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Jeremiah 31:27-34

Jeremiah 31:27-34

Background to the Book of Jeremiah:

Historical Background to the Book:
Jeremiah began his ministry in Jerusalem around 627 BCE and he witnessed the final years of Jerusalem before it fell to Nebuchadrezzar in 597 BCE. While there may be some dispute about the exact dating of his call that is what the author of the Book of Jeremiah wanted us to accept. Jeremiah was a young man who protested to God when he was called (Jeremiah 1:4-10) and who later made bitter lament to God about the way he was treated by colleagues. He came from a priestly family from the town of Anathoth, a few kilometre north of Jerusalem and formerly in the territory of Northern Israel.

He was well aware of the traditions from the northern tribes rather than the southern tradition as the prophet Isaiah. The king at the time of the first part of Jeremiah's prophecies was Josiah who had instituted reforms to purify the worship practices in 621 BCE. He did this by removing the local shrines and their sacrifices, outlawing the country Levites from presiding over sacrifices (at local shrines) and made Jerusalem the only place in which sacrifice could be made. Because the Levites gained their livelihood from this practice he made laws which dictated they had to be cared for by the local people (Deuteronomy 14:27-28). The reign of King Josiah was relatively peaceful from the ravages of the superpowers - Assyria, Babylon and Egypt which gave him the opportunity to instigate his reforms based on the Book of Deuteronomy. Josiah got caught up in a war with Egypt in 609 BCE and was killed when he tried to prevent Pharaoh Necho from going to the aid of the Assyrians in their last ditch stand against the upcoming power of Babylon (and was killed in battle in 609 BCE). The situation of Jerusalem rapidly deteriorated from this time with a quick turnover of kings and the continued rise of Babylon. Josiah's son Jehoahaz was sent in bonds to Egypt after three months. His brother Jehoiakim took the throne and from a vassal of Egypt he became a vassal of Babylon in 604 BCE. Jehoiakim died in 598 BCE (or assassinated) and his son Jehoiachin had been on the throne for three months when Nebuchadrezzar took Jerusalem in 597 BCE. He deported Jehoiachin, the Queen mother, state officials and took enormous booty including the temple vessels and treasures, but did not destroy the city or temple (Thompson: 24).

Jeremiah's preaching appears to indicate that the reforms had been unsuccessful because his preaching is calling the people back to faithful worship of Yahweh. He prophecies the impending fall of Jerusalem with all its horrific implications. The people refused to believe him because they thought that Jerusalem would always be safe, as indeed, Isaiah had told them 110 years previously. After 598 BCE Jeremiah suffered personally because he was prophesying exile for 70 years and this was an unpopular message. Zedekiah (uncle of Jehoiachin) supported rebellion against Babylon and Nebuchadrezzar came and destroyed Jerusalem after a terrible siege. The city was destroyed, including the temple and further officials taken into exile. The Governor set up by the Babylonians was assassinated in 582 BCE and further deportations occurred. Some Judeans fled to Egypt before the arrival of Nebuchadrezzar taking Jeremiah with them (Jeremiah 42).

Literary Background to the Book:
We don't know the precise process whereby the book was formed from the oral traditions into the final form we have now. It appears to be in blocks of material which are deliberately structured to reinforce the message. Chapters 1-29 depict the divine judgement on Judah and Jeremiah's controversy with false prophets: chapters 30-33 make up the Book of Consolation: chapters 34-45 depict events around the fall of Jerusalem: chapters 46-51 contain the oracles against the nations and the final chapter parallels 2 Kings 24:18-25:30 which tells us about the final fall of Jerusalem.

The Greek translation of the Book of Jeremiah is shorter by one seventh which is unusual as the Greek translations are usually longer. The Hebrew and Greek translations were both circulating in Israel at the time of the Qumran community ( ). Whether there was a shorter Hebrew version which is now represented by the Greek and this was later expanded into the Hebrew edition of the Book is a matter of some debate. The arrangement of the blocks of material are different in each edition with the Oracles against the Nations to be found in the Greek edition in chapters 26-32. The Greek edition names Jeremiah as the prophet four times whereas the Hebrew edition names Jeremiah as the prophet thirty times.

The book is a mixture of poetry and prose. It appears to many scholars that much of the prose is preaching on aspects of Jeremiah's oracles from the poetry. This preaching has many similarities to the theology and language used by the Deuteronomistic writers. Whether the Deuteronomists took Jeremiah's oracles and use them as a basis for preaching God's word to a later situation we can never be certain. However, the message and language of the prose sections are compatible with Deueteronomic thought. For example, the message to the exiles was the need to believe in the true prophets like Jeremiah. He is held up as an excellent example. Another message was to explain that they were in exile was because they had been disobedient and therefore lost the land. Yahweh had been faithful to them and they had failed to keep their side of the covenant as depicted in Exodus 19.

Context of Jeremiah  31:27-34
The Book of Consolation (Jer 30-33) follows directly on from the letter to the exiles telling them to settle down for a long stay in Babylon. Jeremiah 30 speaks of restoration and the covenant language is used in Jer 30:22 - And you shall be my people, and I will be your God. This is a part of the conditional covenant made at Mt Sinai. It is interesting that while this language is used in Jer 30, the new covenant in Jer 31 is totally unconditional, not like the Sinai Covenant because God will put the law within their hearts.

Jer 31:1-6 affirms God's everlasting love for his people and the call which will bring them back to Jerusalem. Vv.7ff is the response and further affirmation about God's actions to save his people. In the Book of Consolation (Jer 30-33) God offers to save them and bring them back into the land. He says that their guilt is great which caused the exile, but now Yahweh will restore their health. God will make a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34) which is unconditional and written on their hearts unlike the old Mosaic covenant.

It appears at the beginning of Jer 33 that Jeremiah is shut up in the court and God speaks to him with a further reiteration of the promises made earlier in the "Book of Consolation". Included in the promise are the words of vv.14-16 which state that a righteous branch will spring forth from David. They feel despair that they will ever be a nation again. However, God as Creator will never reject Jacob's descendants or fail to choose a leader from among David's descendants.

Insights/Message of Jeremiah  31:27-34
Literary structure:
Jer31:26 is an odd verse which appears to have little relationship tothe material either side. Some scholars think it is there to imply the previous oracles were given in a dream to Jeremiah or it is there to indicate the exiles are awakening from the sleep of wearines and death (Fretheim: 439). The opening phrase "the days are surely coming" (Jer 31:27), refers us back to the beginning of the "Book of Consolation" and used again in the following vv.31 and 38. What appears to be a collection of several sayings has been placed here ( vv.27-28, 29-30, 31-34) and have been chosen for this week's Lectionary reading. The first of the future sayings in vv.27-28 picks up the imagery of fertility and the call of Jeremiah (Jer 1:10). As God as brought destruction on them so God will now do the opposite - to build and plant. The four negative verbs used in Jer 1:10 is intensified by the addition of a fifth one, "to bring evil", but they are all in the past and there is no more threat (Brueggemann: 290). The second of the future sayings picks up a proverb which suggests the children suffer because of their father's actions, but now each person is freed from the past to live out their lives responsible for their own deeds. This is the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures in which the adjecive "new" is applied to the covenant (berith). Other uses of "new" are used of a new heart and a new spirit in Ezekiel (11:19-20, 18:31, 36:26): and new things in Isaiah (42:9, 43:19, 48:6). The structure of vv.31-34 begin with God's promise of the new covenant which will be different from the old covenant. What makes it new is spelt out in vv.33-34. God speaks in the first person singular which gives it authority and power.

Message / Theology:
The future promise in vv.27-28 is just as certain as the punishment that the exiles have known. They can rely on the promise that God will build them up again. They have learnt that they cannot restore themselves: they have to rely on God totally. The use of the phrase, "Behold, the days are coming" implies a short period of time and not some distant future event. The feeling of relief is almost palpable with the promise in vv.29-30 which states the exiles will no longer suffer for the sins of their forbears. The new covenant which is fully promise by God will be placed on the heart of each person and is not mediated by Moses or the prophets. The people have been unable to keep the conditional covenant set up at Sinai in which they promised to be God's people. To hear these words of hope in which they will be God's people with a new relationship must have been an extraordinary relief. The time of punishment and exile is over. The two divine sayings which follow the promise of the new covenant point to God as Creator whose divine order is such that if it fails only then shall Israel cease. In other words Israel will continue to exist as long as the cosmos keeps functioning. Israel is always secure in the relationship that she has with Yahweh even in exile. Indeed, God declares "I will be their God and they shall be my people": in the Sinai covenant the people have to say they will be God's people. The final verses again pick up the refrain which began this section and finishes with the eternal promise reminiscent of the Noachian promise, that never will the earth be destroyed again (vv.38-40). In Jer 31:38-40 it is the city of Jerusalem which will never be uprooted again.

The act of forgiveness is always by God and here it has no explicit requirement of repentance. It parallels Isa 40:1. The theology of the law written on the heart is present in Deut 6:6 and implies that Israel will not be able to break it in the future because it is no longer an external requirement. The law becomes synonomous with "knowing God" in v.34 which means a close relationship with God with the consequence that people would behave appropriately all the time. This would be the case if all people lived by grace, there would be no need of laws because people would know how to behave righteously.

Many people view this passage only through Christian eyes but I hope that by seeing how this was adressed to the exiles in Babylon first, we can appreciate the unique messages of hope in the Old Testament. The Israelite people are the heirs to the first new covenant. They are offered a new opportunity initiated by God to be in relationship. In the New Testament, Christ has become the bearer of the New Covenant which is celebrated in the Eucharist, in which we remember this new act of salvation for the world by God. We are offered forgivenss and the opportunity to begin again.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Luke 18:1-8, has echoes from some parts of the Old Testament but none are really strong.

Resources/Worship for Jeremiah 32:1-15
The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Jeremiah

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming. Cambridge: W.B.Eerdmans, 1998.
Carroll, Robert P. Jeremiah: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM, 1986.
Clements, R. E. Jeremiah. Int. Atlanta: John Knox, 1988.
Holladay,William L. Jeremiah 1 : A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: Chapters 1-25. Herm. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
---. Jeremiah 2 : A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: Chapters 26-52. Herm. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
Keown,Gerald L. Jeremiah 26-52. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1995.
Jones, Douglas Rawlinson. Jeremiah. NCB. [London]: Marshall Pickering; Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 1992.
McKane, William. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah. Vol 1, Introduction and Commentary on Jeremiah I-XXV. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986.
---. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah. Vol 2, Introduction and Commentary on Jeremiah XXVI-LII. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996.
Miller, Patrick D. The Book of Jeremiah. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001
Thompson, John A. The Book of Jeremiah. NICOT, Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1980.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:

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