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Jeremiah 30-31

April 17, 2017

These two chapters form their own literary unit. Because the tone is so positive and hopeful, despite all the judgment and pain and exile, this section has been called “The Book of Consolation.” It is a kind of theological climax to the Book of Jeremiah. It also raises profound issues about how we should use and interpret scripture and prophecy.

One thing that strikes me about chapter 30 is that its main focus is not on those recently exiled from Jerusalem, but instead it is addressing those exiled from Israel a hundred years before! In 722 B.C., a hundred years before Jeremiah’s ministry, the northern kingdom of Israel was taken over by the Assyrian empire. Some of its population was exiled, and many foreign people were moved into Israel and intermixed with the Israelite population. The result was the immediate loss of the political state called Israel, and the gradual disappearance of the ethnic group called Israel. (This is what is meant by the phrase, “the lost tribes of Israel.”) But now, in chapter 30, Jeremiah announces the hope that the Israelite exiles will return and Israel will be restored and Israelites will once again come to worship in Zion (Jerusalem).

What strikes me about these passages is that it never happened. The Israelites exiled by Assyria never returned, and the ten northern tribes that comprised Israel were never restored. So was Jeremiah wrong? In a literal sense, yes. But the hope that Israel and Judah as one reunited nation would be restored has never been lost. Jesus certainly had this hope in mind when he picked twelve disciples, symbolizing the spiritual restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. And many in the modern nation of Israel today see that state as a restoration of Israel-Judah. What Jeremiah literally envisioned did not happen; but the larger hope struck a chord in the imagination of the Jews which they never forgot, and so Jeremiah’s words were preserved and reinterpreted in a broader way.

Another significant example of creative reinterpretation is 31:15-17. For Christians, verse 15 is quite familiar because Matthew quotes it as a prophecy of the death of the Bethlehem infants by King Herod. But in its original context it has nothing to do with King Herod or the children of Bethlehem. This is yet another prophecy about the Israelite exiles returning. Rachel is a symbol for the mother of Israel. She is weeping because her descendants, the Israelites, have been carried off into exile by Assyria and “are no more.” But God comforts her because “they shall come back from the land of the enemy.”

Clearly this has nothing to do with Herod killing the male babies in Bethlehem. So is Matthew wrong? Has he ripped a verse out of its context and misapplied it as a prophecy about Jesus birth and escape from Herod? From a strictly historical standpoint, yes. But from a spiritual standpoint, no. Jews and Christians throughout ancient times understood scripture as having several levels of meaning. There is a literal or historical meaning; there is a moral meaning; there is a metaphorical or allegorical meaning; and there is a spiritual meaning (to name only a few of the levels of meaning). What a particular scripture passage means goes beyond what was intended by the original author. The meaning of a passage has continuous and divine meaning–therefore we can continue to find new meanings and applications that speak to our own time. This is what Matthew was doing with the passage. Historically it is a passage about Israelites being exiled and returning; but in a broader sense it is about all mothers who weep for their lost children, and so it is also about the mothers of Bethlehem whose children were slaughtered. The pain and grief has a universal meaning and application.

In 31:29-30 we see Jeremiah’s important announcement that the time is coming when the responsibility and consequences of sin will fall on those who sinned rather than on future generations. This is an important principle of justice. But as obvious as its fairness seems to us, it has by no means been attained. The fact is, the actions of our forebears do indeed continue to affect us. Consider the incredibly deep legacy of slavery in the United States. Consider how hard it is to break cycles of abuse and poverty and dysfunction. It will be a great day when finally we are freed from the effects of the destructive behaviors and attitudes of those who came before us. That day has not yet arrived.

In 31:31-34 we come to Jeremiah’s greatest hope of all: a new covenant written on the heart. Christians, of course, interpret this as referring to our relationship of faith and devotion and discipleship to Jesus. That is an entirely appropriate interpretation, and it is interpreted that way by the New Testament’s descriptions of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. But that does not exhaust all of this passage’s meaning.

The “new covenant” is not actually new; it’s the old covenant transformed by being internalized. It is not a set of laws we feel obligated to follow because we must, but rather a relationship of faithfulness to God we live out because we are grateful and devoted. The ability to carry out God’s will is made possible by God living in us. This is the difference Paul points out between living by the law and living by the Spirit in Galatians 5. But this is not something only Christians have access to. Members of Judaism today may also be living by this new covenant of the heart. I believe members of other religions may be doing so as well.

It is our hope and it is our mission to help humanity internalize the presence of a loving and forgiving God.

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