By John C. Holbert
Jeremiah is commonly known as the "weeping prophet," based on his wish to have a "fountain of tears" with which he might weep for the slain of his own people (9:1). It is this trait of deep empathy for those he continually chastises that differentiates him from others of his prophetic brothers and sisters. (Yes, there is indeed a prophetic sister, Huldah, who is consulted by the king, and who affirms the authenticity of a scroll found in the temple of Jerusalem, 2 Kings 22:14.) This profound connection that Jeremiah maintains with his people leads him to astonishing admissions of personal grief, anguish, and fury in his so-called "confessions," searing portraits of what it is like to do the work of God for forty years and to receive in return little more than condemnation and hatred from those to whom he has been sent to announce the demands of that God. Jeremiah is nothing like Amos, who rails away in the name of God, but shows little if any personal engagement in the process.
But within the huge collection of prophetic oracles that make up the fifty-two chapters of Jeremiah's witness, one finds more than tears, more than frank admissions of pain, and more than convictions about the evils of Judah. One also finds startling promises of hope, hope found not merely in the possibility of human repentance, but grounded squarely in the amazing grace of God. Such a passage is 31:27-34.
Of course, verses 31-34 are iconic in the lists of biblical passages. The very language of this promised "new covenant" lent its name to what we call the New Testament. But before we address some of the wonders of that section, let us look first at the small passage that precedes it, verses 27-30. Here Jeremiah recalls quite directly material from his opening call as prophet. Remembering the horrific passage of utter desolation from 4:19-28 -- where birds have fled, flowering land has become desert, and cities lie in uninhabited waste (do you remember that this passage was the Old Testament lectionary passage the Sunday after 9/11?) -- Jeremiah now hears God say something quite different. In that wasted land God will now "sow humans and animals," repopulating a place made empty by human rejection of God (see 4:22). And, at last, Jeremiah is able to announce the final word of God given to him at his initial call. When God called him, he received a six-fold task, to "pluck up and pull down," to "destroy and overthrow," and "to build and to plant." He has spent the bulk of his prophetic career announcing the former four demands, but now can turn to the latter two. The verbs are identical in all six cases.
Furthermore, God announces that the divine task is still to "watch." This verb also appeared in the punning oracle of 1:11-13 where Jeremiah is asked to look at a branch of an almond tree (shaqed in Hebrew) and is told that the meaning of this shaqed is now shoqed, "watching." God is still watching over Israel, but now "to build and to plant." As a sign of that divine watching, no longer will Israel have to suffer as a result of the sins of their ancestors; they will all now be judged only on their own behaviors. The famous proverb ("The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge") no longer applies to Israel.
And that is true because God is about to create a new covenant with them. This covenant will be cut both for the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Such language is, historically, anachronistic, since the former "house of Israel" has not existed for over 100 years by the time of Jeremiah. Clearly, the oracle is trying to be inclusive, speaking of every Israelite who calls on the name of YHWH, their God. This covenant will not be a simple reiteration of the old covenant, based upon the act of liberation from Egypt (v. 32), because they have broken that one. And Israel has broken that ancient bond even though God was their "husband," reads the NRSV; the word is baal, which can also mean "master" or "lord." And, of course, it is the name of the Canaanite storm god, to whom Israel often turned for help throughout their history. Jeremiah says that only YHWH is baal of Israel. But though that was always true, Israel did not know or recognize the fact, and shattered the divine covenant anyway.
Since that old covenant has now been broken and abrogated, a new one is needed. Its newness consists less in its content than in the way it will be given to the people. God now determines to "place the Torah within them." Torah means "instruction" or "teaching" rather more than it means "law," the usual translation. And to be sure that this new gift is more permanent than the older covenant, God will "write it on their hearts," the heart being the center of will and intelligence in Hebrew anthropology. As a result of this great divine surgery, Israel will be God's people and God will be their God. No longer will they need to teach one another to "know the Lord," because "they will all know me (contrast this with 4:22), from the least of them to the greatest." And because all will at last genuinely know God, God will need no longer to remember their sin, and will always be in the business of forgiving their iniquity.