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Yesterday, I read Jeremiah 31:21-22 (ESV):

“Set up road markers for yourself;
     make yourself guideposts;
 consider well the highway,
     the road by which you went.
 Return, O virgin Israel,
     return to these your cities.
 How long will you waver,
     O faithless daughter?
 For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth:
     a woman encircles a man.”

Now, I don't know what to make of the final line, "a woman encircles a man." It seems clear the woman is a reference to "virgin Israel" and closest reference to a man is "Ephraim my dear son" (Jeremiah 31:20). Other suggestions for the man seem possible depending on the meaning of the stanza.

The word translated "encircled" by the ESV, has many possible meanings (05437):

a primitive root; to revolve, surround, or border; used in various applications, literally and figuratively (as follows):-bring, cast, fetch, lead, make, walk, X whirl, X round about, be about on every side, apply, avoid, beset (about), besiege, bring again, carry (about), change, cause to come about, X circuit, (fetch a) compass (about, round), drive, environ, X on every side, beset (close, come, compass, go, stand) round about, inclose, remove, return, set, sit down, turn (self) (about, aside, away, back).

With so many choices, it seems possible that the word is used in some metaphorical sense. The NET Bible, for instance, uses the phrase "a woman protecting a man". The translator's note to the phrase justifies the choice:

The meaning of this last line is uncertain. The translation has taken it as proverbial for something new and unique. For a fairly complete discussion of most of the options see C. Feinberg, “Jeremiah,” EBC 6:571. For the nuance of “protecting” for the verb here see BDB 686 s.v. סָבַב Po‘ 1 and compare the usage in Deut 32:10.

Unfortunately, I don't have access to Dr. Feinberg's commentary on Jeremiah. The reasoning seems thin without knowing what other choices were considered. It seems safest to stick with a more literal translation.

Given those parameters, I assume the line refers to fact that Ephraim is contained within Israel. But that renders the first half of the stanza insensible. Ephraim has always been a tribe of Israel. What is this stanza trying to communicate?

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2 Answers 2

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תסובב tesovev, literally means encircles, but should be translated here metaphorically to mean “court” or “woo” as in "courting a woman."

Jeremiah, more than any other prophet in the OT, is a prophet of doom. He has told the people that they will be conquered and should submit to the Babylonian empire (see chapter 28).

Chapter 31 contains beautiful prophecies of comfort related to this impending destruction (6-11):

For there shall be a day that the watchmen upon Mount Ephraim shall cry, 'Arise ye, and let us go up to Zion unto the LORD our God.'" For thus saith the LORD: "Sing with gladness for Jacob, and shout among the chief of the nations; proclaim ye, praise ye, and say, 'O LORD, save Thy people, the remnant of Israel.' Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child, and her that travaileth with child together; a great company shall return thither. They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them; I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble; for I am a Father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn. "Hear the word of the LORD, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, `He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd doth his flock.' For the LORD hath redeemed Jacob, and ransomed him from the hand of him that was stronger than he. (KJV)

The message of verses 21 and 22 is that the exile is temporary and that the people of Israel will initiate their future redemption.

Set up road markers for yourself; make yourself guideposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went. (21)

The guideposts are so the people who leave the land in Exile know the way back into their land when they are redeemed.

In the time period of Jeremiah (and in today's culture as well), a man usually chases and tries to woo a woman, not the other way around. In the metaphorical language of the prophet, Israel is the wife and God is the husband. After the “divorce” of the destruction, the people of Israel will be responsible for initiating the redemption and restoring the relationship with their God:

For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth: a woman will court a man. (22)

This translation of the root word סבב applies to the usage of that word in Deuteronomy 32:10 as well.

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I'm really glad I asked! This seems like the answer I'll accept. –  Jon Ericson Oct 10 '11 at 20:48
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Part of Jeremiah also makes reference to Rachel crying in the wilderness and being heard by God, although many men will try to claim that God doesn't hear the cries or the voices of women. The discussion regarding Ephraim is specifically in response to Rachel's crying, because Ephraim is of her lineage. He comforts her about Ephraim's response to correction, and to repenting and turning around to return to the Lord and what is right. God is speaking to her of the fact that like Job, and like Noah, God has seen the signs of promise in Ephraim that will make a difference in the future. Just want to note here, that Joseph Smith, I have been told, is a descendant of both Ephraim ad Menassah(sp).Coincidentally, the Book of Mormon also makes reference to God hearing the voices and the cries of the women, and calls on the men to be better husbands and fathers than their forefathers and to have only one wife, although people often think of the Mormon or LDS church as practicing polygamy. This is not what either the Bible or the Book of Mormon called for. Now, is this to mean encompass or compass? Encompass would be to surround or encircle, but to compass might also mean to give a sense of direction or to return to going the right direction.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! This isn't what we are looking for in answers. Specifically it relies on speculation and doesn't directly address the question. Please consider an edit. –  Jon Ericson Jul 19 at 14:24
    
@Jon I read this carefully in response to a flag, and I think it does address the question directly in the last two sentences? –  Jack Douglas Jul 21 at 6:49
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