You have to admit, some Bible passages are real head- scratchers. For instance, in several places God says, “I will not remember your sins.”
But how can God, in his infinite intellect, forget something? And what does he expect of us, since we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us?” Does God really expect us to forgive and to forget the sins of others?
For some this is not just an academic question. A few years ago I heard a young woman recount nightmarish memories of being raped by a babysitter when she was ten. Over the years she had tried to forgive and sought healing. But as a Christian, she was plagued by the idea that God would not forgive her sins unless she forgave and forgot sins committed against her. How on earth could she ever forget?
Remembering, in Hebraic Thought
Understanding the Hebrew words for “remember” and “forget” can help us untangle this theological knot. They, like many words, have a wider breadth of meaning than in English, because Hebrew is a “word-poor” language (having about 4,000 words, vs. 100,000 or more in English).
In English, our definition of the word “remember” focuses entirely on the idea of recalling memories and bringing ideas into our thoughts. To “forget” is to fail to bring a certain memory to mind. Both words are concerned entirely with mental activity, whether or not information is present.
But the Hebrew verb zakhar has a much wider definition than just “remember.” It includes both remembering and the actions that are taken because of remembering. It often implies that a person did a favor for someone, helped them, or was faithful to a promise or covenant. For instance:
But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided. Genesis 8:1
It sounds like God woke up one morning and slapped himself on the forehead, suddenly realizing that he left Noah out there bobbing around on the waves. But the idea in this passage is that God acted upon his promise that Noah’s family and the animals would be rescued from the flood.
Later in Genesis we find another example:
Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb.” (vs 30:22)
Once again, the verb “remember” focuses on the action, not the mental activity. God paid attention to Rachel’s needs, listened to her prayer, and answered it. Here, “remember” means “to intervene,” focusing on what God did, not what God was thinking about.
The Idea of Forgetting
The Hebrew words for forget, shakach and nashah are also broad in scope. Often they mean to ignore, neglect, forsake, or disregard a person or covenant. For instance,
So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the LORD your God which he made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the LORD your God has commanded you. Deuteronomy 4:23
The idea here is that the Israelites would intentionally ignore their covenant, not necessarily forget that they made it. When the Israelites lapse into idolatry, we also hear God threatening to forget them:
Therefore behold, I will surely forget you and cast you away from My presence, along with the city which I gave you and your fathers. Jeremiah 23:39
Once again the emphasis is on action rather than mental activity. God is saying that he would spurn his people, not lose their memory from his mind. When God “forgets” something, he does not necessarily lack information. This helps us understand why in the Psalms, we hear people asking God why he is forgetting them:
How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? Psalm 13:1
Here the psalmist is saying “why do you ignore my prayers and not intervene in my crisis?” God doesn’t forget, but sometimes it seems as if he does.
Interestingly, “forget” is almost never used in combination with “sin.” But often the Bible says that God will “not remember” our sins. The idea of “remembering sins” takes the idea of acting according to memory and puts it into a negative framework. It suggests that God is going to give the person what he deserves for the sin. He will punish sin, not just keep it on his mind. Consider:
They have gone deep in depravity as in the days of Gibeah;
He will remember their iniquity, he will punish their sins.Hosea 9:9
The second line here is a parallelism, where the two phrases are synonymous. To “remember their iniquity” is the same as to “punish their sin.” It is automatically negative, implying that God will intervene to bring justice. So, to not remember sins is to decide not to punish them:
If a wicked man restores a pledge, pays back what he has taken by robbery, … he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of his sins that he has committed will be remembered against him. Ezekiel 33:15-16
Because Hebrew focuses on action rather than the thought, it doesn’t necessarily imply that God loses the memory of sins in his infinite mind. It simply means that he has decided to forgo prosecution.
What are the Implications?
Knowing that Hebrew often focuses on action rather than on mental state, we can now see how God can “forget” people, but yet not forget. Or how he can choose not to “remember” sins, and yet not erase them from his memory. God chooses to put them aside, to ignore them and not bring them up again.
If you’ve ever been in a close relationship, you know what this is like. A wife whose feelings are hurt by her husband (or vise versa) “decides to forget” —to put the offense out of her mind even though the memory doesn’t goes away. Out of love, you simply choose not to ever act in revenge for the sin. And once you have done this, the memory itself tends to subside.
The Hebraic idea of “remembering sins” really encompasses the idea of punishment of sin, not just knowing about them. I find this very freeing in terms of understanding God’s expectations of us. Often we struggle with a person who has hurt us repeatedly, and wonder whether forgiveness means to pretend that the person won’t act the same way again. Are we allowed to protect ourselves, even if we hope they’ll change?
The idea that we can decide not to “remember” someone’s sins in terms of seeking revenge allows us to remember in order to make a situation better and make wise decisions in the future.
You know, if God could simply delete things from his data banks, he would have a much easier job than humans who can’t erase their memories. When we forgive a person, we need to choose to put aside our grievances, and often we need to do that over and over again as the memory returns to our minds.
When you think about it, it shows more love to be hurt and choose to not remember, time and time again, rather than to simply be able to forget about an incident. But interestingly, the more we love one another, the easier it does become to remove the memory of the past from our minds. In this sense, perhaps God’s infinite love really does entirely remove our sins from his infinite mind.
Lois Tverberg will be speaking at Women of the Word on April 13 & 14, 2018 in Janesville, WI. This seminar entitled “Through the Eyes of Jesus” is open to both men and women. Lois has authored four books which illuminate the teachings of the Bible from within it’s cultural context. They help us think and live Hebraically, so that we can become better disciples of Jesus. Her newest book, “Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus” is available on her website Our Rabbi Jesus or on Amazon.