Promise and Reality in Jeremiah 31

by David Hawkinson

This prophet, who resisted his summons to warn the people of exile; who wept at the tragedy and who sat down by the waters of Babylon with the broken remnant, is allowed to announce the coming restoration:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days, they shall no longer say:

The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. But everyone shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which 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 upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each, his brother, saying,'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord;for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."

Imagine the joy of finally speaking these words to a community waiting for them, knowing that without them there would be no restoration, no return, no renewal, no reformation. The community, first called into being by words, listened now to the prophet, the one chosen to speak for Adonai, the same one who condemned them with angry words a generation earlier. This time the words flow with a force high in expectation and hope. They create a vision for the future more powerful than the reality of their present condition. They stir the dead bones and begin to put breath back into the lifeless community. Thus, they accomplish what they are meant to accomplish. However, they also contain within them a future problem that will call the people to a new perception of themselves and their role in history. For while these are words which act within the imagination where faith and hope are rooted, they are not necessarily a reflection of the historical reality where faith and hope must contend with day to day living.

David Hartman, in A Living Covenant, The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism, writes: "Jeremiah and Ezekiel were correct in prophesying that the exiles would eventually return and create a new commonwealth in the land of Israel. But they had anticipated a return of the nation in triumph, not their selective return engineered by Jewish courtiers who had the ear of the Greek King of Persia. They expected a Jerusalem rebuilt in its old grandeur, not the furtive patching of the walls organized by Nehemiah under constant threat from his fellow officials of the Persian Empire. The new temple of Zerubbabel was not the magnificent structure envisaged by Ezekiel, but started as a modest building that evoked mixed feelings in those who remembered the temple of Solomon (Hag. 2:3, Ezra 3:12)"

This meant that there is a gap between promise and reality. A distressing gap in fact. One that has plagued the human community since humans have been in community. Indeed I am not certain if another problem has so occupied the human mind and effort as, this one. Why aren't we more like we ought to be? Our political and theological rhetoric is filled with explanations and solutions to narrow the gap. The problem realized in the contrast between prophetic aspiration and historical reality, between Jeremiah and Nehemiah is only one place where the issue breaks to the surface. Here, at least, we see the conflict. No attempt is made to hide what appears to be a potentially embarassing contest. Recognizing the seriousness of the conflict, the difference between vision and historical reality co-exist within the fabric of the biblical perspective, a kind of intro-biblical debate — one that we are invited to participate in.

One can readily see that the "new being" which Jeremiah announced would house the heart upon which the "new covenant" would be written, didn't come to pass. It was the same creatures who, organized into the Great Assembly, met to renew the existing covenant. (Neh. 9:36 ff.) Still, as Hartman argues: "Despite the gap between the prophetic promise and their own historical reality, they are prepared to act and take steps to create a new commonwealth. That is their gnat spiritual bequest to the ongoing covenantal drama of Jewish history."

Accepting the warnings to presumption as presented by brother Johnson in this issue, I would like to suggest that this debate has important implications for our thinking of reformation, as it highlights our own awareness of the gap between the promise of the church as the body of Christ and the home of the "born again" and historical reality.

the problem briefly outlined

The covenant is the dominant framework within which the biblical mind views history — it's own and that of the nations. To the extent that this covenant creates a mutuality between the One God and a particular people through whom all people will eventually be blessed, raises the problem of presumption — at least from the perspective of the nations that were not "chosen". Some have argued that it is this covenantal presumption that drives the world to such hatred of the Jews and the obsession to rid itself of that living reminder of the One God. Presumption is not always blessing. One recalls Tevye's plea to God, "could you choose someone else for a little while".

Further, this presumption within the covenant only seems to add emphasis to the problem of the gap between promise and reality. One would expect the space in a particularized relationship between God and God's people to be, at least, narrowed. However, if human freedom to choose is the essential condition of a covenantal perception of history, then the possibility of sin and failure is built into communal political structures. This means that the exile of Israel was always a possibility, given the framework of covenant reality which is itself a concession to human failure. But, if this is the case, how can people feel secure in what they are building in history? Or, as Hartman wonders, "since social and political institutions are vulnerable to the mistaken judgements that result from free human choices, [the gap] how can the Israelite community dare to build a second commonwealth if it has no assurance that the factors that led to the destruction of the first commonwealth have been removed? Will it not just be inviting fresh suffering upon itself?"

Given this seemingly insurmountable problem, Jeremiah, among others, argues that God will create a new kind of human being, whose heart will be free from the inclination to sin — filled instead with God's own Torah. But, as we have seen, the reality turned out to be different than the promise. The inclination to sin was not totally eradicated. Indeed the Talmud, reflecting Rabbinic discussion on this matter suggests an even more astonishing position. To eradicate the inclination to sin, what hebrew calls the yetzer ha-ra, would also undermine the foundations of life and of the world itself!

promise and reality: a rabbinic solution

Some introductory thoughts into Rabbinic thinking is necessary. First, it is important to remember that while the second temple period represents a significant shift in Biblical thinking (an awesome witness to the trauma of the exile) we must not emphasize the difference to the exclusion of the continuity. The Rabbi's are considered within Judaism to be the inheritors of the great prophetic tradition. Thus to speak of Jeremiah, and Nehemiah and rabbi is to acknowledge a common inheritance, keeping in mind the rich diversity and unique development over the years.

The second concerns this concept of the yetzer — often translated 'inclination' or 'impulse'. It is the word used to describe what seems to be peculiar to human character. The rabbinic mind is hesitant to be much more precise about it because it is too complex and subtle to allow greater precision. To define it further would be to limit its influence. Their sense is, however, that humans need it; we seem to be dependent on the spark that it provides us. Modern Jewish interpreters suggest a similarity between the yetzer and the Id in Freudian psychology. Over time this more generic yetzer became the yetzer ha-ra.....or the 'inclination to evil'......a way to describe the human impulse to grasp for something that is other than real, (idolatry), or to act against the interest of the community — to be greedy; if left without any boundaries — tyrannical. The yetzer ha-ra in us acts like a sort of tempter pulling us toward one direction. In Rabbinic terms, it was the yetzer ha-ra which inclined Israel toward idolatry and the catastrophe of the Exile. It is the yetzer ha-ra, an essential part of being human, that in the midst of our freedom to choose, creates the possibility of sin and failure in history. Or, put another way, it is the yetzer ha-ra in us which creates the gap between promise and reality. The rabbis understand that to build the second commonwealth, the lingering presence of the yetzer ha-ra in the human heart must be taken into account. Else, any solution will be doomed to failure. This is reflected the following midrash, from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Yoma 69b, where the yetzer is personified:

"And they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God" (Neh. 9:4). What did they cry? "Woe, woe, it is he (yetzer ha-ra) who has destroyed the sanctuary, burnt the temple, killed all the righteous, driven all Israel into exile, and is still dancing around among us. Thou hast surely given him to us so that we may receive reward through (resisting) him. We want neither him nor reward through him!"... They ordered a fast of thee days and three nights (ct. Neh. 9:1), whereupon he was surrendered to them. He (the prophet) came forth from the holy of holies like a young fiery lion... The prophet said to them: "cast him into a leaden pot, closing its opening with lead, because lead absorbs the voice," as it is said: "And he said: 'This is wickedness. And he threw her down into the midst of the measuring pot and he threw the weight of lead upon its opening'" (Zech.5:8). They said: "Since this is a time of grace, let us pray for mercy for the tempter to evil." They prayed for mercy and he was handed over to them. He said (the prophet) to them "Realize that if you kill him, the world goes down." They imprisoned him for three days, then looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it. Thereupon they said: "What shall we do now? Shall we kill him? The world would then do down. Shall we beg for half mercy? They do not grant halves in heaven." They put out his eyes and let him go. It helped inasmuch as he no more entices men to commit incest.

Midrashic literature, the literary embodiment of rabbinic discussion and insight looks and sounds strange to us. It would not have to the early church. Yet if we look between the words a bit, a penetrating insight begins to emerge. Reflected here is the fact that during the second temple period, the time following the return from exile, the Jews were able to overcome their infatuation with idolatry, the prime reason why God allowed the first temple to be destroyed. We might say that the yetzer hara which inclined Israel to idolatry was cleansed from the heart, recalling the words of Jeremiah. But the community is not content with suppressing idolatry but wants instead to continue to bind, even kill, the entire yetzer — all the impulses which are the sources of sin. It not only discovers that this aspiration is an illusion, but even more that behind those instincts lies the force that is also responsible for the creation of life. Hartman adds: 'There can be no 'granting of halves,' no way of retaining the constructive potential of the force while eliminating all possibility of risk associated with it. Yet even here a partial victory is achieved: the force can be curbed so that it no longer finds an outlet in incest."

The midrash helps us to see that the rabbinic solution to the gap between promise and reality was to create within the partial — to achieve spiritual growth without the full realization of the biblical promise. For them, choice was not limited to complete exile and oppression or to a new world in which good and love are completely triumphant. There must be a more intermediate possibility. One must be able to live within the gap — with the presence of the yetzer a conscious part of human reality. Indeed, humans must be constantly alert to the presence of those fundamental impulses. It is in their denial that the greatest danger exists.

In a sense, this rabbinic view vindicated the decision of Nehemiah and Ezra to build the second commonwealth without the certainty of success. But it was only half of the problem. If humans had to learn to create in the partial, without the full victory of redemption and the fulfilment of the promise, where did this leave God whom the covenant continued to confess was Lord of history. In the end, however, this meant that they also had to develop a new understanding of the presence of God in the covenant drama. Was God assuming a new role? The evidence of this can be found in another midrashic comment on Neh. 8:6. The change occurs in the attempt to explain why the the assembly of the people, called by Ezra and Nehemiah to renew the covenant, was named the 'Great Assembly'.

Rabbi Mattena said: "(Ezra blessed the great God when) he said: 'the great, the mighty, and the awesome God (Neh. 9:32)." The interpretation of Rabbi Mattena seems to agree with what Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said. For Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: "Why were they called men of the Great Assembly? Because they restored the crown of the divine attributes to its ancient completeness. Moses had come and said: 'the great, the mighty, and the awesome God' (Deut. 10:17) Then Jeremiah came and said: 'Aliens ate frolicking in His temple; where then are His awesome deeds?' Hence we omitted the 'awesome." (in Jer. 32:18). Daniel came and said: 'Aliens are enslaving His sons; where are His mighty deeds?' Hence he omitted the word 'mighty' (in Dan. 9:4). But (the men of the Great Assembly) came and said: 'On the contrary, therein lie His mighty deeds — that he suppresses His wrath, that He extends long-suffering to the wicked. therein lie His Awesome powers — for but for fear of Him, how could (our) one nation persist among the nations?'" But how could rabbis (i.e. Jeremiah and Daniel) abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Eleazar said: "Since they knew that the Holy One, blessed be He, insists on truth, they would not ascribe false things to Him."

These are bold comments and quite remarkable in their implications. To an extent, they help lay the foundation for the Gospel understanding of God in history. Moses, according to tradition is the authority for the correct notion of God's power, for prayer and for normative behaviour in the community. Moses called God, "great, mighty, and awesome". (Deut. 10:17) But in the biblical context these attributes refer to the victorious power of God, as general leading his hosts onto the battlefield; or, as super-natural power, enabling a prophet to defeat a Pharaoh. But the experience of Jeremiah and Daniel was not that of the great and victorious God of earlier battles and they could not lie about their experience and so ascribe false things to him. They witnessed the defeat of the nation and the humiliation of God's people at the hands of an idolatrous king. Where was the great Bedouin God Yahweh in this!

It was the people of the Great Assembly who were able to resolve the problem and restore the complete prayer of Moses when they called for a renewal of the Sinai covenant — an act they understood as crucial for the new commonwealth. They were able to recognize the might and awesomeness of God in God's ability to restrain anger and respond to the nation in patience and compassion. Again, Hartman: "Unable to exalt in God's victories, they were nevertheless able to maintain their loyalty to Him because they could perceive His power also in His acceptance of defeat. While retaining the same theological language that had developed in the early biblical experience, they were able to bear their own tragic circumstances and the gap between promise and reality, since they saw their God now manifesting His power through 'mighty' patience and 'awesome' compassion. With this bold and ingenious reinterpretation, they shifted the focus of the notion of divine power from external victorious power to the inner power of God's patience with human beings".

This shifting in perspective, that one could be strong in love and mighty in patience is by no means out of sync with early biblical values. Rather, it is a shifting toward an embodiment of these values within the covenant community as its normative behaviour. It is, using the words of Jeremiah, a writing of the Torah into the heart. "Who is mighty "quotes the Talmud, "He who subdues his evil impulse (yetzer ha-ra) as it is said: He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that rules over his spirit than he that captures a city." (Pirke Abot, Chap 4, Mishna 1)


The one who most understood the importance of this emphasis in our days, also experienced life within an exiled community, and he was also a prophet. Preaching on Mark 10:3S, Martin Luther King Jr. described this deep 'impulse'(yetzer) within the tiny band of disciples to be great or mighty as the 'drum major instinct'. This 'instinct' he recognized within all people, including himself. He also understood that this instinct could easily be perverted and twisted, "leading to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man's inhumanity to man." Still, it wasn't the elimination of this 'impulse' that made it possible for people to live in hope and reformation. Rather it was necessary to channel this 'instinct' through self-discipline and humility, within the context of a community in covenant.

As he preached: "He, (Jesus) did something altogether different. He said in substance, 'Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be.' But he reordered priorities. And he said, 'Don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellent:. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do'.

"....Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right side or on your left, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your best side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition, but I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world."

In light of this, it seems a wise thing to think of reforming, or re-covenanting as essentially a renewal of the servant in us and in our communities. This may help limit our empty grandiosity as evident in a pre-occupation with a 'victorious church', filled with 'signs and wonders' and displayed in crystal cathedrals, hotels and amusement parks. This really only serves to emphasise the presence of the gap between the promise and the reality. But it is in this gap, where reformation will take place, where people must regain the confidence to act creatively, because that is where God will be — among the people; suffering and dancing; loving patiently and providing comfort and peace through the servants in whose hearts is written God's Torah.