Lenten Devotional

March 18, 2018

All Day

Category: Adult Education

Jeremiah 31:31–34

Transformation Through Torah

Jeremiah 31:31–34 is an oracle about the transformation of human nature through torah. Since the word “torah” means “instruction, teaching,” the notion of torah here and elsewhere is not specifically about law, but seems more along the lines of the good as an overriding standard—that which God teaches and thus expects, which can include law but which is not reducible to law. Depicting Israel metaphorically as a moral agent, the implicit question behind this oracle is: Given the corruption of the human heart, how can human beings align with divine torah?

In the Old Testament’s anthropology, the “heart” is not just a bodily organ, but rather the human faculty of thinking, feeling, and desiring—in short, the locus of agency, including moral agency. Although the same word could also point to cardiovascular matters, the Old Testament’s “heart” terminology generally indicates fundamental human capacities that encompass what we might define in terms of the intellect, the will, the passions, and the venue of action itself. The idea was that the condition of the heart determines the quality of moral agency. But in Jeremiah 31, the relationship between the heart and the good is presumed to be in jeopardy: Israel’s heart is unable to align with divine torah in a self-initiated way (cf. Deut 30:11–14). We learn that the remedy is a “new covenant” where both the heart and the torah are transformed. Moreover, this “new covenant” hinges on divine initiative, generating a natural, even inevitable, human alignment with the good.

Drawing a contrast with the ancestors’ former covenant that was broken (v 32), the claims of the new covenant oracle seem nearly utopian: It envisions the eradication of sinfulness through an act of God’s “implanting” and “engraving” torah. In 31:33, Yhwh states that he will implant or “place” his torah in Israel’s “innards” and “engrave” it on their “heart.” Continuing the metaphor of Israel as a moral agent, the result is that Israel is not merely influenced by, but is at some level constituted by divine torah. A heart implanted and engraved with divine torah can only produce activity consistent with that torah. That seems to be why verse 34 explains that the “new covenant” scenario will make teaching and learning torah obsolete, and will do away with the need for forgiveness itself, since forgiveness exists only where there is sin. Describing a similar “implantation” into the heart, God states in Jeremiah 32:40 that the purpose is so that they will not turn from me. The point is that human nature is disordered and must be transformed, so that the heart intrinsically aligns with Yhwh. The heart would thus become righteous.

With the Spirit of God actively inscribing upon tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:3), Christ’s victory takes what is disordered and sinful and enables its transformation into the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). To “become” this righteousness of God (as Paul words it) would seem to involve gaining a truer freedom through the Spirit where the deficiency of the human heart’s inclination away from God is resolved.  (See 2 Corinthians 3:17–18.)