In the early sixth century B.C.E., the Babylonians defeated Judah, destroyed the Jerusalem temple, and took many of the community's leaders back to Babylon as exiles. This social, economic, and political crisis led to deep theological reflections about the causes of the exile and about what the people’s future might look like after it.
The book of Jeremiah imagines that future hopefully, with a new or, perhaps better, a renewed covenant between God and Israel/Judah. Unlike the previous Sinai covenant that the Israelites ratified at the time of the exodus (according to Exod 19 and Exod 24), the new covenant that Jeremiah describes is unbreakable.
Whereas God wrote the previous covenant on stones (Deut 4:13, Deut 5:22, Deut 10:2, Deut 10:4), God promises in Jeremiah's telling to write the renewed covenant on people’s hearts. Consequently instruction and obedience will not be external or optional. Rather, the people will be preconditioned to keep their side of the agreement. Jeremiah describes this changed behavior as “knowing the Lord.” The renewed relationship will be all-inclusive—from the least of them to the greatest. Simply put, all will know intuitively that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).
The timing of this renewed covenant is indefinite (“days are surely coming,” Jer 31:31), but God’s promise stands behind it—four times in four verses we read, “says the Lord.” This covenant will include both the house of Israel (the northern kingdom, which had been exiled a century and a half earlier) and the house of Judah (the southern kingdom).
Other biblical writers from the same general period had similar creative thoughts about covenant. The anonymous writer (or writers) scholars call "Priestly" wrote of an everlasting covenant made with the family of Noah and with Sarah and Abraham (Gen 9, Gen 17). Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, spoke of a new, or renewed, everlasting covenant (Ezek 16:59-63, Ezek 34:25-30, Ezek 37:26), a covenant of peace that would lead to security and prosperity. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel also refers to the future preconditioning of the people for obedience: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezek 36:26-27).
Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant has played an important role in Christianity. The name New Testament (kaine diatheke) can also be translated as “new covenant”; Christians have connected Jeremiah’s new covenant with Jesus’ identification of the cup in the Lord’s Supper as “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20, 1Cor 11:25, Heb 8:8, Heb 8:13, Heb 9:15, Heb 12:24). Whereas Christians assume that the mission of Jesus is a fulfillment of this new covenant, Jews connect the new covenant to a future, still-unfulfilled divine promise.