Memory fascinates me.
Take the Homeric epics, for instance. The Iliad and Odyssey were passed down for generations, sung by bards, before Homer put them in writing. I wonder, how much did the stories actually change over, say, two or three generations?
They might not have changed much. Poetry is like that, especially when sung. (I still remember many lyrics word for word from my adolescent days when I start to sing the song whence they come: “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold. . . .”)
On the other hand, they might have changed much. We don’t know.
Fast forward a few millennia to the Brothers Grimm and Perrault. Both these people decided to pen common tales that passed from mother to child in their respective regions, the Brothers Grimm in Germany and Perrault in France. Here we find stories we all know, like “Little Red Riding Hood”; and some stories we might not know. The penners share many stories in common, written within only a few years of each other. But the tales often differ significantly. If I remember correctly, little Red comes to a happy ending in one version but a tragic ending in another.
So, while Homer might have written down a story very similar to one sung a century before, we see evidence of European folktales changing over time. The European ones were written in prose, though, not poetry.
This poses some interesting questions for the Bible.
With respect to the Gospels, four different and sometimes differing accounts of Jesus’ life, we must seriously consider how much the stories about Jesus evolved between his life, which ended near the year 30, and the writing of the Gospels starting some forty years later.
Forty years! That’s a while, for sure. My own family stories around the Christmas dinner table have certainly evolved over forty years. My brothers and I seem to disagree about childhood details, for one thing; and we emphasize different themes in our respective tellings.
My family’s stories, like the Brothers Grimm’s and Perrault’s, are told in prose. Comparing poetry and prose, then, it seems the latter is the more difficult to memorize.
Which again we should consider in the differences in narrative between Mark and Matthew, for example.
Still, the prose stories from one generation to another do not change drastically. A recognizable Red shows up in both Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Jesus teaches similar lessons, tells the same parables, and performs recognizable miracles in all four Gospels. My brothers and I can agree on most of the larger details.
So, how? How do we memorize a story in prose well enough to pass it down from one generation to the next so that by the time it reaches the great-grandkids it is still a reasonably accurate family truth?
Or, if Moses didn’t in fact write Deuteronomy–as I am persuaded–how would a writer (or writers) some generations later remember his lengthy sermon?
Music provides a great suggestion.
Are you familiar with sonata-allegro form? Just as we are taught to write essays so that they have form (introduction, body, conclusion), composers are taught musical forms of composition. Sonata-allegro form begins with the exposition, where the major musical theme is presented; then moves to the development, where the theme is sort of mixed up, toyed with, and otherwise developed; and concludes with the recapitulation, where the theme is brought back in all its original splendor and reaffirmed. The recapitulation says to the listener, “Yes, we’ve come home and we’re here to stay.” Then the movement ends and is usually followed by a second and third musical form–second and third movements. Or at least it was classically.
But the point I’m making here is that such form makes memorization of long passages of music–whole movements, whole symphonies, of music–possible. I know from personal experience. Just like the words from the Led Zeppelin song I mentioned above, I can still sit down at the piano today and rattle off (or mostly rattle off) the first movement of Beethoven’s so-called “Moonlight” sonata note-perfect from memory, a movement written in sonata-allegro form; a piece that I memorized in the fourth grade.
Form aids memorization.
Okay then. Here’s the connection to today’s passage. Today we find Moses reaching the end of his sermon’s first movement. It’s his recapitulation.
He’s returned to the theme exposed in chapter 6: tell it to your children. But instead of developing this theme by heading off into new keys, inverting it, or whatever else–which he already did, by the way, in chapters 7-10–now he says, “We’re home. Tell your children about all this; and make sure to mention both sides of the coin. Obedience to God’s word means blessing; disobedience, turning to other gods, is a curse. You decide.”
If nothing else, then, such form makes Deuteronomy a beautiful work of literature. But, as for me, I’m willing to go a step farther and believe that Moses actually said these things at a place and time in history, or something very much like these things–whether or not Moses actually penned Deuteronomy.
Wrestling and arguing notwithstanding, I’ve got to take Moses’ words seriously.