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Psalm 78

Memory is different than history. History seeks to record events sequentially and with accurate detail. Memory seeks to convey enduring lessons by a telling that might select key aspects of the past for emphasis and even exaggeration; events which may flow out of sequence. Columbia University historian Yosef Yerushalmi so taught in a book, entitled Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982). He showed that Hebrew Scripture is obsessed with memory, noting that the word zakhor is repeated 169 times, plus the many times that “you shall not forget” is commanded. The Bible and Jewish memory describes the past to create a collective memory that informs the present.

Psalm 78 recaps several hundred years of Biblical history, from the Exodus to King David. In doing so, the key lesson conveyed is that the people tend to repeatedly forget God’s goodness and neglect or even rebel against God. In contrast, God is steady in caregiving, which may include punishment, and chooses to forget past wrongdoings to reclaim relationship. With 72 verses, this is the second longest Psalm. As a Psalm of Asaph, the poet artfully repeats words (over 70 times), engages in wordplays, and may use rhythm and rhyme for emphasis. Poetic descriptions of the past may suggest more than one possible Biblical reference, plus events and details that do not appear elsewhere.

Psalm 78 is dedicated to Helene Coulter with gratitude