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The Politics of Scripture

A Different Kind of Covenant

Unlike the other covenants of the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah’s new covenant does not focus on intermediaries, or written tablets, or monarchy, or temple, but on the divine self.

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—the 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 (NRSV)

Jeremiah 31:31–34 anticipates a new covenant that will differ from the Sinai covenant in at least three significant ways. Firstly, while the old covenant is depicted as a husband-wife relationship, the new covenant employs a teacher-student relationship. Secondly, the old covenant obligated both parties to practice fidelity. The new covenant is a promise rather than a treaty between two parties. Thirdly, the old covenant had intermediaries, whereas the new covenant will not be mediated by anyone. In these ways, the new covenant differs from the old, though it does not abolish it.

This reflection is neither an attempt to undermine the authenticity or validity of the Sinai covenant, nor to present the new covenant in Jeremiah as superior. However, I conclude that the new covenant offers flexibility that the old covenant did not. This flexibility can be perceived from two aspects of the covenant: its orality and its newness.

The book of Jeremiah is, of course, a literary document whose embedded orality is often hidden to modern readers. However, as a reader from a culture where orality is one of the emphatic ways of documenting stories of resistance, I am drawn to verse 33, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” These phrases connote orality. It is the image of a school, where God, the teacher, uses oral instruction to inscribe/write on the hearts of the students/the house of Israel.

The book of Jeremiah employs the imagery of “heart” throughout the book. It is used to refer to the lack of wholeheartedness (3:10), a stubbornness of heart (3:17; 9:14; 13:10; 16:12; 18:12), the wickedness of heart (4:14), etc. However, Jeremiah 31:31-34 flips the imagery of the heart presented in the earlier chapters of Jeremiah to speak of the heart as the place where God’s wisdom will be held. “After those days” (verse 33), refers to the days during which the people experienced only disaster and estrangement, loss and grief, trauma and mourning. After this long and difficult period, people will once again experience emotional attachment and divine love and forgiveness (verse 34). God will no longer be a husband who whines about being wronged. Instead, God will cater to the needs of those who have been wronged physically, emotionally, spatially, and psychologically.

The new covenant is formulated in light of the disasters experienced by the exiled community whose loss is irreplaceable. By offering new and oral instructions, God invites the people of Israel and Judah to participate in a covenant without any obligations. The old covenant, which was written on tablets, was broken figuratively and literally by the ancestors. With the breaking of the old covenant, God’s wrath was brought upon the people of Israel. “The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind” (Jer 30:24). However, in Jeremiah 31:31–34, God makes a new, oral covenant. This covenant does not lay down any written or oral obligations for the people of Israel. The promise of the new covenant defies the contractual expectations laid in the old covenant. The orality of the new covenant has its foundations in the pathos of the suffering community and hence offers flexibility. This flexibility is evident in God’s unconditional covenant with the people of Israel.          

Secondly, the flexibility of the new covenant can be perceived from the language of “newness” in Jeremiah 31:31–34. Although Jeremiah is the only Hebrew Bible text that uses “new covenant” language, it is not the first to use the language of newness. The images of new heart, new spirit, new things are common in passages of restoration in the prophetic books (e.g., Ezek 11:19–20; 18:31; Isa 42:9). While the people of Israel are expected to work towards “newness” in the Ezekiel and Isaiah texts, in the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31–34, God will create its newness. God freely promises to make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. God says, “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” (verse 32).

God’s covenant in the past with the ancestors was analogous to a marital relationship in which God was “their husband” (verse 32). Although marital relationship obligated fidelity from both parties, God claims that the relationship was broken. The laws concerning marriage and divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1–4 do not allow the husband who was wronged to take back the wayward wife. However, Jeremiah 31:31–34 allows this “wife” to return to the husband. It is important to note that the husband-wife metaphor does not apply to the new covenant. The analogy of husband-wife is in connection to the old covenant, while the teacher-student analogy is borrowed from wisdom traditions to refer to the covenant relationship in the new covenant.

The newness in the covenant does not presuppose a new heart or new spirit, as envisioned in Ezekiel 11:19-20; 18:31; and Isaiah 42:9. Nor does it promise monarchy. The promises in Isaiah 9:2–7 and 11:1–9 anticipate a restored future in the Davidic monarchy. In Isaiah 2:2–4, the temple becomes the center of restoration. However, Jeremiah 31:31–34 forms a new covenant based on God’s own divine self. God will be the instructor with no intermediaries. The new covenant diverges from, but does not nullify, the old covenant. However, the newness presented in the covenant of Jeremiah offers flexibility. Its flexibility is visible in presenting God without an intermediary and God as the subject of the covenant.

The power and potential of the new covenant lies in its ability to move away from traditional and centralized notions of authority. Unlike the other covenants of the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah’s new covenant does not focus on intermediaries, or written tablets, or monarchy, or temple, but on the divine self. This divine embraces the people of Israel not as a husband would embrace his wife but as a teacher would embrace the student. In embracing the student as a teacher, the divine inscribes the words of instruction and understanding directly on the heart. These words can neither be removed nor forgotten, for they were “written” on their hearts.

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