Friday, August 13, 2010

Jeremiah 31:31 Old Covenant vs New Covenant

Which laws from the Old Covenant are still in the New Covenant? All of them. Even if all them are not for me personally.

The interpretation of this verse hinges on the next two lines. The problem is that depending on the manuscript you read, the next two lines can have very opposite ideas. Hebrew manuscripts continue, "when I took them by the hand out of Egypt, they broke my covenant even though I MARRIED them". Greek manuscripts finish the verse, "when I took them by the hand out of Egypt, they broke my covenant and I REJECTED them." Whoa...that is really different.

Since I look at many of the differences between manuscripts I'm the first to say that differences are usually minor, but this is one of those exceptions to the rule. Here it comes down to one easily confused Hebrew letter. You might think that defaulting to the older Hebrew rather than the newer Greek would make this a simple decision, but when the New Testament quotes this verse it quotes the Greek version, not the Hebrew. I hate when it gets complicated.

If the 'MARRIED' option is correct, then the verse seems to imply that the people are different in the New Covenant. God was tired of initiating covenants, a marriage if you will, that would only be broken by unfaithful rebellious people. The next covenant he engineers will have a different result, the people won't leave. I'm not a Calvinist, but I must admit this is the strongest case for unlosable eternal security that I've come across and it's in the Old Testament.

If the "REJECTED" option is correct, then the verse seems to imply that God responds differently to breaches of the covenant. Previously he rejected those who broke his covenant, their marriage to him. But now that pattern of rejection for wrongdoing will be replaced with acceptance and forgiveness.

Neither option smells heretical. Both options are historically accurate. Since the Jews may not have liked the condemnation in the second option and preferred the intimacy of the first, they may have unconsciously read the wrong letter because it made more sense, but this is not a conclusive way to decide the debate. The following verses speak of God writing his law on their hearts, and of everyone knowing God to such an extent that religious teaching becomes unnecessary. This harmonizes with the first option best where the people are different. But then the verse continues by saying God will forgive their sin, which favors the second option because it emphasizes God's response. It would be nice if everywhere else Jeremiah used one of the words frequently to the exclusion of the other. Sadly, he uses each once elsewhere in his book. Theologically, I am more comfortable with people changing their response toward God rather than God changing his essential character. But basing textual issues on palatable theology is a dangerous game since from our position theology is supposed to be created by the text, not vise versa. This is a close debate, and scholars are basically waiting for more evidence to surface. It would have been great if the Dead Sea Scrolls settled it, but that section of Jeremiah is missing in the scrolls. If we look at the entire book as a whole (especially 17:1, 3:14-25) it seems as if Jeremiah is prophesying that both God and his people will behave differently in the new covenant. In neither case are the expectations different though, only the level of participation. Saying that the people will obey and that God will forgive may be news, it may even be good news, it might even be called gospel, but there is no hint at a change in the rules of the covenant, the expectations in God's marriage. 

Regardless of the way the verse was originally supposed to read, I am convinced that at least the location, preservation, and impact of the covenant has changed. The original covenant was written on stone tablets with letters which needed interpretation. The new law is written on our hearts with the Spirit. In fact, I think this is one of the places Paul gets his "letter of the law" verse the "spirit of the law" contrast. The visible law can be easily ignored, but the invisible law can not be escaped. One through disobedience leads to death, the other through obedience leads to life. If Jeremiah were writing today, God may have moved him to say, "I'm going to write my law into your genetic code." Every instinct will drive you to obey rather than rage. Human inclination itself would be different. I think the greatest evidence that someone is part of the new covenant is that they want to obey God, and for the first time they have the ability to do so. While the two covenants may feel radically different in degree, it is nearly impossible to nail down distinct differences. After all, the new covenant isn't legible for comparison sake. But in light of the parallels in Jeremiah 17:1 and 3:15-25 I am convinced that the law to be written on the heart is the same law the Israelites were constantly breaking. Jeremiah is stricken by Israel's disobedience: they don't know, they don't remember, their sin seems permanently etched on their heart. Jeremiah 3 and 31 form two climaxes in the book where God pleads and predicts the solution to their faithless disobedience. If the problem is disobedience, and the solution results in obedience, that obedience must be to the commands originally broken.

One might skeptically ask, has the New Covenant really arrived if we still need preachers and teachers and services and classes? The expectations in Jer 31:31-34 certain exceeds present circumstances. Christians don't always obey God. Our nature is still painfully inclined to sin. I think that Jer 31 has been partially fulfilled in that it has begun to be fulfilled. Christians do experience a real change of heart. And I think new believers usually shame us in their new found (supernatural?) zeal. And I think new believers surprise most ministers in their seeming instantaneous moral development. But I also think there is more to come, that there is a consummation approaching of what has previously been incubated. God is still conquering sin in each of our hearts daily by that same Spirit searing his words into our minds. Paul charges us, "allow this transformation to renew your mind" in Romans 12:2.

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