How To Memorize The Biblical Narrative (Part 2)

Editors’ note: 

This is part 5 in a 5 article series on using memorization to increase knowledge of the Bible and develop a sanctified imagination:

  1. How Memorization Feeds Your Imagination
  2. How to Memorize (Almost) Anything
  3. 4 Tips to Memorize (Almost) Anything
  4. How to Memorize the Biblical Narrative (I)
  5. How to Memorize the Biblical Narrative (II)

Let’s continue with our process of memorizing the events in Genesis:

Location 5 – Nook 1:  The Story of the Tower of Babel

What image comes to mind when you think of a tower? For many people it is the Eiffel Tower in Paris (or it’s kitschy knockoff in Las Vegas) so we’ll use that as our tower. Picture the Eiffel Tower spewing BUBBLES (Babel) from its top and a BABBLE of strange languages coming from its base.

Location 5 – Nook 2:  God calls Abram to go to Canaan and Egypt

When remembering people from the Biblical narrative it can be helpful to associate them with the first person whose name comes to mind. Unfortunately, while I know many women who share the name of this patriarch’s wife (Sarah) I don’t know any Abrahams or Abrams. Instead I have to create a specific visual image for Abraham (e.g., a dusty, old and bearded nomad) that I can use throughout my memory palace. For this nook, I picture Abraham looking at an Egyptian pyramid (my go-to image for Egypt) that is surrounded by a fence made of candy canes (representing the similar sounding Canaan). Above the pyramid is the Representative Hand makes a beckoning motion to come toward the pyramid.

Location 5 – Nook 3:  Abram has a son, Ishmael

There are many notable births that we’ll need to remember as we create the biblical narrative in our memory palace, so you’ll want to create a standard visual that represents “birth of a child.” As a boy I was told that the stork delivers babies, so that has visual has stuck with me. In this case, I picture a stork dropping a baby into the arms of Abraham. Since I don’t know any Ishmaels, I picture the baby with a sign around its neck that says, “Call me Ishmael” – the opening line of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. An alternative would be to use a similar sounding term. Instead of the stork delivering a human child, you can visualize him dropping a load of FISH MAIL onto Abraham.

Location 6 – Nook 1:  God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah

Creating a visual to represent unfamiliar cities can be difficult. While its best to avoid using words in our visuals, this is case where is might be helpful. Picture two signs next to each other with the words “Welcome to So” on one and “Welcome to Go” on the other (an abbreviation that can be easier to picture than the words Sodom and Gomorrah). Each of the Representative Hands – which are now on fire – squashes the signs until there is nothing left but ash and debris on the floor.

Location 6 – Nook 2:  Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt

This one is easy: As a woman looks back at the ashy signs on the floor, the Representative Hand taps her on the head and she turns into a human-sized saltshaker.

Location 6 – Nook 3:  Sarah gives birth to Isaac

When picturing Sarah and Isaac, you may want to use an image of a friend, actor (e.g., Sarah Jessica Parker), celebrity (e.g., Sarah Ferguson, former Duchess of York), politician (e.g., former Alaska governor Sarah Palin), or historical figure (e.g., Sir Isaac Newton).  As with Abraham and Ishmael, picture a stork dropping a baby with the face of your Isaac into the arms of the Sarah you picture.

Location 7 – Nook 1:  God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but provides a ram as substitute

Create an image of the two figures preparing to engage in an act that you’ll recognize represents “sacrifice.” For example, you might picture Abraham with a knife standing over Isaac, who is also standing. As Abraham is bringing down the weapon, a ram butts Isaac with his horns, knocking him out of the way and taking the blow on his behalf.

Location 7 – Nook 2:  Abraham’s wife Sarah dies

As with births, you’ll want to create a standard image that can be used for common events such as deaths and weddings. For instance, you might want to use an image of an open coffin and a person crying over it. In this case, Sarah is lying in the coffin while her husband Abraham weeps.

Location 7 – Nook 3:  Isaac marries Rebekah.

While it is tempting to create images we think would be more historically accurate, it is often easier to remember images that are familiar to us. For example, when imagining weddings mentioned in the Bible, picture the characters dressed in a modern wedding gown and tuxedo. An image of the 18th-century physicist Sir Isaac Newton marrying Christian pop singer Rebecca St. James (my visual cue) doesn’t become more accurate simply because we imagine them dressed in Ancient Near Eastern garb. The important factor is that the images be easy to remember. You don’t have to tell anyone how you remember them so feel free to make them as silly and strange as you want since silly and strange are more memorable).

Location 8 – Nook 1:  Rebekah gives birth to Esau and Jacob

While Rebekah and Jacob are still common names, you don’t find too many Esau’s around nowadays. Creating memorable visual cues for Esau can be difficult, so you may want to use similar sounding words (like a children’s SEE-SAW) or create an absurd term (PEA SAW – a saw either made of or used to cut peas) and have the man carrying them. So for me, Esau is a bearded nomad who is carrying a chainsaw made of green peas.

Location 8 – Nook 2:  Esau sells his birthright for bowl of stew

Picture Isaac wearing a chef’s hat standing behind a table with a large, steaming bowl of stew. His brother, licking his lips and holding an oversized spoon, hands over his birth certificate as payment to a gloating Jacob.

Location 8 – Nook 3:  Jacob wrestles with God; has his name changed to Israel.

Create an image of Jacob wrestling with the Representative Hand. When the hand touches Jacob’s hip, the shirt he is wearing turns into the flag of the State of Israel (i.e., a blue Star of David on a white background).

Location 9 – Nook 1:  Joseph angers his brothers and is sold into slavery

As a reminder that Joseph was also the given a coat of many colors (Gen. 37:3), I recommend creating an image of Joseph wearing a garish, oversized fur coat of wild colors. A group of angry young men of various ages is standing behind a supermarket checkout counter while Joseph is lying on the conveyer belt wrapped in his coat and chains. An ancient Egyptian is handing over a fistful of dollar bills to the brothers as payment for the newly enslaved Joseph.

Location 9 – Nook 2:  Potiphar’s wife has Joseph thrown in jail

Picture an Egyptian woman (perhaps one that looks like a movie version of Cleopatra) holding on to the neck of Joseph’s fur-lined multi-colored coat. As he tries to get loose the coat breaks away and he runs straight into a jail cell.

Location 9 – Nook 3:  Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker and then of Pharaoh

Picture Joseph (back in his coat again) standing before three men. One man is holding in his hands a giant cup filled with grapes (Gen. 40:10-11). The second man is balancing on his head a silver platter with three cakes that are being eaten by birds (perhaps peacocks again?). The third man has a head the shape of an Egyptian pyramid. Under each arm he is holding a cow–the one on the left is emaciated while the one on the right is plumb. The skinny cow is chewing on the ear of the fat cow.

Location 10 – Nook 1:  Joseph is made prime minister of Egypt

Create an image of Joseph (in his coat, of course) sitting on a lavish throne. He’s wearing a clerical collar and baseball cap with ‘#1’ emblazoned across the front – a symbol that he is the #1 (prime) minister (not the clergy kind, but you get the idea) in Egypt.

Location 10 –­ Nook 2:  Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy grain

Joseph, wearing his coat, is now the one standing at a supermarket checkout counter serving as the clerk. Each of the brothers (from the image you created for Location 9 – Nook 1) is standing in the checkout line holding a loaf of whole-wheat bread and looking sheepish.

Location 10 – Nook 3:  Jacob dies and then Joseph dies.

Picture two open caskets, once with the image of your Jacob and the other is of Joseph laid out in his fancy, colored coat.

Where to Go From Here

The author of Ad Herennium says that the duty of an instructor in mnemonics is to teach the method of making images, give a few examples, and then encourage the student to form his own. When teaching ‘introductions’, he says, one does not draft a thousand set introductions and give them to the student to learn by heart; one teaches him the method and then leaves him to his own inventiveness. That’s the approach I’ll take here.

The task of creating your own images will certainly take time and effort. But here are a few suggestions for how to make the process less intimidating and time-consuming:

Create your own shorthand – Rather than writing everything out word for word, create shorthand that will remind you of the images you create and where you plan to place them in you memory palace. For example, you could write the details of “Location 3 – Nook 2: God Rests” like this:

Genesis :: 3/3 :: God Rests :: RH sleeping, snoring

Just remember that the 3/3 refers to the particular location and nook, not the chapter and verse.

Divide the workload  – While image pegs that you create yourself are often easier to remember, for a complex task like this it may be helpful to share the workload. Instead of coming up with image pegs for every book of the Bible all by yourself, divide the tasks up among your family, friends, or small group. Work together to come up with a consensus for which events to include, but then have each person take one book and create a list of mental pegs for that part of the Bible. Be sure that everyone shares the same code or shorthand to avoid confusion.

Set aside time each week for this task – Use the techniques we covered in this series to schedule a time to accomplish this task. You gain no benefit from merely agreeing that memorizing the Biblical narrative would be spiritually helpful; you have to actually make time to accomplish this task. Isn’t it worth twenty minutes of your time each week to embed the entire Bible storyline into your imagination?