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Difficult Sayings

A woman shall encompass a man
Jeremiah 31:22

"...For the LORD has created a new thing in the earth - A woman shall encompass a man." (Jeremiah 31:22)

This strange verse is even called "a new thing" by the biblical author, but what does it mean and how is it fulfilled? Context helps considerably; taken in isolation it certainly is a conundrum.

Commentators have described this as, "probably the most difficult verse to understand in the Book of Jeremiah".F1 It is addressed to Israel, described in the preceding verse as a "virgin" (which she clearly wasn't!) and as a "backsliding daughter" (Jeremiah 31:21-22); and also to Ephraim, God's "dear son" (v.20) upon whom he promises to have mercy.

The larger context is that of the promise of Judah's future restoration and amidst the pronouncement of the new covenant (31:31-34). Given the background of the new covenant promise which we know came by a virgin birth it is tempting to think that the "new thing" is Jesus' birth by Mary. Many of the church fathers held this view. A virgin birth was certainly new, pregnancy was not and whilst the language may describe a woman giving birth to a man, it is neither new nor unique and nowhere specifies a virgin.

Calvin commented that "All this is deservedly laughed at by the Jews; yet they themselves, as I think, do not rightly understand the meaning of the Prophet". By this he refers to the Jewish interpretation that the woman is Israel restored to her husband after her unfaithfulness. The Hebrew verb translated as "encompass" is סָבַב çâbhabh (Strong's #5437) and can mean to "turn around" or "go about", so the idea of "returning" may be as acceptable a translation as "encompassing". If this were the case then the passage might well refer to Israel, being the woman, returning to seek God, which would be a new thing as hitherto it had been God always pursuing Israel.

Calvin, however, goes on to refute this interpretation and suggests another meaning of the verb, that of "besieging". His explanation being that the woman is Israel's weakened army going up against the strong man Babylon. Israel did indeed return but not by force of her own arms and perhaps like a defenceless woman another, Cyrus, was the one to defend her cause.

The most natural sense of the words, given that the Hebrew does not mean virgin and the word "man" emphasises man's strength not his sexual or procreative ability, is that the weaker woman will embrace the stronger man. If the woman is Israel then her return can be seen as an embrace and God is certainly the stronger man. Some have seen this change of relationship balance as being demonstrated in the birth of the Messiah without referring explicitly to the virgin birth by Mary. The idea is that instead of God being the provider God creates a new thing whereby Israel, herself, produces her own future salvation in Christ's being born of David's line.

Again, though, there are objections to this theory. Not the least of which is use of the verb בָּרָע bârâ' (Strong's #1254) "to create", used only by God of a new thing without nature or man's help or agency. This is the verb used in Genesis 1:1 of the creation of a new world, out of nothing, creatio ex-nihilo, it is popular with Isaiah but used only here by Jeremiah. It is appropriate because of the new covenant and the potential "new creations" that members of the covenant would become.

Some have suggested that an adulterous woman returning to her husband is the new thing since the law stated that a husband could/should not take back an erring wife (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). However, God had already proposed that he was willing to take Israel back, irrespective of this, earlier in Jeremiah's ministry (3:1).

Certainly, then, the created "new thing" has to be significant and will prompt or be a feature of Israel's return and is further expressed in the verses following outlining the new covenant when "they shall all know me from the least to the greatest" (v.34). The intention of the new thing is Israel's restoration and it is God who will bring it about so the expression concerning the woman may only be proverbial since otherwise she would be contributing substantially to the new thing. If anything the new thing is God's desire and ability to turn faithless Israel, described as a whore, into a virgin again, as unlikely as a frail female encompassing the girth of a גֶּבֶר gebher (Strong's #1397), the word for a strong and mighty man or warrior.


FOOTNOTES:
F1: Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An exposition of the scriptures, 1983-c1985, Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

   
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