When you teach GD and have to prepare a new lesson every week, you start to notice little things in the scriptures that have eluded you in the past. I confess that I’ve never focused on Jeremiah 31:22, which in the KJV reads as follows:
How long wilt thou go about, O thou backsliding daughter?
for the LORD hath created a new thing in the earth,
A woman shall compass a man.
I was fascinated by that last line and wondered what it might mean. “Compass” in Jacobian idiom means to surround, so the line seems to say a woman shall surround a man. Huh?
In looking on the internet for ideas, I found a Christian website that helpfully explains that this verse means that when a husband and wife have sex, the wife should always take the top position(!) As that view of the passage might suggest, opinions are all over the map as to what the words mean; the expression is definitely obscure.
The word for “man” there is not one of the ordinary words we often see when contrasting men and women (IE ‘ish). Rather, it is geber, which specifically means a strong or mighty man, one who is a warrior or warrior-like. Think of a UFC fighter in our culture.
The verb rendered “compass” is sabab, which can mean to turn oneself, to go around, or to surround or encompass (as the KJV takes it). In the poel stem, as here, the verb can have the connotation “to protect,” similar to God watching over us by encircling us within his embrace and surrounding us with his love.
So we might tweak the translation a bit to come up with something like this:
How long will you waver, O faithless daughter?
For the LORD has created something new in the land:
A woman shall protect a warrior.
The verb create here is bara‘, the same verb used of God’s creative activity in Genesis 1.
The “woman” here could be Israel. In the previous verse, the second person singular pronouns are feminine (at least as pointed in the MT), and the backturning or apostate daughter of our verse is indeed a figure standing for Israel. But to me the “woman” of the last line seems to suggest something else, and I’m not sure exactly what the corporate reading of the woman would mean.
The last line might be a proverb or a proverb fragment, the meaning of which has become lost to us.
Tentatively (and feel free to persuade me otherwise in the comments), I think the verse is speaking of a New Age that will be ushered in by the return from Exile. Judah was a bug compared to the Neo-Babylonian Empire and Egypt, and being located between these two powers she was buffeted about, powerless, much to her hurt. But in the New Age, Israel shall be strong, so strong that its women (traditionally considered as weak and ineffectual as fighters) will be able to protect even her warriors. There will no longer be a weak link in her defenses.
Thus, women in the Kingdom of God need to strengthen themselves, both spiritually and physically, for the task of protecting that kingdom and preventing something as traumatic as the Exile from happening again.
I realize I’m reading through modern eyes, but I saw here a strong feminist statement about the role and capacity of women, whom we usually do not speak of in terms of physical strength. (The recent FMH post, “Strong, Not Skinny,” was also on my mind as I thought about this.)
What are your thoughts about this intriguing passage?