Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34
The new covenant God makes with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (31:31) is both strange and familiar, rooted in and ripped from tradition.
The passage, Jeremiah 31:31-34, appears in the so-called “Book of Comfort” at the heart of the book of Jeremiah (chapters 30-33). These poignant visions of restoration and renewal appear after 29 chapters of harsh condemnation of Judah’s values and institutions. In these oracles of judgment, Jeremiah rages that life in Jerusalem — practiced in the Temple and in the palace, in the courts and in private homes — amounts to fundamental betrayal of God and the covenant their ancestors made at Sinai.
While biblical scholars debate the date of the Book of Comfort’s composition (pre-exilic, exilic, post-exilic?), this material is richly informed by “Jeremiah’s” interpretation of the religio-political scene in Jerusalem just prior to the Babylonians’ destruction of the city.
Jeremiah accuses the elite of the city of watering down and corrupting the stipulations of the covenant made at Sinai. He accuses them of social injustices and turning away from YHWH. Faced with a Babylonian invasion, the elite of Judah place their faith in military strategy and political alliances rather than in the radically free god revealed to their ancestors at Sinai. The covenant made at Sinai is not the problem; the problem is the dilution of Judah’s Sinai identity.
The image of the new covenant is one deeply fixed in the people’s past. But at the same time, it rips away many its recognizable aspects in order to subvert the elite’s current interpretation of it and make it sing in the poignant key of the present.
The Sinai covenant, known to us from Exodus, was wrought in the wilderness between the slaves newly liberated from Egypt and the god of their ancestors, who they themselves only meet for the first time when Moses arrives with the YHWH-given message to Pharaoh to “let my people go.”
The covenant is rooted in God’s defining act of liberation. That act was an act of freedom, but to live into the fullness of God’s blessing depends on the people’s willingness to respond to God with their whole lives. If the people obey God’s voice and keep God’s covenant, blessing and abundance will rain down. If the people do not keep the covenant… see the long and sometime gruesome list of afflictions and curses that will befall them laid out in Deuteronomy 28:15-68.
In its canonical context, the stipulations of the covenant consist of an accumulation of various legal materials, the heart of which is the 10 Commandments. This covenant is not, however, merely a “you do this” and “I’ll do that” kind of a contract. It functions to shape the new community of YHWH’s people in counter-cultural ways, in ways that resist the imperialism of Egypt and the Pharaoh’s program of using and abusing people in the interest of his building projects.
This people is one set apart for holiness to God, for God intends for them to be an instrument of blessing to the whole earth. Therefore the covenant seeks to form a community that is held to high ethical and religious standards, which include the enactment of fierce loyalty to and complete reliance on YHWH and the cultivation a culture of justice and shalom for all.
Jeremiah presents the crisis of pre-exilic Judah not only as one stemming from disobedience to the covenant of Sinai, but also as one tied to its mediation by the elite of Judah. In the chapters that precede our passage, Jeremiah depicts the monarchy as corrupt and the religious authorities in the Temple as hypocritical (see especially, chapter 7). As a prophet, Jeremiah himself is ostracized, and many people ignore and mock his message. His poetic ideal of the new covenant addresses not a problem with the content of the covenant but with its mode of transmission and reception.
Of course, mediation is not a new phenomenon in Jeremiah or something made up by kings or priests. The people gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai have a direct experience of God, and out of sheer terror at the sight of God’s holiness and the sound of the thunderous baritone that accompanies it, they immediately ask for a mediator (Moses) who can tell them what God wants from them, minus the fear and trembling.
For Jeremiah, however, the situation with the political and religious leaders in Jerusalem — as well as with the people’s capacity to hear the words of “true prophets” — has reached a boiling point. Any hope for the future will need to address this problem of corrupt or unheeded mediators of God’s covenant.
Therefore, Jeremiah’s new covenant cuts out the middlemen and mediating institutions. He envisions a divine-human relationship unsullied by authorities and powers. The new covenant will no longer be entrusted to the elite; rather it will be inscribed on the heart of each individual. Hierarchies will have no place in this future. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know [him]…” (Jeremiah 31:34).
The new covenant also serves to minimize external differences between members of the community, which were likely exacerbated in the wake of the exile. Jeremiah’s emphasis on each member of the community having the covenant inscribed on his or her heart may reflect an effort to forestall rising or potential tensions between past residents of the former Northern and Southern kingdoms (“house of Israel” and “house of Judah”).
The covenant on the heart has a leveling effect. All community members stand on equal ground, in equal righteousness, functioning to limit doubts about whose ancestors stood at Sinai and who should properly be called “Israel.” The internal marker of the covenant binds the community together with an invisible sign that cannot be questioned by genealogy or undermined with accusations of purity. No one can claim the authority to teach the other because each heart has God’s torah inscribed on it.
Hope for the future in Jeremiah involves the same divine message known from Sinai, “I will be their God and they will be my people” (verse 33); but this time, that covenant relationship will be the defining mark of each person rather than something that must be learned.