"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

Q & A – Has God Divorced Israel? What is the Meaning of the ‘New Covenant’ Promised in Jeremiah?

May 27, 2011

in Christianity:,Idolatry,Judaism vs. Christianity,Judaism:,Noahide - The Ancient Path,Questions and Answers,Rabbi Tovia Singer,The Torah

Question:

Rabbi,

How do you explain the divorce in Jeremiah?  How do you explain that the Jewish people are divorced from God by His own word?  How do we as Jews get back to God under the Law which prohibits us from coming back?  I am not saying that we are no longer God’s Chosen — I am saying that for us to be reconciled to God, it cannot happen under the Law.  Would God have to bring a “new covenant” in to bring us back to Him?  You may post this question.

Thank you.

Answer:

When you ask about the “divorce in Jeremiah,” I am sure that you are referring to the parable in the opening verse of the third chapter of Jeremiah, where the prophet uses a harsh allegory to illustrate God’s displeasure with His wayward nation.  For the readers of our website who are unfamiliar with this subject, I will briefly explain your series of questions.

Using a jarring metaphor, Jeremiah compares Israel’s spiritual disloyalty to an adulterous woman who has been put away by her husband whom she betrayed.  The prophet then asks a biting question, “After she leaves him and marries another man, may he return to her again?” (Jeremiah 3:1) The unspoken answer is that he cannot.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 states that the original husband may never come back to his twice-divorced wife.

Your question therefore is how can Israel ever return to its rightful place as God’s priestly nation?  The prophet seems to indicate that she (Israel) has married another, namely, the gods of the heathen nations, and she is therefore unable to return as God’s “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22).  How can Israel ever hope to restore herself with the Almighty when the Law of Moses seems to indicate that she cannot?  How can the nation of Israel look to the commandments of the Torah for her salvation when, according to Jeremiah’s metaphor, it is those very commandments that prevent her from returning?

The reason you have had difficulty understanding Jeremiah 3:1 is that you made two mistakes while reading the parable of Israel as the divorced wife.  Your first error is you attempted to interpret a parable in a hyper-literal fashion.  I find it puzzling that Christians, who should be quite familiar with the use of parables, have such difficulty understanding how Jeremiah is using the parable of the “divorced wife.”  Your second mistake is you read only half the parable.  In fact, the answer to your question is embedded in the final clause of the very same verse.  Let’s first examine this parable more closely.

Jeremiah’s purpose in using this parable is two-fold.  First, the prophet wishes to vividly illustrate Israel’s spiritual disloyalty to its Creator.  Second, and most importantly, unlike the twice-estranged wife whose original husband cannot return to her, the prophet appeals to the Jewish people to repent and proclaims that it is their covenantal purpose to be restored as God’s chosen people.  What is impossible with the forsaken woman is the destiny for the children of Israel.  Let’s look at the entire verse in context.

They say, “If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again?”  Would not that land be greatly polluted?  But you have played the harlot with many lovers; “Yet return to Me,” says the Lord.    (Jeremiah 3:1)

The central feature of the prophet’s exhortation that you overlooked appears at the very end of the verse, ” ‘Yet return to Me’, says the Lord.”  Jeremiah makes this plea five times throughout the chapter.  The message of the prophet is clear: The mercy and compassion of the Almighty is far beyond the scope of man’s comprehension.  Whereas normally the betrayed husband would never take back his adulterous wife, our merciful God will forgive His wayward nation.  While the transgressed husband would never part with his burning wrath against his estranged wife, Jeremiah points the way to forgiveness, reconciliation, and salvation with the Almighty.  In contrast to the enraged husband who would never take back his unfaithful wife, God will, upon repentance, compassionately receive his disobedient people.  What must Israel do to win the affection of its Maker?

Just cry out to Me, “My Father, you are the Master of my youth!” (Jeremiah 3:4)

Yet how can this be?  Will God’s wrath not be kindled forever against His nation?  Jeremiah responds with a rhetorical question.

Will He remain angry forever?  Will He keep it to eternity? (Jeremiah 3:5)

The Almighty’s answer follows with a comforting oath promising Israel an eternal destiny and permanent union with the Almighty.

“Return, O backsliding children,” says the Lord, “for I am married to you.  I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” (Jeremiah 3:14)

The central message of the third chapter remains: The fate of disloyal Israel stands in stark contrast to an unfaithful wife.  Whereas the adulterous woman may never return to her former husband, Jeremiah beckons the Jewish people back to the Almighty, and assures them of their eternal destiny to be forever married to their Maker.

Yet, by what means can the Jewish people return to God?  A few chapters later, Jeremiah answers this question as he outlines for his disobedient nation how they are to end their persistent backsliding.  In his seventh chapter, the prophet warns his people not to place their hopes on blood sacrifices or look to The Temple of the Lord to save them.  Jeremiah proclaims that these institutions cannot deliver them from their brazen sins.  Rather, they must turn away from idolatry and return to God by keeping the commandments.  Please take a moment and study Jeremiah’s remarkable message on atonement.

So said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, “Improve your ways and your deeds, I then will allow you to dwell in this place.  Do not rely on false words, saying, ‘The Temple of the Lord, The Temple of the Lord, The Temple of the Lord are they.’ If you improve your ways and your deeds, if you perform judgment between one man and his fellow man, you do not oppress the stranger, an orphan, or a widow, and you do not shed innocent blood in this place, and you do not follow other gods for your detriment.  I will then allow you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave your forefathers from days of yore to eternity . . . .  So says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, “Add your burnt offerings upon your sacrifices and eat flesh; for neither did I speak with your forefathers nor did I command them on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning a burnt offering or a sacrifice.  This thing did I command them saying, ‘Listen to Me so that I am your God and you are My people, you walk in all the ways that I command you . . . .’ ” (Jeremiah 7:3-7, 21-23)

The above chapter stands as a reverberating indictment against the church’s most fundamental creeds.  For example, according to Christian doctrine, man cannot merit salvation through his own repentance.  Atonement comes only through the shedding of innocent blood.  Throughout the seventh chapter of Jeremiah, however, the prophet proclaims the very opposite message on atonement.  Over and over again, Jeremiah loudly declares that God does not want blood sacrifices but rather repentance alone for man’s grievous sins.

Finally, as we study the words of Jeremiah, attention also must be paid to what the prophet does not say.  Because Jeremiah’s silence on missionary teachings is deafening, this chapter presents a serious theological problem for evangelical Christians.  Why isn’t there one word throughout the prophet’s admonishment about believing in Jesus for salvation?  Bear in mind that the purpose of this prophecy is to guide Jewish people who have lost their way into a sanctified relationship with the Almighty.  Why didn’t Jeremiah, as he points his wayward nation in the direction of Godliness, direct the Jewish people to Jesus’ atoning death on the cross?  Why did Jeremiah instead prophesy that the day will come when the Jewish people will be restored to their land as a result of their heartfelt repentance?  (Jeremiah 3:14-18) According to Christian doctrine, repentance alone cannot save man from damnation.  He can weep and wax forth with humble words of remorse from dawn until dusk, but without the blood of the cross, missionaries argue, there can be no forgiveness of sin.  Why didn’t the prophet ever mention this foundational creed in his sermon on forgiveness or declare that the Jewish people will eventually be restored because they believed in Jesus as their Lord and Savior?

Moreover, why would Jeremiah prophesy that in this act of penitence, you will one day “call Me ‘My Father,’ and not turn away from Me”? (3:4) Why is there no mention in Jeremiah’s prophecy of the Jewish people calling out to the Son or the Holy Spirit in repentance?  In short, why is there not a word mentioned throughout Jeremiah’s prophetic sermon on atonement regarding the foundational claims of Christendom?  It is not only what the prophet does say, but also what he doesn’t say that draws our attention.

Your next question insists that Jews can only find salvation through a “new covenant” or New Testament (the Greek word diatheke means both a “covenant” and a “testament”).  This “new covenant,” missionaries argue, is the covenant of the cross that was fulfilled nearly 2,000 years ago when the blood of Jesus was shed for the sins of mankind.  Moreover, Christians insist, this new covenant was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which states,

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant (bris) with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah.  Not like the covenant (bris) which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.  “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their hearts I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” says the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

This “new covenant,” missionaries maintain, is the New Testament which speaks of salvation by believing in the atoning death of Jesus as proclaimed in Matthew 26:28,

. . . for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

What of the Sinaitic covenant founded on the keeping of the Torah’scommandments?  Commenting on Jeremiah 31:31, the author of the Book of Hebrews relegates the Torah’s life-giving commandments to obsolescence and concludes that,

In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.(Hebrews 8:13)

In short, the New Testament writer pronounces that the covenant God made with the Jewish people has expired.  The Jewish people no longer have to keep the commandments of the Torah.  Salvation comes by believing in Jesus as high priest, sacrifice, and messiah.  It is therefore not difficult to understand how the Calvinist author Arthur W.  Pink in his An Exposition of Hebrews writes,

It is exceedingly difficult, if not quite impossible, for us to form any adequate conception of the serious obstacles presented to the mind of a pious Jew, when any one sought to persuade him that Judaism had been set aside by God and that he must turn his own back upon it.1

Some of our readers will undoubtedly be offended by Pink’s conclusion, but, in fact, this Reformed author is a rationalist.  He is simply drawing the conclusion that the Book of Hebrews is conveying.  Essentially, the Book of Hebrews is a multifaceted polemic against the church’s older rival: Judaism.

In order to answer your question regarding Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant,” you must first understand how the New Testament has misapplied and altered Jeremiah 31:31-34, and then grasp the prophet’s message in these four well-known verses.

As mentioned above, missionaries argue that Jeremiah 31:31-34 is a prophecy of an event that occurred nearly 2,000 years ago with Jesus’ death on the cross.  They insist that this is the new covenant that replaced the old and decaying Mosaic covenant made with Israel.

This Christian rendering of Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant,” however, is an extraordinary reconstruction of the prophet’s own words.  Jeremiah 31:31-34 is not a prophecy that occurred 2,000 years ago, or any time in the past.  Rather, it is a prophecy that will be fulfilled in the future messianic age.

The fact that Jeremiah 31:31-34 begins with the prophet addressing both the “House of Israel and the House of Judah” clearly indicates that Jeremiah is speaking to a restored and fully ingathered Jewish people.  This, however, was not at all the case at the time when Christians claim the new covenant was fulfilled in Jesus’ death . . . quite the contrary.  During the Christian century there was no House of Israel in existence because Assyria had exiled the Kingdom of Israel more than 700 years earlier (approx. 732 B.C.E.).  Moreover, in the first century the Jewish people were spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.  Thus, even the “House of Judah” was not all in the Promised Land during the Christian century.

In short, the era of the new covenant has not yet arrived.  Rather, Jeremiah’s prophecy addresses a future messianic age when the entire Jewish people — both Judah and Israel — will be restored together in their rightful place, the land of Israel (Ezekiel 37:15-22).  In contrast, there had been no time in history when the Jewish people were more fractured and dispersed than during the Christian century when, according to the author of Hebrews, Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant was supposedly fulfilled.

Moreover, a cursory reading of verse 31:34 further confirms that Jeremiah’s prophecy is not speaking of a Christian cross 2,000 years ago but rather a restored Jewish people in the future messianic era.  Missionaries often overlook verse 34 and emphasize only 31:31-33 when quoting Jeremiah’s declaration of a new covenant.  This oversight has proved to be devastating to their understanding of this prophecy because verse 31:34 sheds much light on this new covenant era.  Jeremiah 31:34 reads,

No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.

The above verse reveals that the age of the new covenant will be realized during an epoch of the universal knowledge of God.  It will occur when no one will have to teach his neighbor about God, “for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them . . . .”  Did this occur at the time of the Christian century nearly 2,000 years ago, or at any time since?  Does every human being “know the Lord”?  This is hardly the case.  The church is spending many hundreds of millions of dollars annually in order to convert masses worldwide to Christianity.  There are roughly one billion Moslems and Hindus in the world today who, according to Christian teachings, do not know the Lord; and there are an untold number of atheists throughout the globe who certainly do not know the Lord.  Has Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant” yet been fulfilled by anyone’s standards?  Are we living in a time when each and every person “knows the Lord”?  Certainly not.

The Hebrew word bris (covenant) in Jeremiah 31:31 does not mean a Bible or refer to a new salvation program or Torah. The word bris always refers to a promise or a contract.  This covenant was made with the Jewish people while they were still in the desert before they were brought into the Promised Land.

In the 28th and 29th chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses told the children of Israel that if they remained faithful to God in the land they were about to enter then the Almighty would bestow upon them manifold blessings and they would flourish in the Holy Land.  On the other hand, if they backslid and turned away from the Lord, they would be driven out of Israel into a bitter exile in the land of their enemies.  We are all familiar with the events that followed when the Jewish people broke their side of the covenant and they were sent into diaspora.

These four verses in Jeremiah 31:31-34 are part of an ongoing theme repeated throughout the Book of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah’s unique literary motif is to contrast the redemption of the children of Israel from Egypt with their final redemption in the messianic age — always vividly illustrating how the latter will far outshine the former.  In Jeremiah 23:7-8, the prophet makes this clear when he proclaims,

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when men shall no longer say, “As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but, “as the Lord lives who brought up and led the descendants of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where He had driven them.”  Then they shall dwell in their own land.

In the 31st chapter of the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet continues to contrast the exodus from Egypt with the messianic age.  He therefore foretells that unlike the exodus from Egypt when the Jewish people were brought into the land of Israel only to be exiled centuries later because they broke their original covenant as a result of their faithlessness, in the messianic age, the Jewish people will enter into a “new covenant” when they will be permanently restored to their land, never to be exiled again.

As was declared by every prophet, the covenant that God has with the Jewish people is eternal.  No words in the Christian Bible or interpolation of the Jewish scriptures can ever change this eternal oath.  The prophet Isaiah proclaimed this vow more than 2,700 years ago,

“With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer.  “This is like the waters of Noah to Me; for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you.  The mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, Who has mercy on you. (Isaiah 54:8-10)

Remarkably, the contorted manner in which Hebrews rendered Jeremiah’s prophecy promulgates the precise opposite message of the prophet’s original intent.  Hebrews misconstrued Jeremiah’s prophecy to be understood that God had somehow disregarded His covenant with Israel, when, in fact, the prophet’s message is that God’s unique covenantal relationship with the Jewish people will never be destroyed.

Moreover, in the next two verses the prophet determinedly proclaims this, pointing to the natural phenomena of the world as a witness to His eternal relationship with the children of Israel.  Jeremiah 31:35-36 reads,

Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar– the Lord of hosts is His name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from My presence, says the Lord, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before Me forever.  Thus says the Lord: If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will reject all the offspring of Israel because of all they have done.

Because Jeremiah’s prophecy of an eternal Jewish people presents the church with a serious theological problem, the New Testament went to great lengths to undermine it.  In fact, the author of Hebrews deliberately changed the words of Jeremiah in order to reverse the prophet’s original message.

In Hebrews 8:9, while quoting Jeremiah 31:32, the author changed a most crucial word in the verse.  The last clause of Jeremiah 31:32 reads,

. . . My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them.

Hebrews misquoted Jeremiah’s words and instead wrote,

. . . because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord.”

The Hebrew word “ba’altee,” means a “husband,” not “to disregard.”  This is a stunning alteration of the words of Jeremiah; to be a “husband” is the precise opposite of “disregarding” someone.  How can the author of Hebrews change the word of God in order to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over its older rival Judaism?  When New Testament authors wantonly tamper with the Jewish scriptures, do they not convey the very opposite message?

Furthermore, in contrast to the message of Hebrews 8:13, the life-giving commandments of the Torah have no expiration date.  Moses declared that these commandments are forever and ever.

The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:28 [29:29])

The works of his hands are verity and judgment; all his commandments are sure.  They stand fast forever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness. (Psalm 111:7-8)

Moreover, the prophets foretold that the Jewish people will observe the commandments of the Torah after the messiah arrives.  In fact, the Jewish scriptures prominently testify that the faithful observance of the Torah will be the emblematic feature of the messianic era.

And I shall give them one heart, and shall put a new spirit within them.  And I shall take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances, and do them.  Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees.  (Ezekiel 37:24)

And many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths,” for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

So let’s ask ourselves this question: Do Hebrew-Christians who insist that the messiah has already come keep the commandments of God?  Do members of Messianic congregations actually keep the mitzvoth of Shabbat and Kashruthclearly outlined in the Jewish scriptures?  For example, do those Jews who have converted to Christianity make sure never to kindle a fire and refrain from carrying any object on the Sabbath day as the Bible decrees?  (Exodus 35:3; Jeremiah 17:19-20) The answer is that they do not.  Yet, why don’t they if they believe the messiah has already come?  Who are those people who diligently and joyfully adhere to these life-giving commandments?  The faithful remnant of the Jewish people who loudly reject the teachings of Christianity.

Paradoxically, Hebrew-Christians misguidedly point to Jeremiah’s new covenant to explain away their continued indifference to the commandments of theTorah, when in fact the central messianic prophecy in the Bible declares that the Children of Israel will diligently keep the commandments as a result of the coming of the messiah.

Finally, let’s consider which grievous sin the Jewish people committed that brought down the wrath of God upon them in the first place.  In which iniquity did Israel indulge that brought about Jeremiah’s bitter reproach?  The appalling sin of idolatry; they had violated the first of the Ten Commandments.  The Jewish people worshiped gods that their fathers had not known.  They indulged in idol worship and heathen practices of the surrounding gentile nations.  Let us consider whether a pious Jew ever read the third chapter of Jeremiah and as a result was somehow moved to convert to Christianity.

More than 3,300 years ago the Torah warned the Jewish people that they would one day serve gods that their fathers didn’t know (Deuteronomy 28:36).  When a Jew becomes a Hebrew-Christian, whether he then calls himself Messianic or Baptist, did this occur as a result of the teachings of his grandfather or great grandfather?  Did he come to this theological conclusion by fervently studying the Torah in a yeshiva?  Did he find the doctrine of the Trinity in the Book of Jeremiah, or by any other prophet in Tanach?  This is certainly never the case.  Hebrew-Christians learn and adopt their spiritual craft from the gentiles who evangelized them.  Just as in the Bible.

Sincerely yours,

Rabbi Tovia Singer

As a postscript, our readers should be excited to know that the author of this letter, who has spent many years of his life as a Hebrew-Christian, has returned to the truth and beauty of the Jewish faith.

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!  His mercy endures forever. Psalm 136:1

Footnote:

1Pink, Arthur W., An Exposition of Hebrews, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI; 1984: pp.  1065.

 

Want to share or print this? Choose how below:
  • Print
  • email
  • Add to favorites
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us

{ 2 comments… read them below or add your own }

Ralf Matuzelski March 6, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Hi Rabbi Singer,
I really enjoyed reading the bulk of your article. Although I could not agree with all of it since I am a Messianic writing (New Testament) believer. I t saddened me to see that you were once too and it seems there is a level of anger and even hatred overtone towards Christians/Christianity in your writing.
my family and I have been “Christians” for many years, but over the last few years God has challenged us over the whole Hebraic roots issue and how the western Greek thinking church has wrongly interpreted scripture and the pagan rituals that have replaced God’s ways in our Christian worship. While we are challanged in many aspects, I don’t think we will ever be able to turn our back on Yeshua our Messiah and the Messianic writings.
We strongly believe the church needs to return to God’s ways and we are studying the scriptures and reviewing articles like yours to reconcile the Messianic writings (or more accurately, the way we have interpreted them) with the Hebrew writings so we can truly be the Bride of Yeshua (one body, Jew and Nations) awaiting His return.
I hope and pray that you will open your heart once again to the love of Yeshua and reconsider His teachings with a Hebrew understanding, not a western church mindset. I hope we can meet one day when the Messiah comes to complete His promise in Jeremiah.
Shalom,
Ralf

  Quote this in your comment

Reply

drydend June 18, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Unfortunately, since we are diametrically opposed with regards to the identity of “messiah” as well as the many doctrines of the new testament that butcher and mutilate the Jewish Bible, we are not interested in the “love of Yeshua” since we are not interested in the love of a man who failed where the Jewish Bible was concerned. But thanks for the comment.

  Quote this in your comment

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: