Here is last Sunday’s sermon on the new covenant in Jeremiah 31. I welcome feedback and pushback.
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But 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 their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “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 remember their sin no more.
Males and Females are not the same as men and women. I admit this may be a fairly unexceptional observation, though I think it is important to make. Doctors work with a minimum set of realities when learning whether a patient is male or female. There are of course grey areas and a spectrum of differences but it does tell them some things, it yields some information within that context. Asking what a man is or what a woman is, however, will draw wildly different and often contradictory views depending on time period, situation, and culture. Chantal and I were out for a walk a couple of weeks ago and we stopped into a neighbourhood store. We have come to know the owners of this store a little and so we usually chat when we come in. Salem often brings something to play with and time it happened to be a doll. I don’t think either of us really thought about it when we left. I was quite surprised when the store owners almost immediately reacted to seeing Salem with a doll. Indeed they almost appeared shocked to see him with it. It was clearly negative and not proper for how a young boy should be. It was somehow deviant from the normal.
When I grew up I learned to act as a boy which was to teach me how to act as a man. There was nothing natural or essential about being a man or woman where I grew up as there still is nothing natural about it today. What I mean is that to speak about men and women means to speak about a complex web of events, influences, and circumstances that eventually form particular languages, practices, and beliefs. Chantal and I had been formed to view what a boy is in a very different way than these store owners. This is becoming a more common observation as cultures continue to interact in our world. We are beginning to see that even our everyday language communicates particular views and values.
As a culture we began to see that the English language reflected a level of gender inequality or bias at the very least. It was common to use the word ‘man’ to speak of all people but that was also a time when ‘women’ did not even have legal status as persons. There was a time when a certain pink pencil crayons were called ‘flesh’ coloured and again it was a time when the white race held a near universal grip on power and so also a grip on meaning and language.
In the church we have had to deal with whether it is appropriate to speak of God using the masculine pronoun. Whether this is appropriate or not it is important to note how very difficult it is to make any changes from the normal pattern. It proves tremendously difficult because the flow of so-called ‘normal’ language seems gravely disrupted if not massacred by trying to avoid using a pronoun for God. Our language has it built in that choose between genders when we use a personal pronoun. All this is to say that the difficulty of making changes can be compounded when language itself starts working against the desired change. A certain view of the world becomes embedded in the fabric of life. To try to change things we are convicted of can then feel like we are literally working against the very grain of the world around us.
I want to turn now to our reading for this morning and begin by focusing on one peculiar line (peculiar to myself in any event). In verse 34 it says ‘No longer shall they teach one another.” Knowledge of God will now be inscribed onto their minds or wills. What is happening here? Or better yet, what would possibly be the implications of such a covenant or reality? We know that people continued to teach the law in Israel even after the exile. Jesus continued to teach in the New Testament and Paul and the Apostles continued to teach in the early church. We have not stopped our attempts at teaching and education ever since. So what is the difference here? Are we still waiting for this situation to arrive or is it a reality here to be lived into?
At the very least this vision of the new covenant must stand as a warning and critique of how we educate. After all what good is education if the language we use and the culture we live in is sustained and nurtured by powers and influences that hold so many of us bound? How can education be liberating then? How is a First Nations person supposed to learn Canadian history when we have a Prime Minister that still denies we have a history of colonialism? How are Canadian Mulims supposed to learn the texture of their religion when our culture often equates it with terrorism? Is it going to be possible to effective combat bullying when we still have an education system that privileges certain expressions of strength and competition. Think even of our simple patterns of conversation as adults. One of the first things we ask people we meet is what they do. How is someone who is unemployed supposed to respond? Our language equates paid employment with worth and identity. And what happens when our religion or even our Bible come to serve not the knowledge of God and forgiveness but remains infected by the destructive elements of culture and language? How does education and knowledge of God happen when the very materials of education, that is, language and ideas become so infiltrated with potentially destructive elements?
I mentioned the Bible in this context for a very specific reason. There is a line a few verses earlier from our reading that I think can shed light on our understanding of the new covenant, but the line has proved very difficult to interpret. The verse comes in a chapter that deals with pain, loss, and the hope of restoration. It climaxes with a vision of Israel returning to the land and to God. And then in powerful and succinct language it says that the Lord has created a new thing in the land. This is evoking the creation language of Genesis and is the only other time in Jeremiah where we hear of something ‘new’ happening. In other words this verse is important. But it is the second line of this verse that has proven to be a stumbling block. Listen to the various English translations of these two lines.
NIV – The LORD will create a new thing on earth — the woman will return to the man.
The Message – God will create a new thing in this land: A transformed woman will embrace the transforming God!
NLT – For the LORD will cause something new to happen—Israel will embrace her God.
NJB – For Yahweh is creating something new on earth: the Woman sets out to find her Husband again.
NEB – The Lord has created a new thing in the earth: a woman turned into a man.
The early Greek translation offers its own reading saying, The Lord has created safety for a new plantation: men shall go about in safety.
A well-known Old Testament scholar John Bright says that the meaning of this passage ‘is wholly obscure, and it might have been wiser to leave the second [line] blank.’ In the end he says that “Quite possibly we have here a proverbial saying indicating something that is surprising and difficult to believe, the force of which escapes us.” The question though is why it would escape us? Are the words or sense really that obscure?
So what does this line actually say? That is of course a loaded question. I think the NRSV does just as well as any translation leaving it simply to say, For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encompasses a man. That gives a very different imagery that some of the other translations. Nearly all of the translations actually downplay anything being new or surprising. Nearly all of them conform in some way to a dominant cultural model in which masculine imagery is prioritized. In the Greek translation the woman vanishes completely. In the NEB the woman turns into a man. John Bright, somewhat disturbingly, also would just as soon have the passage omitted, as though vanquishing the potential power of this image. I think there is tremendous irony when Bright said that it was a proverb difficult to believe, the force of which escapes us. What if it escapes us not because it is too obscure but because it is too clear?
I said at the beginning that there is a difference between a male and a man. The same is true in Hebrew. There is a common pairing of words that are often used to describe male and females in the Old Testament. In this passage however a different word if used for male. The sense of this Hebrew word would come from something like the English phrase Be a man! It is a word that is often associated with strength, combat, or being military age. In this passage the image is that the warrior is now surrounded, encompassed by what is female. Now I don’t want to reduce the possible meanings of this phrase but what I find astounding and what I want to draw attention to is that many translations spanning over a century seem unable even to entertain the notion that God would actually do something new; that God would actually overturn the current order of things, that God would find a way of cutting through the destructive forms embedded in our culture, language, and education. Instead in many translations the vision of the new covenant is sucked back into the language and culture that is invested in and privileges a certain image of gender or power difference.
If you have picked up a thread in my Lent preaching this year it comes in the difficulty and necessity of facing how deeply the powers that can bind us are embedded and hidden in the world around us. The very translations that are read from the pulpit seem to be infected. What then is our hope? The hope is at has always been, which is hope in a living God, a God of life. This is our journey knowing there will be periods of despair realizing how deep and wide the root of sin and death has spread. This is part of faithfulness to the living God; faithfulness to the living God who not only created the world but is still creating, re-creating. If you see that God has created something new in the land guard that thing from being sucked too quickly into our institutions of cultural education and our structures of language. Let the new creation be new as it was with the female encompassing the warrior. If you see it, do let it out of your sight. Sit with it. Let it be obscure if it is obscure, let it be strange if it is strange, and if it is clear then it be clear that it would be a sign of life as continue our way towards Easter where we encounter the new and ever renewing covenant of God who desires to inscribe faithfulness on your hearts, in your minds, to form your will and bring you life.