God’s Memory: why have we forgotten it?

Does God remember? The subject of ‘divine memory’ is riddled with philosophical and theological problems. The need to remember accurately, wholly, and contextually, to have the longing to remember that which one cannot bring to mind, and to be overcome by the dreaded sense that this present moment will recede into obscurity, grows out of the Christian tradition and its foundational anthropological legacy: the Fall. This association makes remembering, and all the arts devoted to reviving it, more than a consequence of Edenic human limitation. The inability to retrieve the past at will makes the faculty intrinsic to a fallen condition. But it is not as if memory itself came into existence only after the Fall. God’s command (Gen. 2: 16–7) in the first paradise was to be obeyed across time. So prelapsarian humanity possessed and exercised some form of memory-mechanism, which presumably was necessary for creatures with finite and incomplete knowledge. 

But to say that God remembers seems to take a stab at his omniscience. How can he remember if he already knows all things? Why would he need to? Once omniscience is qualified, it has the potential to undercut omnipotence: God must need reminding, so the logic runs, because he lacks this specific capacity; therefore he is not all-powerful. And then, since remembering and the need to be reminded are the unpleasant necessities of fallen nature, it seems to undermine his very character as the good God of hesed love — or the love he bestows on his people; therefore, he is not all-good. But indeed, the Old Testament depicts divine remembering and forgetting as one of his central actions: ‘And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob’ (Exodus 2:24); ‘He remembers his covenant forever’ (Psalm 111:5); and for a rebellious nation, Jeremiah records ‘he will remember their iniquity/and punish their sins’ (Jer. 14:10).

‘Divine memory’ also raises the question of an eternal God’s relationship to time. To summarise generally, if God is outside of time it is difficult to claim that God remembers in any meaningful sense as all events are present to him simultaneously. God sees your birth, the Fall of Rome, and the assassination of JF Kennedy running as parallel episodes from the vantage point of what has been called the ‘Eternal Now’. One problem of God existing outside of time is how he can be personal and act in creation. For the Biblical texts depict his intimate relationship with the world, culminating in the second member of the Trinity’s permanent incarnation in which he binds himself to history, space, and time. On the other hand, if God is inside of time, in what way can he know the future? Is it fixed or ‘open’? Does he voluntarily surrender some aspects of his eternal perspective to make room for human agency? Connected to such questions are theories asserting the compatibility of God’s control and human free will. Molinists, named after the Spanish Jesuit priest Luis de Molina (1535–1600), want to uphold total divine providence with satisfying, libertarian human freedom. In this account, God knows all decisions everyone chooses in any situation (‘middle-knowledge’), and then so construes the world’s history that everyone freely chooses what he (God) wills. But this, as many early modern Reformed theologians could argue, is an unnecessary move to make with the Bible’s concurrent, and therefore non-deterministic, treatment of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

In light of these underlying problems, perhaps it is unsurprising that scholarship on the role of God’s memory is nearly non-existent in early modern memory studies.[1] But the main reason why I think this investigation has been overlooked is that historians have assumed that the language for God’s mental faculties is only evidence of anthropomorphism or metaphor. The implication of this reading is that to come across descriptions of God’s agency is to come across figurative language, and that early moderns knew this, but had only this kind of language to resort to when thinking and speaking about God. In biblical studies, too, divine memory is a scholarly lacuna. This has been somewhat reversed with Barat Ellman’s Memory and Covenant: The Role of Israel's and God's Memory in Sustaining Deuteronomic and Priestly Covenants (2013) and Joseph’s Lam’s Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible: Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept (2016).[2] My purpose in this post is to briefly show that the absence of divine memory in early modern history is odd. I will not so much argue towards a conclusion as make a case that it deserves further attention. God’s memory was the basis for his covenantal relationship with Israel, and Israel developed strategies to both prevent communal forgetting and to sustain and ‘promot[e] divine recollection’.[3] By the time of the Reformation, calling on God to remember is a theological commonplace, appearing in sermons, private devotions, and Protestant arguments against oblatory prayers during Mass.

One of the core terms for God’s memory in Old Testament sources is the verb זָכַר (zakar). It occurs 223 times in total, but 73 times with God as subject (Qal stem).[4] The verb’s semantic range across all stems can mean ‘to remember’, ‘to call to mind’, ‘to recall’, ‘to be brought to remembrance’, ‘to mention’, ‘to record’, ‘to make a memorial’. It occurs most frequently in the Psalter. In the ancient prayer book, it appears primarily as a petitionary species of rhetoric from the human to the divine. Elsewhere, Yahweh is said to exercise his memory towards Noah and every living creature (Gen. 8:1; 9:15–6), Abraham (Gen. 19:29), barren women’s desire for children (Gen. 30:22; 1 Sam.1:11; Ps. 9:12), his own covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex. 32:13; Lev. 26:42, 45; Deut. 9:27; Ps. 105:48; 106:45; 111:5; Jer. 14:21; Ezk. 16:60), personal requests for help (Judg. 16:28; Job 14:13), personal requests for good deeds to be remembered (2 Kings 20:3; New. 5:19; 13:22, 31), petitions for evil deeds to be recalled (Neh. 6:14; 13:29; 74:22; 89:50, 109:10, 13–5; 137:7; Ezk. 25:10; Hos. 7:2; Jer. 15:15) personal requests for, or divine assertions that, sins will not be remembered in an act of divine oblivion (Isa. 43:25; Jer. 31:34; Ezk. 33:16), or in statements that sin indeed will be remembered (Ezk. 18:22, 24; Hos. 9:9). This list is not exhaustive. Brevard Childs’ landmark Memory and Tradition in Israel (1962) is an early linguistic analysis. His study revealed the formula used exclusively with Yahweh’s memory: zakar and the proposition ‘le’. This confirmed an earlier thesis that ‘zakar le’ is a technical term with forensic overtones meaning ‘to credit to one’s account’. The judicial connotation makes good sense of the Old Testament’s frequent depiction of Yahweh as judge. 

What I find most exciting — and what I think can be used as a model for a study on divine memory in the Reformation era — is Ellman’s insightful work on the representation of God’s memory in Deuteronomic and Priestly traditions in the Pentateuch. She argues that in contrast to the doctrinal and verbal mechanisms for stimulating Israel’s memory in Deuteronomic material, the priestly tradition ‘recognises the possibility of divine forgetfulness…[God’s] memory is awakened through sensory cues, and its primeval history proves that sensory instruments can be used to keep God attentive and mindful of Israel’.[5] These physical stimuli, such as various instruments and garments, serve as ‘reminders’ (zīkkārȏn) for Yahweh. In context, these are the two stones inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and placed on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, which was either a ritual object such as a box or a sleeveless garment worn by the high priest (Exodus 28:6, 12, 15, 25–8, 31; 29:5; 35:9, 27; 39:4, 7, 8, 18–22; 1 Sam. 24:3). The breastplate, which was another part of the ephod, also bore inscribed names of the twelve tribes. Both the stones and the breastplate were carried into the Holy Place for God’s remembrance, or the centermost space inside the Tabernacle which had been ritualistically purified for God’s holiness to dwell (Ex. 28:29).[6] Other zīkkārȏn are atonement money (Ex. 30:16) and the grain offering (Num. 5:15, 18).Ellman concludes that ‘in one respect, Israel’s memory, though of secondary importance relative to God’s, plays handmaiden to the task of sustaining God’s memory.’[7] It is his memory, after all, that decides the ontological existence of an object, person, or nation (Ps. 88:5; Isa. 65:17; Luke 23:42). Like his speech-acts, when and what he remembers ‘happens’ to the object towards which he bends his mind. In Childs’ insightful rendering, God’s remembering brings with it ‘ontological change’.[8]

1890 Holman Bible — Ephod


If divine memory is such a priority both in Biblical literature itself and in the practices of ancient Israel, we should consider what and how their spiritual heirs in early modern Europe — both Catholics and Protestants — perceived the function and role of God’s memory. I offer only two examples.[9]

The first is John Foxes’ Sermon of Christ Crucified (1571) where he connects God’s powers of memory with ongoing, permanent remission: 

Foxe, Christ Crucified, Title Page
Image reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

God promiseth never to remember, not to impute our sinnes any more for Christes sake. Jeremy. 31. And hereof springeth the fountaine of perpetual remission, promised in the xiii. Chapter of the Prophet Zachary.[10]  

What strikes me about God’s memory here is how he can deliberately never remember something. This is very strange way of speaking. The easy alternative is simply to state he will forget (shakhach). I think the construction is intended to instill the hearer with awe by focusing on the powerful control God exerts over his own memory. He does not just forget. His memory is such that he can even choose not to remember — even if that something is a moment of horrendous evil. Not remembering sins, of course, is the Biblical shorthand for forgiveness and mercy. But the phrase that shows off God’s powerful restraint is intended to be an effective and moving construal of pardon. The ‘for Christes sake’ alludes to the championed doctrine of justification by faith. Sin is no longer imputed to the sinner because Christ’s justice is imputed instead. The Council of Trent (Session 6, Canon 11 and 13) had ruled this version of remission anathema. Does Foxe invoke divine memory as an ultimate source of authority to override Rome’s verdict?

The second example is taken from the 1570 edition of Foxe’s famous Acts and Monuments, popularly known as The Book of Martyrs:

Foxe, Book of Martyrs, quotation and marginal note
Image reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

euery priest alwayes maketh mētion in his masse of this oblation: Neither do we this, that we might bring the same oblation into the remembraunce of God: because that he alwayes in his presence seeth the same.[11] 

In the broader discussion of this passage, Foxe compares popish prayers with ancient witchcraft and magicians who think their ‘holy words’ contain special efficacy. With this line of thinking, they sold their prayers and blessings to devout laity who thought the mystical words would unbind their sin. But, Foxe explains, the prayers or oblations of a Catholic priest during Mass do not remove sin, nor the pain of sin, of those who merely speak words arranged in a certain order. An ‘offering’ of words makes no difference; it is Christ’s once and for all ‘offer[ing’] that counts. Then Foxe moves to his central reason for abandoning Catholic methods: God does not need his memory jolted. That is where we run into the strange phrase: ‘he alwayes in his presence seeth the same’. But the syntax in unclear. Who is in whose presence? Is God, by virtue of his Trinitarian nature, in his own ‘company’, as it were? Foxe seems to appeal to a God who transcends time so that all events in history — including Christ’s crucifixion — occur immediately in his presence and without sequence. In a sense, then, it is almost as if Foxe erases God’s memory. For remembering and ‘seeing the same’ (or whatever this may mean) are two very different things. Immediately after this statement, Foxe turns to human memory, recapitulating and combining a series of New Testament verses (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 1:19; Ro. 5:8):

But that we should haue in remēbraunce this so great loue of God. that he would geue his own sonne to death for our sinnes, that he might clense & purify vs frō all our sinnes.

Foxe’s argument quickly moves to who should do the remembering: redeemed humanity. But then as if the reader has missed the point, a left-hand marginal voice announces ‘Remembraunce of Christes passion, needeth not to God, but to man’. The text itself here, and the printed gloss which acts like a whispering next-door neighbour, reenacts human frailty and the possibility of forgetting and loosing that which was just read. In shifting from the subject of divine memory (of which there is no need) to human memory, Foxe’s text embodies the slow, repetitious, and somewhat obvious process characterising human memory-making. It is the third restatement of the same point in a span of six lines. Is the printed comment a sixteenth-century editor’s joke? The presentation of the page leads one to feel that the idea of God’s memory bothers Foxe and/or the editor to such a degree that they not only shift the burden of memory away from God and back into human dimensions, but then also use more ink and refined moveable typeface to say the obvious. The practice of printing in marginal spaces reinforces the idea that a reader needs assistance in recalling key information. It’s a material demonstration of how very different human memory is to God’s.

These brief examples show that the gap in memory studies should be amended. They also serve as a call for Reformation historians to consider the role of divine memory as part and parcel of the religious upheaval. I end with questions for further study: is there a confessional divide in the rhetorical employment of divine memory? Can we find examples of Protestants who were not wholly convinced that devotional objects were useless for triggering God’s memory? Or did they develop other methods — perhaps textual — of pricking his memory and calling him to action? How did early moderns perceive the relationship between divine memory and concepts of authority? The avenues are open for fruitful exploration.

[1] For a scattering of references, see Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 249; Paul Stegner, Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature: Penitential Remains  (United Kingdom: Palgrave: 2015), 33; Adrian Streete, Protestantism and Drama in Early Modern England(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 36–37; Andrew Hiscock, Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 33, 77, 110–111, 169.

[2] See also Brevard Childs, Memory and Tradition in Israel(London: SCM Press, 1962); John Barton, ‘Forgiveness and Memory in the Old Testament’ in Gott und Mensch im Dialog, ed. M. Witte (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 987–95; Simon de Vries, ‘Remembrance in Ezekiel: A Study of an Old Testament Theme’, Interpretation 16 (1962): 58–64; Barat Ellman, Memory and Covenant: The Role of Israel’s and God’s Memory in Sustaining the Deuteronomic and Priestly Covenants (Minneapolis: Ausberg Fortress, 2013); Yair Lorberbaum, ‘The Rainbow in the Cloud: An Anger Management Device’, Journal of Religion 89 (2009): 498–540.

[3] Andrew Hiscock’s phrase,Reading Memory, 77. God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants was the promise of land, offspring, and blessing in return for loyalty and obedience. For a helpful discussion of covenant, see Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy(Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997), 414–34.

[4] Childs, Memory and Tradition, 31.

[5] Ellman, Memory and Covenant, 30.

[6] Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (London: Westminster John Knox Press,2001), 10.

[7] Ellman, Memory and Covenant, 6.

[8] Childs, Memory and Tradition, 34.

[9] For other examples, see Hugh Latimer, 27 Sermons preached by ... Maister Hugh Latimer, as well such as in tymes past haue bene printed, as certayne other ... neuer yet set forth in print...(London: Imprinted by John Day, 1562) sig. 56v; Katherine Parr, The Prayers or medytacions (1545) sig. DIr

[10] John Foxe, A sermon, of Christ Crucified [on 2 Cor. v. 20, 21] (John Daye: London, 1571), sig. D4r—D4v.

[11] John Foxe, The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online (1570 edition) (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011), Available from: http//www.johnfoxe.org [Accessed: 17.07.18], Book 5: 19.



Foxe, John. A sermon, of Christ Crucified [on 2 Cor. v. 20, 21](John Daye: London, 1571.

-------------. The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online (1570 edition) (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). Available from: http//www.johnfoxe.org [Accessed: 17.07.18].

Latimer, Hugh. 27 Sermons preached by ... Maister Hugh Latimer, as well such as in tymes past haue bene printed, as certayne other ... neuer yet set forth in print...London: Imprinted by John Day, 1562

Parr, Katherine. The Prayers or medytacions (1545)



Barton, John. ‘Forgiveness and Memory in the Old Testament’. In Gott und Mensch im Dialog, ed. M. Witte. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997.

Childs, Brevard. Memory and Tradition in Israel. London: SCM Press, 1962.

Ellman, Barat. Memory and Covenant: The Role of Israel’s and God’s Memory in Sustaining the Deuteronomic and Priestly Covenants. Minneapolis: Ausberg Fortress, 2013.

Hiscock, Andrew. Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

King, Philip J. and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Lam, Joseph. Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible: Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Lorberbaum, Yair. ‘The Rainbow in the Cloud: An Anger Management Device’. In Journal of Religion 89 (2009): 498–540.

Ryrie, Alec. Being Protestant in Reformation Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Slights, William. Managing Readers: Printed Marginalia in English Renaissance Books. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Stegner, Paul. Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature: Penitential Remains. United Kingdom: Palgrave, 2015.

Streete, Adrian. Protestantism and Drama in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.