October 20, 2013
If Jeremiah 31:31-34 is not the most familiar piece of writing from this prophet, it is easily among the top three. The "New Covenant" passage most famously created the ways we refer to the two parts of our Bible—the "Old" and the "New" testaments. I place those titles in quote marks because I have long felt that there is something denigrating in them toward the Hebrew Bible. If the thing is just "old," then thank God we have something "new"! A further implication is that there is nothing really new in the "old" thing, so why should I pay any attention to it at all? Of course, there are significant historical and theological arguments for retaining the familiar language, but in fact, in common usage, that familiar language, in my mind, no longer serves us well. After all, the entire Bible is the Word of God, as every Christian communion affirms, hence we need to be very careful to make clear that all of the material we read is crucial if we are to assess the full range of the gospel for this and every day. I thus use "Hebrew Bible" (knowing full well that all of it is not written in Hebrew) and New Testament. There are those who have decided on "First and Second Testament," but I admit to finding that bloodless. Hebrew Bible and New Testament suggest to me uniqueness while at the same time naming connections. The debate will go on, rest assured!
The first section of today's pericope, Jeremiah 31:27-30, addresses two ideas of significance. First, the promise of YHWH to an Israel who is either facing destruction or has already been destroyed (it is impossible to date accurately when the passage was written), is that the demand that Jeremiah announce "plucking up and breaking down" and "overthrowing and destroying" (see his initial calling at Jer. 1:1-10) will finally come to an end. At long last YHWH will "sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with a seed of humans and of animals" (Jer. 31:27). This would imply that the destruction of both countries has now been accomplished, the northern Israel obliterated by the Assyrians in 722/721 B.C.E., and the southern Judah similarly destroyed in 587/586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians. But just as Jeremiah promised with his ridiculous land deal in Jeremiah 32, assuring the terrified Judeans that "fields will once again be bought and sold in this land" (Jer. 32:15), so now he reiterates that promise by announcing that "humans and animals" will again in some future with YHWH be sown in this land.
The second idea that appears in this first section has to do with ultimate responsibility for the evil that has befallen the people. Collective guilt will now give way to individual responsibility, as Jeremiah uses a famous poetic proverb to make the point. "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Jer. 31:29), a statement that Jeremiah calls now into question. No longer will it be helpful or valuable or correct to blame one's forebears for the difficulties that a current generation faces. From now on, "all will die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes will be set on edge" (Jer. 31:30). It is difficult to assess just what engendered this movement toward personal responsibility, but it is fair to say that the idea has had an enormous impact on the thinking of many Christians of the USA, a country that prides itself on its emphatic conviction that ultimately each person is responsible for his/her own actions. The idea of collective guilt, of corporate responsibility, has in general been shunned by most citizens of our country. As a result, any notion of collective action, of community accountability, is viewed with suspicion as somehow antagonistic to the spirit of individualism that this old proverb seems to imply.
The fact is that I see almost no suggestion in the Bible that individual responsibility is the norm for human behavior; all biblical truths are corporate truths, if I read the thing aright. We are, in fact, responsible for one another; when one finds joy, we all find joy. When one suffers, we all suffer. Jeremiah's rejection of the famous little poem about cross-generational responsibility flies in the face what we all know. The reality is that the 350-year history of slavery in the U.S. still stains our corporate lives together with our overt and covert racism, our too-segregated cities and schools, our distrust of those whose color does not match our own. Our fathers and mothers have eaten sour grapes and our teeth remain all too often on edge as a result.
And so what are we to do to aid YHWH in remedying the world's ongoing bent toward evil? Is there anything we can do? Even if we assume an individual responsibility for our own actions, will that effect the needed changes we must make to make our world a better place? In a word, Jeremiah's answer is a resounding no! From the human side, we may expect little different from what we have seen throughout a sorry human history. We as always must finally rely only on the actions of YHWH, without whom our paltry actions are little less than absurd. I know how hard such language is to hear, given our penchant for "taking the bull by the horns" and "pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps."