This text belongs to a section of Jeremiah (chapters 30-33) sometimes called the ‘Book of Consolation’. It sounds a note of restoration for Judah beyond the disaster of exile in Babylon. With the vision of restoration, Jeremiah also envisages a renewed covenant between God and God’s people, a new ethic and, indeed, a new community.
Exile had been a traumatic experience for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. After the first siege of Jerusalem around 598 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army, thousands of Judeans had been deported to Babylon. A second siege of the city, far more devastating in its effects, had taken place around 587 BCE. The city walls had been breeched and the temple destroyed. Jeremiah’s oracles of consolation and hope may be from the time prior to the second destruction, or shortly after.
There are three oracles in chapter 31 all beginning ‘The days are surely coming …’ (vv. 27-30, 31-34, and 38-40). Today’s reading takes in the first two oracles. The first, vv. 27-30, announces a new beginning for both Israel from the north and Judah from the south, i.e. a restoration of all Israel as known in ages past. Repeated here are themes and language from the call of Jeremiah (v. 28; cf. Jer. 1:10), but now the tasks of plucking up, breaking down, destroying, overthrowing, building and planting, are those of God not just of the prophet. The oracle turns abruptly in vv. 29-30 to the area of ethics, presenting a new understanding of individual responsibility. No longer can the blame for the trauma of exile be sheeted home on the sins of past generations (cf. Ezekiel 18). The third oracle, vv. 38-40, will speak of the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem itself, again using some of the language of Jeremiah’s call. Now, however, there is the promise that the uprooting and overthrowing will never again be experienced (v. 40).
The second oracle, vv. 31-34, speaks of a new beginning in terms of a renewed covenant, of which again Israel and Judah are both beneficiaries. Apart from the ‘new song’ in some Psalms (e.g. Psalms 96 and 98), the ‘new’ is not a frequent theme in the Hebrew Bible until it emerges with the prophets following the exile. Parallel to the new covenant of Jeremiah, two other significant references are the ‘new thing’ and the ‘new creation’ in Isa. 43:19 and 65:17 respectively, and the ‘new heart’ and ‘new spirit’ of Ezek. 18:31.
We have referred to a ‘renewed’ covenant rather than a ‘new’ one. The Hebrew could mean either ‘new’ or ‘renewed’ but ‘new’, which could imply something entirely different to previous covenants, is not really what is implied here. There are new things about this new ‘cutting’ of the covenant as it is termed in Hebrew. But there are many things not mentioned as new. Importantly, the intent of the covenant itself, the parties involved, the law that was an integral part of it, and the covenant institution or ceremony are not mentioned and are the same as for the old covenant. What is ‘new’ about the covenant is not the covenant itself, but the way it is to be effected. The people broke the covenant in its old formulation, even though God had ‘led his people by the hand’ out of Egypt, and had become their ‘husband’ or master. This is language familiar from Hosea 2:16ff. In this new manifestation of the covenant, God will put his torah within the people and ‘write it on their hearts’. The language of the heart, used too by Ezekiel (18:31; 36:26), is typical also of Deuteronomy (6.5-6; 10:16), especially ‘the word in the heart’ (Deut. 11:18). In Hebrew, ‘heart’ represents not so much the seat of the emotions as that of practical knowledge, and is not significantly different from ‘mind’. The torah written on the heart will replace the sin previously engraved there (Jer. 17:1).
This change in imagery represents the new covenantal relationship with God as an internal matter rather than an external one. Each one, regardless of social status, will have a personal knowledge of God, not dependent on the instruction of another. Jeremiah goes on to anchor this new knowledge in forgiveness (v. 34). They shall each know that experience personally. No longer will they just hear from another the tradition of God’s liberation of his people long ago in the exodus (v. 32). No longer will they need to be taught the torah by another. It will all be part and parcel of their own being – both the experience of forgiveness, or grace as we might call it, and the desire to live out the way of God. Compare Jesus’ teaching on the connection of forgiveness and love (Luke 7:47).
Finally, note two key aspects of this renewed covenant. First, the oracle affirms the ongoing place of torah, the law, although now written on human hearts (Jer. 31:33). Secondly, the oracle repeats the old covenant affirmation ‘I will be their God, and they will be my people’ (cf. Exod. 6:7). Even with the new individual knowledge of God, the corporate side of the covenant relationship remains essential. Individuals, with their own experience of forgiveness and their ‘internalized’ law, are neither free from discipline nor without connection to the whole community of God’s people. One could develop this in many ways but it is also important to note that it is true of both modern communities, Jewish and Christian, who rightly see their relationship with God in terms of Jeremiah’s words. Both seek to live God’s way from the heart, with the same sense of a personal knowledge of God.
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