I’m reading the Book of Jeremiah for my daily quiet time. Something from Jeremiah 31 jumped out at me. Vv 29-30 say:
“In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge” (KJV).
“In those days” refers to the time after Israel’s restoration from exile, for what is what Jeremiah 31 is about. The passage is saying that, after God has punished Israel and later restored her to her land, made her populous, and blessed her, God’s policy will be that each Israelite will be punished (die) for his or her own sin, not the sins of his or her ancestors.
Ezekiel had the same idea (Ezekiel 18:2), only he took it in a different direction from Jeremiah. Ezekiel was telling the Judahites—-prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.—-that God’s policy is to punish Israelites for their own sins, not the sins of their ancestors. If the Israelites fall to foreign invaders, as far as Ezekiel is concerned, then it is their fault, and they are not suffering for what their ancestors did. Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:29-30 is saying, by contrast, that this (individual punishment) will be God’s policy after Israel’s eschatological restoration.
Does Jeremiah believe that God’s policy before then was to punish Israel for the sins of her ancestors? Well, Jeremiah acknowledged that Israel’s ancestors were sinful (i.e., Jeremiah 7:23-27), so ancestral sins probably played some role in God’s punishment of Israel, as far as Jeremiah was concerned. At the same time, Jeremiah lambasted Israel’s current sins, and Jeremiah said that God would relent from God’s planned punishment if Israel repented (Jeremiah 18; 26). My impression is that, for Jeremiah, God was punishing Israel both for the sins of her ancestors and also for her own sins.
Of course, I can’t be too dogmatic about what Jeremiah thought. Some have argued that not all of the Book of Jeremiah is by Jeremiah but had Deuteronomistic influence, and this includes not only narrative parts but some of the prophecies as well. See my post here from a while back. For example, whereas the Pentateuch depicts Israel in the wilderness quite negatively—-as stiffnecked, stubborn, faithless, and sinful in her relationship with her God—-Jeremiah 2:2 romanticizes Israel’s following of God into the wilderness. Jeremiah 2:2 arguably differs, not only from the Pentateuch, but also from what Jeremiah 7 says about Israel soon after the Exodus refusing to listen to God. Can those thing be reconciled? That’s open to debate, I guess. Still, if we were to rip away everything non-Jeremian from the Book of Jeremiah, my hunch is that we would still see Jeremiah condemning the sins of his Israelite contemporaries, believing that his contemporaries’ sins would play some role in their coming downfall. Why else would Jeremiah prophesy to them?
In all honesty, I do not know why Jeremiah 31:29-30 stresses that Israelites, after Israel’s restoration, will be punished only for their own sins. Is the point that they are getting a new beginning, that they do not have to worry about ancestral baggage, that they can go forward freely, appreciating that they are responsible for themselves and themselves alone? Maybe. Of course, they were responsible for themselves before the Babylonian captivity, but there were voices that were saying that their ancestors’ sins were hanging over their head, that their repentance could perhaps postpone God’s wrath but not totally eliminate it. I think of II Kings 23:25-26, which affirms that, righteous King Josiah’s reforms notwithstanding, God’s anger was not turned away from Judah, for a previous king of Judah, Manasseh, had so provoked God with his horrible sins.
I should note something else: Jeremiah seems to be acknowledging that, after Israel’s eschatological restoration, there will still be sinners. This, even though Jeremiah goes on in Jeremiah 31 to say that God will write God’s laws on Israelites’ minds and hearts, and everyone will automatically know the LORD. How will there be sinners—-and not only sinners, but sinners bad enough to deserve death (as Jeremiah 31:30 appears to imply)—-if God will spiritual transform Israelites and yield them to righteousness? Does there have to be a willingness on their part to be transformed, otherwise the transformation does not take effect? I wrote some posts a while back on a similar topic, only I was focusing on Ezekiel.