Jeremiah’s prophetic announcement (or oracle) is rooted in a long and complex tradition concerning covenant and is situated in an acute moment of crisis in the faith of ancient Israel. The covenant tradition begins after the exodus from Egypt, while the Israelites are encamped at Mount Sinai (Exod 19-24); it is more fully developed in Deuteronomy, which reiterates the Ten Commandments, summons Israel to obedience in the land of promise, and spells out what will follow (blessings and curses) pending Israel’s obedience or disobedience.
The Hebrew Bible presents the prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. as representatives and advocates of the covenant of Israel with Yahweh. In various cadences they issue “speeches of judgment” relating how Israel in its religious and political-economic life has violated the covenant—by taking bribes and reducing religion to commerce (Mic 3:9-11), ignoring the plight of orphans or the needy (Jer 5:28), and depending on cheap labor and unjust wages (Jer 22:13)—and so evoked the curses of the old covenant agreement (see Deut 28 and Lev 26). None of the prophets are more committed to this covenantal discernment than is the prophet Jeremiah. In Jer 11:1-8 the prophet summons Israel to “listen” just as the Shema of Deut 6:4 had summoned Israel to listen to the commandments, the terms of the covenant.
In the course of Jeremiah’s lifetime, Jerusalem is destroyed by the Babylonian army. To the prophet’s way of thinking, that destruction is the enactment of severe covenantal curses in divine response to the Israel’s violation of the covenant. Israel’s continuing disobedience demonstrates its irreversible rejection of the covenant with Yahweh. As a result, the promises of Yahweh no longer pertain; Israel is left abandoned amid the vagaries of history, without the attentiveness or protection of Yahweh.
In the midst of that dread circumstance of divine abandonment, however, emerges an unexpected, inexplicable eruption of prophetic poetry: termination of the covenant is not Yahweh’s final word to Israel. A number of passages in Jer 30-31 address a bereft Israel, declaring that Yahweh is now prepared, in the abyss of dislocation, to make a new beginning with Israel.
The oracle of Jer 31:31-34 utters a new resolve on Yahweh’s part to reengage Israel in covenant, even though Israel had forfeited such a possibility. This new covenant is quite different from the old covenant made at Mount Sinai, even though it is in close continuity with it. It is unlike the old covenant of Sinai because it is unilateral on the part of Yahweh. Israel makes no vow to obey, and so the commandments are not imposed in a way that Israel could break. The new covenant is based on a new reality: the commandments are now engraved on the hearts of Israel and elicit willingness for glad obedience that had been absent in the past. This new initiative, moreover, is grounded in the readiness of Yahweh to forgive all of Israel’s affronts. The oracle voices Yahweh’s readiness to move beyond conditionality to a free embrace of Israel, to a new fidelity with no strings attached. That divine readiness is matched by an anticipated readiness of Israel now to obey the commandments that are so intimately inscribed inside of every person.
Christians quickly took the “new covenant” to be a reference to the graciousness of God given in Jesus, who was taken as a gift and a sign of God’s readiness for newness. In this tradition, the new covenant in Christ is contrasted with the old covenant of Moses; the new covenant is enacted in the Lord’s Supper (1Cor 11:25); Heb 8:8-12 quotes Jeremiah’s oracle with reference to the new covenant enacted through Jesus as the Christ. In its biblical context, however, Jeremiah’s oracle is in no way an anticipation of what became the claim made in Christian tradition. It is unmistakably clear that the oracle in the context of Jeremiah pertains exactly to the crisis among Israelites in the sixth century B.C.E. The theological substance of the oracle is that the God of Israel is willing and able to take a fresh initiative of embrace to Yahweh’s chosen people.