The Divine Surgeon - Reflections on Jeremiah 31:27-34
by Dr. John Holbert on Tuesday, October 11, 2022
The Divine Surgeon
The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher
The closer the lectionary comes to Advent, the more familiar the texts become. That is the Hebrew Bible texts that are offered toward the end of “Ordinary Time” lean toward the coming of the Christ Child and also relate important and familiar insights into the life of Christianity and how Hebrew Bible texts can be illuminative of such a life. So it is for this famous text from Jeremiah. Often, the lectionary collectors give us only Jer.31:31-34 to ponder, those words concerning God’s New Covenant, language that led the first Christian communities to tag their emerging scriptures with the familiar “Old” and “New” designations for the two-part Bible that was forming in their midst. But this year, they add the previous section concerning individualism, and the necessity of each person being fully responsible for their own actions, and not merely the result of the actions of those who preceded them. There may be some connections between these two sections, as I hope to show.
Jer.31:27 makes plain that the material that follows will only occur after YHWH brings “days that are surely coming.” That is, one cannot expect what is about to be discussed to happen any time soon, though it may certainly occur soon, yet one should not expect it immediately. In other words, these things discussed are events that WILL happen but may not occur quickly. They will come in God’s time only. YHWH, in a rather strange metaphor, is about to “sow the house of Israel and Judah with the seed of humans and seed of animals” (Jer.31:27). Does this mean that God is about to start new humanity and a new animal realm? Is this perhaps another way to describe new heaven and new earth? Or does it imply that in the new thing of God both humans and animals will exist in a new time, a time when YHWH, instead of presiding over overthrow and destruction—the recent time of Judah’s fall and exile—will now in this future age “watch over them to build and plant” (Jer.31:28), this fulfilling the promise first given to the prophet in Jer.1:10? Whichever is implied in the metaphor of sowing, what is apparently new is the alteration of the familiar couplet: “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge” (Jer.31:29). No more, says the prophet! In this new and renewed time, “all shall die for their own sins” (Jer.31:30). That is to say, the evils of the ancestors may no longer be viewed as determinative of future generations. Just because ancient Israelites did what was evil in God’s eyes can no longer be seen as a certain prediction of how modern generations will act. In short, that old saw about “Adam sinned and caused the death of all,” according to Jeremiah in God’s new age has no force. Each individual must be responsible for him or herself.
And this new emphasis on individual responsibility has an impact on the new covenant that YHWH offers in the next section. I have always found this section of Jeremiah as much hopeful as it is sad. On the hopeful side, it says that YHWH will one day make a new covenant with the earth, “not like the covenant 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” (the word here is “Baal” which can also mean master/leader—Jer.31:32). This new covenant, forged in YHWH’s new time, will happen like this: “I will put my Torah within them, and I will write it on their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Jer.31:33). No teachers will be necessary in that day; all shall know God from least to greatest, and as a result “God will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more” (Jer.31:34). This is, of course, good news on the one hand, but sorrowful news on the other. All the teaching and learning that humans can muster will in the end be fruitless; without God’s individual divine surgery, no one may finally know and embrace God’s Torah. Each person must be worked on by God to make that possible. Hence, my lifetime of teaching and listening to others is finally useless; only the actions of God can make it possible to know God and God’s Torah.
As I noted, this section served the earliest Christian community as a sign of the “old covenant” (the Old Testament) and the new covenant (the New Testament), and went a long way toward denigrating the first testament as outdated and failed. For those of us who love the Hebrew Bible, this idea has caused no end of difficulty for modern Christians as they grappled with what to do with the first covenant of the Bible as it relates to the newer covenant. And an additional problem should be identified. Individualism here is promised and honored as the basic way to God. The community is called into question as a road to God, making individual salvation the way connections to God are too often conceived. I have long said that there are few if any individual truths in the Hebrew Bible, but this glaring exception has made talk of the need for the community very difficult, since it seems to imply that only individuals may approach God, only individuals changed by God can understand the Torah God gives. Jeremiah may have intended these two sections as signs of a good future with God, but I fear his focus on the individual here has caused more difficulties than has offered hope.
No one ought to deny that each of us needs the skill of the divine surgeon to operate on our troubled hearts in order to make the reception of the Torah possible. But given that reality, neither should we deny that without the community of faith the gift of that Torah too often may be confused and stunted. These famous lines from Jeremiah should never be taken as a complete model for approaching God. Individuals in the community may more readily attend to God and to God’s grand gift of Torah.