (Judges 16:28), Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:3), Nehemiah (Neh. 13:14, 22, 29, 31), Jeremiah (Jer. 15:15; Lam. 5:1), and Habakkuk (Hab. 3:2) pray that God will remember them and the rest of His people. Such prayers call upon God not just to be cognizant of their existence, but in addition to take action on their behalf.

Other scriptures instruct the people to remember God or His commandments (Deut. 8:18; Joshua 1:13; Eccl.12:1; Mal. 4:4). For example, in Deut. 25:17-19, Moses commands the Israelites to ``remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way....'' Here, of course, Moses is not preparing Israel for an upcoming history quiz. Instead, he wants them to take decisive action against the terrorists who had ruthlessly attacked the most vulnerable Israelites during the early stages of their journey from Egypt.

In summary, all of these ways in which the word zakar is used involve a knowledge that is accompanied by appropriate action.

Repetition and Memory

One of my tasks as a mathematics instructor is to learn the names of the students in my classes. For a typical class of about forty students, it generally takes me about a third of the semester to successfully match all of the faces with their respective names. I do not know of any special shortcuts for accomplishing such an exercise in memorization. My main memory technique is repetition. I simply try to take advantage of every possible opportunity to rehearse the students' names-when passing back their papers, when answering their questions during office hours, and so on.

I also find that after a semester ends, the names of many of the students slowly fade away. When I look back at grade books from years ago, I can picture some of the students whose names are listed in them, but others I can no longer remember. And when I chance to meet a student who was in one of my classes two or three years earlier, I can usually place which class the student was in, but I may have to consult the grade book again in order to recall that student's name.

God, the Designer of our minds, was surely taking into account the characteristics of human memory when He announced the fourth of the Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai: ``Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy'' (Exod. 20:8). God wanted to etch on the minds of the Israelites that He is the Creator (Exod. 20:11) and Redeemer (Deut. 5:15) of mankind, so He set aside a regular block of time for the rehearsal of these facts. Week after week, the Sabbath returns with a reminder of who God is. For those Christians who observe the Sabbath, there is also a reminder of the rest and peace we receive through the saving work of Jesus Christ, as well as a promise of Jesus' return to bring the world an eternal Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:9). By celebrating these great truths again and again, we can remain constantly aware of them. Observance of the Sabbath is a prime example of an active kind of remembrance.

The tzitziyot (tassels) that the Israelites were commanded to attach to the corners of their garments (Num. 15:37-41) are another form of remembrance that God designed for His people. As we read in Num. 15:39 (NIV),

"You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them....''

It eventually became customary for each tassel to consist of eight strands and five double knots. According to one Jewish numerological tradition, the numerical values of the Hebrew letters for the word for tassel (tzitzit) totalled 600. Fittingly, six hundred plus eight plus five is 613, the traditional number of biblical commandments [2, p. 117].

Remembrance in Worship

I tend to keep detailed lecture notes for all of my classes, so that when I am assigned to teach a particular course again, I can look back and see what I did in that course the previous time. In courses that I have taught several times, I occasionally reuse old lecture notes if I am pressed for time. However, my usual habit is to write down a fresh set of notes each time I teach a course. In rewriting my notes, I force myself to think about each detail of the reasoning for an upcoming lecture. When I have written everything down again on paper in advance, my memory of the subject is reinforced, and it becomes easier to present the material on the blackboard for my students. In addition, when I revisit a subject in detail, I usually come to understand that subject a bit better and can think of some way to improve upon my previous explanations of it.

Thinking about all of this helps me to understand the important role that remembrance plays in Judeo-Christian worship. Through the Bible, we become aware of the Magnalia Dei-the great redemptive acts of God-just as I can recall last year's courses by looking back at my old lecture notes. However, we should go beyond a mere intellectual understanding of God's plan of salvation. Salvation is much more real to us if we experience it in a more direct way, just as I can enhance a lecture that I have previously given by copying it over again, revising it, and going over it in detail. Rituals like the annual festivals of Israel and the Christian Lord's Supper or Eucharist enable us to rehearse and internalize God's salvation.

In Exodus 12:14, God says of the annual Passover celebration, `` And this day shall be unto you for a memorial....'' A memorial, of course, is an act of remembrance. (The Hebrew word for ``memorial'' is ziccaron, a word related to zakar.) In each generation, Jews in celebrating the Passover regard themselves as having been personally brought out of Egypt. They relive, in a sense, the experience of their ancestors, and they trust in present and future deliverance. As Dr. Alistair Stewart-Sykes comments [1, p. 49],

``...such is the nature of the remembering that not only does it enable the individual to feel as though he were a participant, but it ensures that the blessings appropriated in the events of history are made authentic for the present.''

Analogously, at the Last Supper, which was itself a Passover Seder, Jesus distributed the bread with the words, ``This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me'' (Luke 22:19). And to this day, disciples of Jesus actively remember His atoning death and look forward to His promised return by participation in the Lord's Supper (I Cor. 11:23-26).

Similarly, the annual festival of Shavuot (Pentecost) is a time when Jews picture themselves as standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai and personally receiving Torah from God (see [2, p. 188]). Christians think back to another great miracle, the powerful manifestation of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2, and pray for the guidance and power of the Spirit in their lives.

Another annual celebration, the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh HaShanah) is described in Lev. 23:24 as ``a memorial of blowing of trumpets,'' again showing the importance of remembrance in worship. The shofar blasts of this festival call upon worshippers to remember God and petition God to remember His covenant promises. 1

Remembrance in the New Testament

The meaning of remembrance that we have seen in the Hebrew scriptures is also evident in the New Testament. We have already noted one example from Luke 22:19. Two other examples appear in the first chapter of Luke, in which both the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist's father Zacharias praise God for sending the Messiah in remembrance of His wonderful promises. In verse 54, Mary proclaims, ``He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.'' Then in verse 72, Zacharias prophesies that through the coming of the Messiah, God would ``remember his holy covenant.''

Remembrance is mentioned again in the tenth chapter of Acts, where an angel tells the God-fearing Cornelius in a vision that ``thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God''(verse 4). When Cornelius recounts his vision to the apostle Peter, he reports that the angel told him, ``Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God''(verse 31). As in previous examples, remembrance here involves action. In this case, God acts by sending the gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 44).

Luke is not the only New Testament writer to mention remembrance. In the epistles, Christians are exhorted to remember the teachings and examples of the apostles (2 Peter 3:1-2; I Cor. 4:17; 2 Tim. 2:14). Paul writes in I Cor. 11:1-2,

``Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.''

Here again, remembrance is to result in an appropriate action: the imitation of Paul's example and instruction.

Remembrance has a special meaning in the Gospel of John [1, p. 51]. On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus promises His disciples that the Holy Spirit would help them to remember what he had taught them:

``But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you'' (John 14:26).

John mentions three instances of this kind of remembrance elsewhere in his Gospel. John 2:17 reports that the disciples remembered Psalm 69:9 as a scripture fulfilled by Jesus' cleansing of the temple. Similarly, John 12:16 states that while the disciples did not at first see the significance of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, they later remembered Zech. 9:9 and connected it with this event. Finally, John 2:22 mentions a saying of Jesus that His disciples later remembered and understood as a reference to His resurrection. In these verses, remembrance involves a full recognition of the meaning of the scriptures, particularly an understanding of their messianic implications. Such a remembrance is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the believer.


We have seen that remembrance in the Bible is much more than a mental exercise. Instead, it is a recognition that either leads to or results from an appropriate action. Let us remember God in our lives and in our worship, trusting that He will remember His great promises and bring us to a full understanding of His word and His will.


1. Alistair Stewart-Sykes, The Lamb's High Feast: Melito, Peri Pascha and the Quartodeciman Passover Liturgy at Sardis, Brill, Leiden, 1998.

2. Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989.


1For further discussion of the annual biblical festivals, see our many articles on the subject.

Issue 12


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.On 2 Jun 2002, 20:00.