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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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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.

  • How can they be responsible for it when God says that He will do it ("I will bring them" "He that scattered Israel will gather them"). Also, elsewhere in Jeremiah, he says he will do it for his own names sake. How does that harmonize with the idea they will have initiate it? – Joshua Dec 2 '15 at 15:23
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In the context YHVH has prepared the city of Jerusalem for the Jews to return there and live forever in peace and safety, however Israel is prevaricating about returning, presumably out of fear, shock and unbelief. Whatever the "new thing" is that God is doing in Israel it is intended that by mentioning it the Jews will be encouraged to return to the land without anxiety.

The Hebrew can be read that the new thing is that a female will "convert" a warrior. Perhaps as the Jews return to Israel the peace and prosperity of the land encourages the soldiers to recycle their weaponry:

NIV Isaiah 2:

3Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. 5Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

This "safety" aspect of this "new thing" is how the LXX seems to read it:

NIV Jeremiah 31:22 How long, O disgraced daughter, wilt thou turn away? for the Lord has created safety for a new plantation: men shall go about in safety.

LXX Jeremiahs 31:22 ἕως πότε ἀποστρέψεις θυγάτηρ ἠτιμωμένη ὅτι ἔκτισεν κύριος σωτηρίαν εἰς καταφύτευσιν καινήν ἐν σωτηρίᾳ περιελεύσονται ἄνθρωποι

So perhaps the new thing is that the dame, Jerusalem will be THE safe place on the earth where one needs no weapons because the city compasses the man in safety and he becomes a man of peace.

Isaiah speaks of a "new thing" also in chapter 43 where again

15I am the Lord, your Holy One, Israel’s Creator, your King.” 16This is what the Lord says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, 17who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: 18“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.

NIV Isaiah 49:

19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. 20The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, 21the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.

And again, the new thing is related to a triumphant, peace filled Israel is the new thing:

NIV Isaiah 42:

9See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” 10Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth [land of Israel], you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them. 11Let the wilderness and its towns raise their voices; let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice. Let the people of Sela sing for joy; let them shout from the mountaintops. 12Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his praise in the islands. 13The Lord will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies.

So while I think more study will build on this but this seems to be the idea - that Jerusalem will truly be the city of peace one day. "Forget the former things" of "trampling by the nations". Israel, do not be afraid to enter the holy city where you will live in the peace and glory of God forever.

And so, all Israel will be saved.

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