31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The New Covenant is kind of a big deal in Christian theology. Sometimes used as a synonym for the New Testament, it more accurately describes an incident from earlier in the life of God’s people, one in which God seems to promise to reset the relationship between humanity and the divine. This concept  comes from the 31st chapter of Jeremiah. It is the only passage in the Hebrew Bible that uses the word “new” to modify the word “covenant.”[1]In this passage, YHWH promises to establish a new covenant with his people Israel- one which will be different from the previous covenants established with Moses or Abraham. Instead of having to garner instruction in the Law from other human beings, YHWH will now write it directly on his people’s hearts. A lot has been made of this new Law in Christian circles, mainly from a legalistic point of view- is it the same as the Mosaic Law? Or is it something different? How are the two related? Hindsight allows the modern Christian to make assertions that the New Covenant was brought into being through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection[2], but Jeremiah and his contemporaries were not privy to this knowledge. So how would they have understood the concept of this New Covenant and it’s relation to the Law?

The book of Jeremiah is a product of a turbulent time in the history of Israel and Judah. Following the annihilation of the northern kingdom by Assyria, Judah became embroiled in decades of geopolitical tension, constantly being caught in regional conflicts between greater powers, such as Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon. Judah found herself being relegated to the status of puppet state, which her rulers chaffed against, but could do very little to change. A sense of foreboding seems to have dominated the national psyche- and it was not misplaced. Things were about to go very wrong for the people of Judah.

At the same time, YHWH worship in Judah seems to have been in a state of flux. Although YHWH was clearly given much lip service, Jeremiah himself seems to communicate the idea that people were only listening to the religious voices that told them what they wanted to hear, instead of listening to YHWH’s actual words. Jeremiah wasn’t the only person in Judah regarded as a prophet- in fact, he spends a lot of time railing against the falseness of some other “prophetic” messages. These messages would guide the people to their doom, he asserted.

And this doom would come within Jeremiah’s lifetime. This passage we’re looking at is meant to reassure the YHWH’s people that he hadn’t forgotten them- that even though doom was coming, hope was coming, too.

Jeremiah’s writing stands firmly within the tradition of other prophetic voices in the life of Israel and Judah. Like the other prophets, his words seem crafted to prosecute the people for their sin and to persuade them to change. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the nearly poetic culmination of a series of passages where in which the author seeks to comfort the people of Judah. Every one of these verses addresses the future, but can only be understood by knowing the context of Israel and Judah’s past.

 

A proper understanding of Jeremiah 31 cannot take place without first understanding the Hebrew Bible’s emphasis on covenant and law. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably by theologians and laymen alike, usually in how we talk about violating them. “I broke the law” and “I broke the covenant” seem to carry the same connotation. But I believe it is a mistake to speak of covenant and law in such a way, and that we cannot understand how YHWH intends to establish a new covenant or the importance YHWH writing his law on his people’s hearts if we do. So, before we go any further, we must establish what exactly is meant by the terms “covenant” and “law” in the canon[4] of Hebrew understanding. Be leery: there’s a chance we step on some sacred cows on this one.

The word translated as “covenant” in English translations of Jeremiah is the Hebrew word בְּרִ֥ית (berit).[5] We most often translate the word as “covenant” in the English, but it carries a number of different connotations throughout Hebrew Scripture. בְּרִ֥ית can be an agreement between men, a treaty between countries, an oath or a pledge, an alliance, or a marriage pact.[6]

Of course, when most theologians and pastors think of the word, we think of it in its religious connotation, as some sort of holy agreement between the human and the divine. Most often, we think of this in terms of contractual language: I will do this, if you do that. And the Hebrew Bible does often use בְּרִ֥ית in this sense. In fact, the language is even somewhat at work in Jeremiah 31; though our English translations render the text as “I will make a covenant” or “I will establish a covenant”, the proper Hebrew more accurately reads “I will cut a covenant.” This is a call back to rituals surrounding covenant making in the ancient world: the covenanting parties would sacrifice livestock, walk between the vivisected portions of their remains, and take oaths of self-imprecation, saying, in essence, “If I don’t honor my end of the bargain, may the same thing happen to me.”[7]

In a way, much of the theodicy we find in the Hebrew Bible rests on this notion- Israel (and Judah) violated the covenant, and in so doing they brought doom upon themselves. We call this the Deuteronomistic Cycle. Often we understand this only in terms of its transactional value: the Israelites have reneged on the contractual obligations made at Sinai. But I think there is so much more going on.

If we take a look at the broader use of בְּרִ֥ית, I think we’ll see that covenants are always cut in the context of relationship. Marriage, oaths, agreements, pledges- all take place within the context of one person interacting with another person. Even when בְּרִ֥ית is used in the context of alliances or agreements between countries, we can still credibly hold on to this understanding, for when the Hebrew Scriptures speak of other nations, they often speak of them as if they were people. If you don’t believe me, ask my friends Moab and Edom.

In fact, when we see YHWH speak about the broken covenants of the past, we see some interesting phraseology: Israel broke their covenant with YHWH even “though I was a husband to them.”[8]For YHWH, at least in the context of this passage, the establishment of covenant doesn’t seem to be about creating the right contract between negotiating parties so much as it does creating the right framework for people to be in relationship together. בְּרִ֥ית isn’t so much a business deal between the Almighty and the less mighty as it is a marriage proposal. Or, maybe a better analogy is that בְּרִ֥ית is the marriage vows. Either way, the point is this: covenant seems to seek to establish relationship.

If it is true that covenant establishes relationship, then what does law do? Again, we’re in danger of stepping on some sacred cows. When we say “law”, what we’re really talking about is the Hebrew word תּוֹרָה (Torah.) We rightly esteem Torah in Judeo-Christian culture as a lynchpin of understanding who God is. “Law” doesn’t rightly or wholly encompass its meaning. “Torah does in human life what the sun does within creation: it brings the light, power and searching, probing heat of YHWH’s presence into the depths of the human heart.”[9]

As with berit, we tend to see Torah mostly in terms of its modern religious connotations: as a set of laws codified by God and given to humankind for divine reasons. Martin Luther’s teaching about Law and Gospel come to mind- the Law’s main purpose is to show us how we can’t keep it, and therefore how we need the Gospel. I’m not sure Luther gets this one right. In fact, to be quite honest, I think the use of תּוֹרָה to exclusively mean “law” is overly blunt. Our understanding of Torah, just like our understanding of berit, needs to be much more nuanced. There is more going on in the original language.

Law is, of course, a usually valid translation for Torah. I honor that interpretation when it is the most contextually compelling translation of the text, which it often is. But it isn’t, always. תּוֹרָה can also mean “direction” or “instruction.[10]” We see this in a number of texts: mothers and fathers give their children תּוֹרָה,[11] sages instruct their students in sound תּוֹרָה[12], and תּוֹרָה can even be found in the words of poets.[13]

Perhaps the most illuminating use of תּוֹרָה in this sense comes from Proverbs 31, where a virtuous wife offers her husband [14]תּוֺרַת חֶסֶד- that is, “kind torah.” In this case, “law” doesn’t seem like a fitting definition of תּוֹרָה. It seems unlikely for the wife in an ancient Near Eastern culture to give her husband “law”, no matter how kind[15]. It does make sense, however, in the context of their relationship, for the virtuous woman to offer her husband “kind direction” or “kind instruction.”

As with covenant, Torah seems to be understood best within the context of relationships. Because I love my wife, I will listen to her “kind direction.” Because we want to raise our son and daughter to be wise, we will do our best to offer them sound “instruction.”

But how do Torah and covenant relate to each other? Here’s what I propose: if covenant establishes a relationship, then Torah is what instructs us on how to live within that relationship. Covenant is the wedding, Torah is the marriage.

So here is a new lens for understanding Jeremiah 31: instead of seeing this passage as YHWH telling Jeremiah that he is going to type up a new contract and put his strict rulebook on people’s hearts, I believe Jeremiah’s original audience would have understood that YHWH was establishing the bounds of a new relationship, and that the instruction on how to faithfully live into that relationship would come from within instead of from above. Only within the context of relationship will God’s salvation embed itself in a new community- through Covenant and Torah, because it takes both.

Torah and covenant are not the same thing- but they live in the same space. I believe that they’ve both been misunderstood by Christian culture lately, often being used to support legalism and transactionalism. My hope is that by seeing both covenant and Torah in the context of relationship, we can see God for who God really is: a lover, dedicated to reestablishing the bonds of connection with the one that they love, for now and for all time.

That’s the kind of God people need to hear about. May our now “written on” hearts reflect the reality and goodness of that kind of God.

[1] Archaeological Study Bible

[2] Assertions I whole heartedly agree with, BTW.

[3] Bright, John Anchor Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Doubleday: New York, 1987) p. 287

[4] I’m pretty sure I used the right “canon”, but feel free to write “BOOM!” anyways.

[5] F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 16th Edition (Hendrickson: Peabody, Mass, 2015)

[6] Ibid

[7] Harper Collins Study Bible, note on 31:33

[8] Jeremiah 31:32b

[9] Wright, NT Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2005) p. 21

[10] BDB, p. 435

[11] Proverbs 1:8, Proverbs 3:1, etc. al

[12] Proverbs 13:14, 28:4

[13] Psalm 71:8

[14] Proverbs 31:26

[15] I was really tempted to insert a joke above about my wife laying down the law in my house, but there’s a chance she might one day read this blog. But I doubt she reads the footnotes…

Advertisements