Did God Divorce Israel? What does Jeremiah Mean by the Promise of a “New Covenant”?


Dear 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.

Click here to listen to Rabbi Singer’s audio:
“The Law of Moses and the New Covenant”


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 readers 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 the 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.

You asked 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 to the God she once betrothed.

The reason you found it difficult to understand 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 acquainted with the use of parables, struggle to understand 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 important, 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 sacred mandate 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 conveyed by prophet clear: The mercy and compassion of the Almighty is far beyond the scope of man’s comprehension.

Whereas the betrayed husband would never take back his adulterous wife, our merciful God will forgive His wayward nation. While the human husband would never forgive his cheating wife, God will forgive his adulterous nation. In these moving passages, Jeremiah outlines the path to reconciliation with the Almighty. In contrast to the enraged husband who would never allow his unfaithful wife to return, God will embrace his penitent people.


What must Israel do to reconcile with her 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 to return to the Almighty, and assures them of their eternal destiny with the Almighty.

Yet, by what means can the Jewish people return to the Almighty?

A few chapters later, Jeremiah answers this question as he outlines for his disobedient nation how restore their relationship with God.

In Jeremiah’s 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.

There is no Christian voice in Jeremiah’s epoch 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 seventh chapter of Jeremiah stands as a glaring indictment against the Church’s most cherished creeds.

For example, according to Christian doctrine, there is nothing man can do to merit salvation through his own “works” or repentance. Atonement, Christendom argues, can only be achieved through the shedding of innocent blood. Throughout the seventh chapter of Jeremiah, however, the prophet rebukes this aberrant teaching. God desires repentance alone for man’s grievous sins, not blood sacrifices, Jeremiah loudly declares.

Finally, as we explore Jeremiah’s message, pay particular attention to what appears nowhere in the prophet’s message.

The cornerstone teachings of the Church are nowhere to be found in the Book of Jeremiah. As a result, this chapter presents a monumental theological problem for Christians. Why isn’t there one word throughout the prophet’s admonishment about believing in Jesus for salvation?

This prophecy contains the essential guide into a pure relationship with God for those who have lost their spiritual path. Why didn’t Jeremiah, as he points his wayward nation in the direction of Godliness, direct the Jewish people to Jesus’ atoning death at Calvary? 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 own heartfelt repentance (Jeremiah 3:14-18) rather than a belief in a resurrected messiah? According to Christian doctrine, repentance alone can do nothing to 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 remission of sin.

Why didn’t the prophet mention this foundational Church creed in his sermon on forgiveness? Why didn’t Jeremiah warn his people that they would eventually be restored if only 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 aren’t the foundational claims of Christendom foundanywhere throughout Jeremiah’s prophetic sermon on atonement? Why didn’t Jeremiah express the ideas that the Church would have wanted him to say?

Your next question argues 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,

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant (בְּרִית. 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.”

(Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Missionaries maintain that Jeremiah’s “new covenant” is an unveiled reference to the New Testament, which speaks of salvation by believing in the atoning death of Jesus:

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

(Matthew 26:28)

What of the Sinaitic covenant founded on the keeping of the Torah’s commandments?

Commenting on Jeremiah 31:31, the author of the Book of Hebrews declares that the Torah’s lifegiving commandments are obsolete and concludes:

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)

It is therefore not difficult to understand how the Calvinist author Arthur W. Pink, in his An Exposition of Hebrews, argues,

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. ((Pink, Arthur W., An Exposition of Hebrews, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI; 1984: pp. 1065.))
While some people find Pink’s conclusion reprehensible, this author is a committed Reformed Christian. He is simply drawing the conclusion clearly conveyed in the Book of Hebrews. Essentially, the Book of Hebrews is a multifaceted polemic against the Church’s elder rival, Judaism. In order to answer your question regarding Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant,” understand first 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 replaced the old, obsolete Mosaic covenant forged with the entire nation of Israel at the foot at Mt. Sinai.

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 the Jewish people, following the reunification and restoration of the ten lost tribes. No restoration occurred at the time when Christians claim the new covenant was fulfilled in Jesus’ death. Quite the contrary, during the Christian century the House of Israel did not exist – Assyria exiled the Kingdom of Israel more than seven centuries earlier (approx. 732 B.C.E.). Moreover, during the first century, the Jewish people were spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Thus, the vast bulk of “House of Judah” did not reside in the Promised Land during Jesus’ lifetime.

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, reunited, in the land of Israel (Ezekiel 37:15-22). On the contrary, there had been no time in history when the Jewish people were more fractured and dispersed than the first century C.E. when, the author of the Book of Hebrews claims that Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant was 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 shatters their interpretation of this prophecy, because clearly this passage speaks of the future new covenant era. Jeremiah states:

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.

(Jeremiah 31:34)

The above verse clearly speaks of an age that 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 epic event occur during the first century C.E., 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 any Lord.

Has Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant” as yet been fulfilled by anyone’s standards? Are we living in a time when each and every person “knows the Lord”?

The Hebrew word בְּרִית (bris) 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 covenant, promise, or a contract. This covenant was made with the Jewish people while they were still in the wilderness – long before they entered the Promised Land.

In Deuteronomy chapters 28-29, Moses declared to the entire nation of Israel that if they remained loyal to God in the land they were about to enter, the Almighty would bestow upon them manifold blessings, and they would flourish in their Promised Land.

On the other hand, if they turned away from the Lord, they would be driven out of Israel to endure a bitter exile to the land of their enemies. The dark events that followed Israel’s faithlessness are well known and recorded widely throughout the passages of Scripture. These four verses in Jeremiah 31:31-34 are part of an ongoing theme 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 – vividly illustrating how the latter will far outshine the former. Jeremiah 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.

(Jeremiah 23:7-8)

In the 31st chapter of the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet continues to contrast the exodus from Egypt with the messianic age. He foretells that unlike the exodus from Egypt when the Jewish people were brought into the land of Israel and exiled centuries later because they broke their original covenant as a result of their iniquities, 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 declared by every Jewish prophet, the covenant that God forged with the Jewish people is eternal. It can never be broken. 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.

How can the Book of Hebrews radically change Jeremiah’s prophecy to be understood that God had somehow “discarded” His covenant with Israel, when Scripture repeatedly states that God’s unique relationship with the Jewish people is bound in Heaven and can never be destroyed or amended?

Moreover, Jeremiah exclaims the Lord’s reaffirmation of His eternal covenant with the children of Israel:

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.

(Jeremiah 31:35-36)

Jeremiah’s prophecy of an eternal Jewish people presents the Church with a serious theological problem because the New Testament went to great lengths to undermine the Jewish sacred texts. 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, the Christian author changed a most crucial word in the last clause of the passage:

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

(Jeremiah 31:32)

The book of Hebrews does not merely misquote Jeremiah, but changes entirely the verse to fit its anti-Judaic agenda, changing the text to read:

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

(Hebrews 8:9)

The Hebrew word בָּעַלְתִּי (ba’altee) means a “husband,” not “disregard” or “rejected. This is a stunning alteration of the words of Jeremiah; to be a “husband” conveys the precise opposite message of the word “disregard.” How can the author of Hebrews change the word of God in order to persuade readers of the authenticity and superiority of Christianity, and the obsolescence of Judaism? When New Testament authors crudely tamper with the Jewish Scriptures, do they not advertize that they possessed little integrity?


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 eternal.

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][/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, thatthey 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 the following question: Do the leaders of the Church who insist that the messiah has already come demand that its parishioners observe the commandments of God? Do members of Messianic congregations guard the mitzvoth of Shabbat and Kashruth as clearly outlined in the Jewish Scriptures?

For example, do Jews who convert to Christianity refrain from kindling a fire or carrying any object on the Sabbath day? The Bible explicitly states that these practices are forbidden (Exodus 35:3; Jeremiah 17:19-20)? Scriptural Sabbath observance is abandoned entirely in Messianic congregations.

Strangely, the messianic movement only observes rabbinic rituals and traditions, not the commandments clearly outlined in the Torah.

Yet, why do they practice what is forbidden if they insist the messiah has already come? Who, in reality, diligently and joyfully adheres to these life-giving precepts? The faithful remnant of the Jewish people – the nation that utterly rejects the core teachings of Christianity.

Paradoxically, Hebrew-Christians misguidedly point to Jeremiah’s new covenant to explain their continued indifference to the commandments mandated in the Torah. In fact, the central messianic prophecy in the Bible declares that the children of Israel will diligently keep the commandments during the messianic age (see Ezekiel 37:24 above).

Finally, let’s consider which grievous sin kindled the wrath of God against Israel in the first place.

Which iniquity ignited Jeremiah’s bitter reproach?

The appalling sin of idolatry; they violated the first two of the Ten Commandments. The Jewish people worshiped alien gods that their fathers had not known. They indulged in idol worship and imitated the heathen practices of their gentile neighbors.

Let us consider whether a pious Jew ever read the thirty-first 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 be enticed to serve gods that their fathers didn’t know.

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods, gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around 7 you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other. 8Do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him.

(Deuteronomy 13:6-8)

Do Jews convert to Christianity because of the teachings of their ancestors? Are these theological decisions born out of Torah studies in a yeshiva? Can the doctrine of the Trinity be found in the Book of Jeremiah, or by any other prophet in Tanach?

Hebrew-Christians learn and adopt their Church doctrines from the gentiles who evangelized them – just as prophesied in the Jewish Scriptures. They considered Christian teachings viable because they knew so little about the faith they abandoned.

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)