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Jeremiah 31:31-34 – The New Covenant

Summary

God promises that he will establish a new covenant with Israel that has significant continuities with the old covenant, but is genuinely new.

Analysis

This is a classic text. It is the only Old Testament text where "new" modifies "covenant" (though see 32:40; 50:5). It is picked up in several New Testament texts (for example, Hebrews 8:8-12; 10:16-17) and has often shaped more general theological reflections through the centuries. Indeed, this text has given the New Testament its very name.

This text has generated several interpretations, not always positive. Some have thought that the reference to the law fosters a new kind of legalism. Others have interpreted it in supersessionist terms (especially in view of Hebrews 8:13), with Christians becoming the sole people of the covenant--as if Israel here predicts its own demise! Both of these directions of reflection should be rejected.

The context of the new covenant is earthly, not heavenly; it is historical, not beyond this world. The new covenant is to be accompanied by a repopulation of the land (31:27-28) and a rebuilding of Jerusalem (31:38-40). Moreover, this covenant is given to Israel, to all Israel, not to some people that God will create in the future (both Northern and Southern kingdoms are specifically included). The people with whom God establishes this covenant are "my people," recognizing continuity between the old Israel and the new. The old covenant formula of relationship still applies: "I will be their God and they shall be my people" (31:33).

What this new covenant entails has various dimensions. In the words of Jeremiah 24:6-7, God will "give them a heart to know that I am the Lord" (compare with 32:39), from the least to the greatest. This new heart will replace the "evil will/heart" so characteristic of Israel's life before exile (see 18:12). The law remains a key point of continuity between the old and the new, but the law will no longer be an external code; it will be written upon the heart. This is not a new interiorization of the covenant compared to the old; texts such as Deuteronomy 30:6 and 30:14 already speak of an internal reality for the older covenantal understandings. The difference seems only to be that the people will no longer need to be taught via the written Torah.

Two reasons are given as to why teaching will no longer be needed: "for" they shall all know God, and "for" God will forgive their iniquity. A relational knowledge of the Lord and a unilateral, unconditional divine forgiveness are the heart and soul of this new covenant. Israel's past becomes truly past, never more to hang over the lives of the people. God will remember their sins no more! The reference to teaching makes it clear that this promise has not fully been fulfilled even today.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

A New Covenant

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. 32It 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. 33But 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. 34No 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.

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10 February 2011

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