A Woman Shall Compass a Man

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?


  1. Interesting.

    I must have done something with this passage for my MA, which was on the L-stem (verbal patterns with a lengthened first vowel. They tend to show up with geminates like sbb and hollow verbs).

    My first thought is that it’s somewhat like the contrary-to-nature reversals in Isaiah in which predatory animals and their prey make peace, etc.

  2. What denomination was that? Are they soliciting members?

  3. Kevin, I really wish you would do a weekly post on your Gospel Doctrine lessons. You already post these sort of insights nearly weekly, but it just seems unfair for only one ward to have a monopoly on your instruction!

  4. Second the Scoot, er Scott.

  5. Margaret Young says:

    Would it be too far afield to suggest that a woman might protect and COMPLETE the warriors–protect them from blood lust and move them towards compassion and even godliness?
    The idea that the wife should be on top during sex is terrible, of course, and has huge implications for missionary work.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Margaret, no, not too far afield at all. Since there’s no certain answer, that seems like a reasonable suggestion to throw into the hopper. (And that second sentence was wickedly funny!)

  7. Margaret Young says:

    Second sentence funny? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

  8. Bob Sheedy says:

    A qibla compass or qiblih compass (sometimes also called qibla/qiblih indicator) is a modified compass designed to indicate the direction of prayer. …

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Oops, sorry, Margaret. I thought you were making an intentional joke about the missionary “position.” Since you were serious, what did you mean? What implications would the idea that the wife should be on top during sex have for missionary work?

  10. Margaret Young says:

    Kevin, my tongue is in my cheek a lot. I was making an intentional joke. I just tend not to use smiley faces.

  11. Oh, Kevin, this is why they call us the weaker sex. I’m afraid you’ve been compasses, buddy.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Ha, you got me good, Margaret. It was a good one!

  13. Actually, as I read Margaret’s #5, I saw the sky in the northwest go bright red. I figure that was Bruce’s blushing, visible from Texas.

  14. Glenn Smith says:

    Esther protecting Mordecai and all Israel????

    My first thought was the compass as a guide or source of direction, referenceing the oft heard phrase of behind every good man is a great woman.

    Too simple???

  15. That sounds right to me. It fits with what prophets have told us about the role of women in the last days and with what Sister Beck has been saying over the pulpit.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    I didn’t think I had the Anchor Bible for this part of Jeremiah, but I found it. Here’s what Jack Lundbom has to say on this. First, his translation:

    How long will you waver
    O turnable daughter?
    For Yahweh has created a new thing on earth:
    the female protects the man!

    the female protects the man. Hebrew neqeba tesobeb gaber. The phrase is a crux interpretum, even though translation f the Hebrew poses no problem. 4QJer(c) in a partial reading supports MT. There is also general agreement that what is stated here in some way points to a reversal of the natural order of things… The suggestion has been made that hte climactic lin is a proverb. The ver tesobeb is Polel of sbb, meaning “she surrounds, protects,” the sense being basicallywhat we have in Deut 32:10, where Yahweh is rememberd as having protected Israel during the wilderness wanterings…Jeremiah says that the neqeba (“female”) is protecting the geber, who is a “man,” but more specificauy a strong man, a warrior…. A suggestion I made nearly thirty years ago…is the one I would still propose as yieling the best sense for the phrase in the immediate context: Jeremiah is expressing shock and surprise at the weakness of Judah’s soldiers in defeat. He is saying, “My, a new thing on earth! the woman must protect the (fighting) man.” Needless to say, it should be the other way around. But Jeremiah being keen on inversions and expressions of incongruity, is simply exclaiming over a sight that results from Judah’s defeast at the handds of the Babylonians in either 597 or 586 C.C. (to be continued)…

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Here…the battle-weary soldier is so exhausted that a female…must protect him. Women are the only ones left with strength…. Something similar happened in Germany at the end of World War II, where it was the Trummerfrauen who took over the men’s role in doing the hard work of cleaning up war damage in the country. More recently (February 1997), a movie entitled TheItalian Girl in Algiers was advertised on a San Diego bus with the words “In this one the girl rescues the boy.” (to be continued)…

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    The LXX translated it en soteria perieleusontai anthropoi (“men shall go around in safety”); the T: “the people, the house of Israel, shall pursue the Law.” Kimhi said that the woman shall go after the man, which he interpreted to mean that the children of Israel shall return to the Lord their God, who will redeem them…. Jerome and the Church Fathers interpreted the phrase as anticipating the miraculous birth of Christ in her womb, a view that was still prevalent in calvin’s time.

  19. stephanie g says:

    Another interpretation might be…that the elders and HP of isreal are engaged doing the Lord’s work and it will fall to the strong women to defend allowing the Priesthood to do the ordinances of the Kingdom. Just a thought.