But this is the covenant that I will cut with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my torah in their entrails, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31:33
Most translations hide the visceral imagery behind Jeremiah 31:33. The Lord, he says, will put his torah (teaching, instruction, law) in the qereb (entrails) of the house of Israel when he cuts a new covenant with them. Qereb is the same Hebrew word used in Exodus and Leviticus in passages that instruct the Israelites what to do with the entrails of sacrificial animals.
Many English translations have something like “in their inward parts” or “within them”, which is correct but abstract. Qereb does mean “inner thing or place”. When describing body parts, however, it specifically refers to the internal organs. The Vulgate is more concrete. It translates b’qerebam into Latin as in visceribus eorum (in their viscera), and the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible (1899) gets it right with “in their bowels.”
A few translators render b’qerebam as “in their mind”, following the Septuagint version of this verse. (The Septuagint’s version of Jeremiah is all out of order when compared to the Hebrew text. This verse is 38:33 in the Septuagint.) The Greek word used here for qereb is dianoia, which does indeed mean “mind”. “Mind” however, is an interpretive paraphrase.
The ancients, of course, did not know about the brain and the nervous system. For them, the internal organs were the seat of both the reason and the emotions. To love God with the heart was to love God with the mind, the will and the affections. To have God’s law written on the inner parts is to have his will come forth naturally in one’s desires. All of this seems obvious in Jeremiah’s choice of language.
Until recently, though, I had not connected this verse with extispicy, the ancient pagan practice of reading of signs and omens in the viscera of sacrificial animals. Then I came across these comments as I was studying the passage.
When extispicy was being performed, the incantation priests asked the deity to write his revelation on the exta (entrails) of the sacrificed animal so that his will or instruction could be understood. Another frequent diviner’s prayer was to place the truth in the exta. Both the verbs of this verse (put, write) and the nouns (“mind” = entrails, specifically intestines; heart) are the same words as are used in extispicy omens in Akkadian literature.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
The underlying concept is that the divine message is written on the liver, lungs, colon or heart of the animal. The appearance of the entrails is interpreted after the dissection of the carcass. The vocabulary used by Jeremiah here is similar to that used in extispicy omens found in Mesopotamian literature. (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible)
Connecting Jeremiah 31 with the practice of extispicy opened a whole new way of thinking about this passage.
Extispicy was widely practiced among Israel’s neighbors, from Mesopotamia across the Mediterranean to the Roman world. You can see an altar for extispicy, for example, in the Roman ruins at Bath in England. (In Latin, the reader of intestinal omens was the Haruspex. See the photos of the Haruspex Stone in Bath at end of this article).
The Biblical text does not suggest that Israel practiced extispicy. The entrails of Israel’s sacrificial animals were not examined. Leviticus 19:26 prohibited all forms of divination. Nevertheless, Jeremiah borrowed the language of extispicy to speak about God’s new covenant.
Like all authors, Jeremiah (and the Lord speaking through him) used the words and mental images available to him in his culture. The language of extispicy was part of the common mental framework available to all the people of the ancient near east.
At its most basic level, Jeremiah’s prophecy reminded Judeans in exile that whatever the Mesopotamian gods could do, Israel’s God could do better. If Babylonian deities could write on sheep livers, the God of Abraham could write on human hearts.
Interestingly, the making of a covenant itself had sacrificial associations. The one covenant ritual described in the Bible involved cutting sacrificial animals in two, arranging the halves on the ground and passing between them.
So the Lord said to Abram, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. …. When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made (cut) a covenant with Abram. Genesis 15:9-10, 17-18
In the Hebrew idiom, one didn’t just “make” a covenant; one “cut” (karath) a covenant. This phrasing is commonly used throughout the Old Testament even though it is not usually visible in English translations. Nowhere in the scriptures is this practice prescribed for Israel. The author of Genesis is simply reporting a practice that would have been understood within Israel’s cultural context. God used a ritual that ancient near eastern people would understand.
Jeremiah 31:33, then, is filled with visceral allusions to sacrificial practices known in the ancient near east. So, what does this mean for us?
In his article on The Practice of Divination in the Ancient Near East, Uri Gabbay writes:
… in the ancient Near East the act of offering assumes a mutual relationship: the person brings an offering to a god as an act of gratitude, purification, or for other reasons, and the god, who is present during the cultic act of the sacrifice, also replies to this act by placing a message in this offering.
This gives us a hint as to how Jeremiah envisioned God putting his torah in our inward parts and writing it on our hearts. God writes his message on the hearts of the lives offered to him.
As Christians, we no longer offer the blood of sheep and cattle in the earthly city where God chose for his name to dwell. Jesus the Messiah made there the one the one full, final, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Now, we present our bodies to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). At the table of the Lord, we offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in union with Christ’s offering for us. There, Jesus gives us his body and blood (another very visceral image) in bread and wine. There, we are united to the one who is himself the very word of God, the one in whom God’s torah found its perfect fulfillment.
If you want to see a man who had the word of God written upon his heart, look to Jesus. As we live in union with him, his grace, holiness and love transform us. As we give ourselves to God in Christ, God is writing his truth in our inward parts. Surely this has something to say about our character, the choices we make with our own lives and the way that we relate to our neighbors. It has something to say about the need for inward as well as outward obedience to God’s revealed will. It has something to say about our lives of faith and hope and love. It even has something to say about our sense of wellness and wholeness, the feeling that our lives are complete in Christ Jesus.
This last affirmation may be true physically, just as it is true spiritually. We’re all aware of the effect that our behaviors and emotions have on our bodies. Don’t exercise; lose muscle mass and cardiac capacity. Breathe smoke; damage your lungs. It’s a cliché that anxiety causes ulcers. I can tell you for certain that the stomach is not the only part of the gastrointestinal system that anxiety affects. In The Body Keeps Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk shows us how trauma, fear and anger have physical effects.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that God affects our innards as well. In How God Changes Your Brain, neuroscientist and physician Andrew Newberg describes the physiological changes that take place in the brain as the result of spiritual practices. The inter-relationship of physical well-being to spiritual and emotional well-being is becoming increasingly obvious to researchers across many disciplines. We are physical-spiritual-mental-emotional beings, and God is the God of all of it.
Our faith physically changes us. God’s effect on our lives is that profound. Certainly, human health is a product of genetics, environmental factors, experiences, accidents and personal choices. I’m not saying a closer relationship with God will make all your physical problems go away. Well-being is complex, but Jeremiah was correct. God writes his truth on our guts.
Photos of the Haruspex Stone in Bath: