Written on the Heart

But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Jeremiah 31:33 (KJV)

Write it in their hearts – Comparative exploration would have us look at these words very differently than we do today. In John H. Walton’s book, he defines comparative study as:

[…] a branch of cultural studies in that it attempts to draw data from different segments of the broader culture into juxtaposition with one another in order to assess what might be learned from one to enhance the understanding of another. (John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, p 18)

It’s a way to examine other cultures of the time to find relationships that might help further one’s understanding.

If you take a look at the verse from Jeremiah, later repeated by the author of Hebrews 8:10 and Hebrews 10:16, the law will be “written” in their “inward parts” and in their “hearts.” Is there anything like this in other cultures of the time?

Haruspex (or extispicy) was considered a reliable form of divination common among the Old Babylonian period and during ancient Rome. It was the process by which was believed the gods would “write” their will on the entrails of an animal. After the animal was chosen and purified, the diviner would read the entrails by way of autopsy. Although the liver received the most attention, all organs were examined. When reading these signs it was understood that this was the will of the gods and man should submit to their instruction.

The revelation that is sought out in extispicy proceedings is for guidance in major decisions and understanding of the intentions and will of deity. (Ibid., p 258)

Now let’s compare this to our verse from Jeremiah.

Here we have our God, YHVH, “write” His laws on our “inward parts” AND on our “heart.” We think this means the law is now spiritual. The law, we might imagine, becomes something abstract which is no longer applicable in our lives. But comparative study reveals this to be quite the opposite.

Why is the law on our hearts any different, culturally speaking? It’s for guiding the decisions in our lives, and for producing a deeper understanding of God.

So before you apply your 21st century Christian theology to the text, try reading it from the paradigm of Israel in the Ancient Near East. It gets a little messier, but it’s well worth an autopsy. 😉

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