Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34
Early Christians recognized God’s utterly new and transformative work in Jesus Christ in Jeremiah’s description of the “new covenant.”
Jesus refers to it in the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:28), and it is the basis for the Christian designation of the scriptures as the Old and New Testaments. Old and new fit together like promise and fulfillment, and to say that God had done a new thing was to say that God had found new ways to be faithful to Israel. Remarkably — and somewhat paradoxically — God’s faithfulness to Israel meant the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God. Gentile Christians could therefore see themselves in Jeremiah’s promise of the renewed covenantal relationship with Israel, “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Because of this linkage to the old, something utterly new was possible.
Although the relationship between new and old originally implied continuity, the “new” came to be regarded as superior to the old, and Christians came to see themselves as the New Israel displacing the Old Israel in God’s economy of salvation. The horrors of the Holocaust in the twentieth century forced Christians to come to terms with the unintended consequences of this rhetoric. The challenge after the Holocaust is to find new ways of speaking about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in ways that affirm the validity of both ways of knowing and worshiping God. This is not easy, particularly when the old/new contrast is so deeply embedded within the scriptures themselves. Indeed, today’s New Testament lessons reinforce the contrast. In Romans, for example, Paul asserts that God has now accomplished that which the law, the old covenant, could never do. In John 8:31-36, meanwhile, Jesus could be taken to mean that Jews have remained slaves to sin — as if they had never experienced the forgiveness so clearly promised in Jeremiah 31:34. Although this is not the place to take up the problems posed by these, it is important to point out that their pairing with Jeremiah 31:31-34 follows a well-worn and now slippery path in Christian rhetoric.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 helps us to see that the new requires and depends on the old. Admittedly, this text also employs the language of discontinuity. The new covenant will not be like the old one (v. 32); and twice in v. 34 the expression “no more” is used to indicate a decisive change. Yet the relationship between the old and new suggests that the old is not replaced but reaffirmed and, more importantly, made permanent. It cannot be displaced or replaced, because it is the bedrock on which all else rests.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 is one of three concluding speeches in the Book of Consolation (Jeremiah 30-31), a collection of oracles seeking to address the lingering trauma after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Responding to Israel’s cries of terror, pain, and grief, God speaks directly to Israel, promising to save, restore, and heal. At the heart of these assurances is the conviction that Israel will once again know God’s favor: “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” This is not simply a new thing, a capricious decision on God’s part to let go of wrath and become merciful again. Rather, Israel was to discover what had always been true: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (31:3).
The new covenant ensures that this understanding of God will never be lost. God’s character does not change; even in the old covenant, God showed care and concern for Israel, taking it by the hand to lead it out of Egypt (v. 32). What is new is that God’s torah (NRSV: law) is written on the heart. Underlying this metaphor is the ancient Near Eastern practice of treaty-making, in which covenants/treaties were inscribed in clay or stone and would be read regularly as reminders of obligations which covenant partners had sworn to uphold. They were also easily broken, as the turbulent history of Israel and Judah makes abundantly clear. “Jeremiah’s audience knows that stone tablets can be broken (Exodus 32:19; Deuteronomy 9:17) and that scrolls can be lost or ignored (2 Kings 22:8), and burned (Jeremiah 36:23) or drowned (Jeremiah 51:63).”1
Even if the texts themselves were not defaced or destroyed, there was still the problem of compliance. Ancient Near Eastern treaties and covenants forged artificial relationships, which by their nature were easily broken. By contrast, the covenant written on the heart describes a natural, not an artificial relationship, one that proceeds from innate knowledge. Because it is God’s torah that is written on the heart, the ability to respond to God becomes natural. Certainly such responsiveness would be a necessary corrective to the old covenant that was broken by Israel’s disobedience. Even so, what is emphasized here is not that Israel will know and observe God’s law, but that it will know God: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest” (v. 34). Although the oracle formula in v. 34 somewhat disrupts the flow, it is important to recognize that this knowledge is derived as much from Israel’s direct experience of God’s forgiveness and mercy as it is from the implanted torah: “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
What is imagined here is a resilient relationship of trust and mutuality, in which Israel responds to God from the heart, and God accepts Israel freely, with mercy and forgiveness. But what makes the new covenant possible is what had always been true but needed to be learned again. “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” This love, suggests Jeremiah, is nothing new.
1 Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise, and Thomas G. Smothers, Jeremiah 26–52 (WBC 27; Dallas: Word Books, 19950, 133.