Examining Jeremiah 31:33

John Walton, in his fantastic book Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, presents a means of interpreting and understanding one of the promises of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 – the writing of Torah on the heart of Israel and Judah. This highlights an often missed or misunderstood portion of the relevant cultural context in Jeremiah that would have been picked up by his original audience (… and later interpreted by the gospel authors, the author of Hebrews, and Paul). Here is a snippet that explains one of the roles that cultural understandings plays in getting to the heart of the concept being communicated:

The metaphor of “writing on the heart” is a significant one in the understanding of the new covenant – a theological construct that is of central importance both in the development of the theology of the Hebrew Bible and in the development of the New Testament and Christian theology. The metaphor has often been unpacked in relation to similar heart metaphors elsewhere in the biblical text. In these contexts, having something written on one’s heart is a metaphor of memory or intimate familiarity. The difficulty is that in these passages the individual is the one doing the writing on his/her own heart. Writing on the tablet of the heart evokes the image of a scribe’s practice tablet on which something is written again and again. In the same way the law is to be practiced day in and day out and be part of one’s regular lessons.

In contrast, Jeremiah 31 explicitly features Yahweh writing the law on the heart of Israel. The difference in who is doing the writing is significant in that the force of the metaphor inherent in the “tablets of the heart” passages is lost if someone else is doing the writing. It would be contrary to everything else in the prophets if the suggestion were being made that God was going to cause them to keep the law against their own desire or inclination.

… How would this be any different from the revelation of the Torah in the Pentateuch that also had knowledge of God as its objective? That is, how does having the Torah written on the heart differ from having it written on stone tablets? If the metaphor is from the world of extispicy 1theology centered around ritual sacrifice, the text indicates that with God’s instructions/law written on the heart of his people, there would be no need for continuing guidance to teach God’s law. This had been an essential element in the Sinaitic law. What would happen instead? God would be known through His people, who would be living out the law faithfully. People with the law written on their heart become a medium of communication. Writing on the herat replaces not the law, but the teaching of the law. THe law on stone had to be taught and could be ignored. The law on the heart represents a medium of modeling, in which case it is not being ignored. IN this interpretation of the metaphor, then, th eheart is a medium, not a repository. The metaphor would be one of revelation, not of memory.

References   [ + ]

1. theology centered around ritual sacrifice

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