A New or Renewed Covenant
by Ralph W. Klein
In the early sixth century B.C.E., the Babylonians defeated Judah, destroyed the Jerusalem temple, and took many of the community's leaders back to Babylon as exiles. This social, economic, and political crisis led to deep theological reflections about the causes of the exile and about what the people’s future might look like after it.
The book of Jeremiah imagines that future hopefully, with a new or, perhaps better, a renewed covenant between God and Israel/Judah. Unlike the previous Sinai covenant that the Israelites ratified at the time of the exodus (according to Exod 19 and Exod 24), the new covenant that Jeremiah describes is unbreakable.
Whereas God wrote the previous covenant on stones (Deut 4:13, Deut 5:22, Deut 10:2, Deut 10:4), God promises in Jeremiah's telling to write the renewed covenant on people’s hearts. Consequently instruction and obedience will not be external or optional. Rather, the people will be preconditioned to keep their side of the agreement. Jeremiah describes this changed behavior as “knowing the Lord.” The renewed relationship will be all-inclusive—from the least of them to the greatest. Simply put, all will know intuitively that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).
The timing of this renewed covenant is indefinite (“days are surely coming,” Jer 31:31), but God’s promise stands behind it—four times in four verses we read, “says the Lord.” This covenant will include both the house of Israel (the northern kingdom, which had been exiled a century and a half earlier) and the house of Judah (the southern kingdom).
Other biblical writers from the same general period had similar creative thoughts about covenant. The anonymous writer (or writers) scholars call "Priestly" wrote of an everlasting covenant made with the family of Noah and with Sarah and Abraham (Gen 9, Gen 17). Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, spoke of a new, or renewed, everlasting covenant (Ezek 16:59-63, Ezek 34:25-30, Ezek 37:26), a covenant of peace that would lead to security and prosperity. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel also refers to the future preconditioning of the people for obedience: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezek 36:26-27).
Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant has played an important role in Christianity. The name New Testament (kaine diatheke) can also be translated as “new covenant”; Christians have connected Jeremiah’s new covenant with Jesus’ identification of the cup in the Lord’s Supper as “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20, 1Cor 11:25, Heb 8:8, Heb 8:13, Heb 9:15, Heb 12:24). Whereas Christians assume that the mission of Jesus is a fulfillment of this new covenant, Jews connect the new covenant to a future, still-unfulfilled divine promise.
Ralph W. Klein, professor of Old Testament at Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, is the author of numerous books, including Israel in Exile: A Theological Interpretation. (Fortress, 1979; republished by Sigler Press, 2002).
Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.
Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).
general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity
migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan
A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.
A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.
Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.
The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.
The kingdom of Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible ruled by a king in the line of David from the 10th century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.
Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.
The Israelites Reach Mount Sinai
1On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness ... View more
The Blood of the Covenant
1Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a d ... View more
13He declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets.
Moses the Mediator of God's Will
22These words the Lord spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thic ... View more
2I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you smashed, and you shall put them in the ark.”
4Then he wrote on the tablets the same words as before, the ten commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the a ... View more
33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on thei ... View more
A New Covenant
31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
The Covenant with Noah
1God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.2The fear and dread of you shall rest on ... View more
The Sign of the Covenant
1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameles ... View more
An Everlasting Covenant
59Yes, thus says the Lord GOD: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath, breaking the covenant;60yet I will ... View more
25I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely.26I will ma ... View more
26I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary a ... View more
26A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.27I wil ... View more
20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me ... View more
8God finds fault with them when he says:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the ... View more
13In speaking of “a new covenant,” he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.
15For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred ... View more
24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.