Before we dive in, I want to acknowledge that this passage from Jeremiah discusses gender in a binary way—woman and man—and because this sermon is in part a word study, I will also use that language. The biblical prophets wrote from their own understanding and cultural context. Now, thousands of years later, as we grow in our understanding and celebration of gender diversity, we can still look to texts like this one for lessons on how to disrupt expectations and challenge norms.
This poem from Jeremiah is about one of the foremothers of Israel. Rachel in the book of Genesis dies giving birth to Benjamin, who she had named Ben-oni, which means “son of my sorrow.” She dies in childbirth, weeping. This poem in Jeremiah says that Rachel, one of the foremothers of Israel, is still weeping. She’s weeping over her children, and after all this time, she has never been consoled.
The first woman, Eve, had been cursed in Genesis 3 with pain in childbearing, and with subjugation to the man, Adam (v.16). The biblical scholar Phyllis Trible describes the curse as the woman corrupted in becoming a slave while the man is corrupted in becoming a master.
So when Rachel in Genesis 35 dies in the pain of childbirth, her death is a direct result of this corrupted state from Genesis 3. And in this poem from Jeremiah, she has spent generations weeping over her children, who still live under this corrupted state.
Rachel’s pain is a central image that Jeremiah deploys in speaking of Israel’s crisis. Many times Jeremiah prophesies that the people’s pain will be like the pain of “a woman in labor,” which is a phrase the prophet uses nine times throughout the course of the book. The despair and sorrow in Rachel’s death are at the heart of the prophet’s message.
And it is such a painful and poignant image, an image of eternal mourning. It reminded me of a part of the movie 12 Years a Slave, where a black woman is forcibly separated from her children as they are sold into slavery. She weeps unceasingly for days. When she is confronted and told to get over it, she refuses to forget her children and cease mourning. She utterly despairs, for there is no way to fill the emptiness of lost children.
This theme of utter loss is present throughout the book of Jeremiah. The prophet talks about having an “incurable wound.” He is overtaken by despair, seeing, as he repeats several times, “terror all around.”
The major threat for Jeremiah is an absolute tyranny of evil that leaves no room for hope or change. This poem wrestles with that threat, but witnesses to the opening for hope that God creates. As Kelly Brown Douglas says, “Into the midst of a mother’s deepest pain and suffering God is present in the world bringing hope.”
While I love this entire poem and wish I could spend the rest of the night talking about all its wonders, in returning to it I found myself transfixed by a single line—in fact, the very last line of the poem. In Hebrew, it is only three words: “woman surrounds man.” When I read it I thought, What is that doing there? How have I never noticed that?
I rushed to my Jeremiah commentaries, and read every entry on verse 22. And I learned a lot, not just about the verse itself, but, more surprising, I learned about the lengths people will go to resolve their discomforts with a text.
Just about every commentator I read made a statement about how confusing the verse is. The most dramatic came from the Anchor Bible commentary. The scholar John Bright says, “The meaning is wholly obscure. ... Quite possibly we have here a proverbial saying indicating something that is surprising and difficult to believe, the force of which escapes us.” He even goes so far as to say, “it might have been wiser to leave the colon blank,” wildly seeming to suggest that we omit these words from our Bibles.
The fact that historical-critical scholars such as this one could be this baffled by a Bible verse got me real interested in learning its history.
I want to share some of that history with you, because it is just so fascinating.
The first translation I want to highlight is actually a Hebrew-to-Greek translation—specifically the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible from just before the common era. The Hellenistic-Jewish scholars who translated Jeremiah 31:22 at this time apparently thought it was too objectionable to take literally, because they simply removed ‘woman’ from the verse. It says, “men shall go about in safety.” The theme of male security remains, but woman is excluded.
They just took ‘woman’ out of the verse! Can you believe that?
No longer does woman protect man, but man is just, safe, somehow.
Man is safe. No word on the plight of woman.
So that’s the Septuagint. Jumping ahead a couple thousand years: the second translation I want to highlight is the New International Version, released in the 1970s. The translators for this version did not leave out any words in Jeremiah 31:22 but rather settled for exchanging one of the words. Instead of the woman protecting or surrounding the man, the NIV says, “the woman will return to the man.” … Return to.
Now, the theme of reconciliation between God the husband and Israel the wife is common in the prophets. And the translators of the NIV clearly thought it wouldn’t be inappropriate here.
But they totally change the meaning of the verse! Whereas, before, woman overwhelms man, surrounding him, now man stands over woman, as she humbly returns to him.
The “new thing” God creates is then simply welcoming the adulterous wife back to his arms. As the Word Biblical Commentary puts it, this thing is new, “because, in the world of Israel’s experience, a husband cannot remarry his adulterous wife.” So “woman surrounds man” is transformed into a statement about a sinful, adulterous woman submitting herself and returning to her righteous, male lord.
The patriarchy is secure. Just as in Genesis 3, the male is made supreme. Woman returns to subordination.
So that’s the NIV.
From the same decade, the third translation I want to highlight comes from the Roman Catholic Church—the New American Bible. Apparently the scholars behind this translation were also perplexed by Jeremiah 31:22, because, while the New American Bible translation of this verse preserves all the original words, it just adds a little, shall we say, clarification. The NAB says, “the woman will encompass the man with devotion.” … Isn’t that just incredible?
The first translation changed the text by subtraction, taking an offending word out of the text; the second translation changed the text by substitution, altering an offending verb; and this third translation changed the text by addition, tacking on more desirable text.
These are all attempts, not to draw out meaning, but to dictate meaning. These translators are attempting to speak for the Bible.
Woman doesn’t “surround” man! How could that be? Women are the weaker sex! If woman surrounds man with anything, it’s with devotion!
It appears that the Bible here is saying something subversive. Jeremiah 31:22 is apparently so gender transgressive that patriarchal Bible translators feel the need to change it. They sterilize the verse. They make it unthreatening to them, unthreatening to their male supremacy.
But one interpretation I read that I was actually impressed by came from the infamous theologian John Calvin. He’s got his limits, but he has proved that he can be insightful.
In the 16th century when he was writing, the traditional Christian interpretation of Jeremiah 31:22 held that the woman in the verse is Mary and the man is Jesus. “Woman surrounds man” refers to Jesus in Mary’s womb. Calvin criticized this interpretation, saying it is “deservedly laughed at by the Jews.” He often preferred Jewish scholars to Catholic ones, and here he was able to see how ridiculous of an interpretation the traditional Christian one was. There is no mention of Jesus or Mary in this passage, and the context has nothing to do with prophesying a coming Messiah.
Even more ironic, Calvin’s alternative reading of the verse is perhaps the most radical that I read. He points to the fact that the word for “surround” in many other parts of Scripture means “besiege,” as in Joshua 6 where the word is used in reference to the Israelites surrounding the city of Jericho. And Calvin’s interpretation says that it refers to a future state in which the Jewish kingdom will be so victorious that any Jewish woman will be stronger than any of their male enemies. In other words, “woman encompasses man” is another way of saying “the meek will inherit the earth.”
And I was not expecting what Calvin went on to say. He says, and I’m paraphrasing a little for clarity’s sake, it is right that the prophet calls this vision a wonderful thing, because it would be a revolution of the enslaved, liberated by God, and taking their oppressors captive.
Of all the commentaries I read, Calvin offered the liberationist reading.
With this interpretation in mind, let’s go back to the 1970s:
In the same decade when the NIV and the NAB were released, the feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible was doing some translating of her own.
But before I go into Trible’s discussion of our text from Jeremiah, I want to show you something. It’s a picture of the first Phyllis Trible book I purchased, her book Texts of Terror. I had ordered a used copy online, and when it arrived I noticed there was something written, or rather, carved, on the cover. The previous owner had taken a pen with no ink and pressed the words “Very bias account” on the cover, … and then got rid of it. [Add photo to chat.] I guess he thought the book was too feminist or something.
What’s interesting about this engraving though is that Phyllis Trible is widely considered one of the best biblical interpreters of the 20th century, known specifically for her careful attention to the text. What’s more, when she translates Jeremiah 31:22, she does not argue with the way the text is written, but rather, translates it word for word.
Isn’t it just so funny that in the 1970s, conservative biblical translators, including those who supposedly believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, intentionally changed and imposed meaning on a biblical verse. But at the same time, a feminist is the one reading the text word for word and not attempting to add to or subtract from it.
The irony just kills me. It seems that the enemy of biblical interpretation is not privileging marginalized voices in the text, as Phyllis Trible does; the real enemy of biblical interpretation is male supremacy!
Now, when Dr. Trible translated Jeremiah 31:15-22, she found that there is an abundance of female imagery throughout this poem, so that its final claim about woman encompassing man is the culmination of an overarching, female-centered narrative.
The poem begins with Rachel’s weeping, and God moves in to console her. And later, God herself joins in Rachel’s lament, expressing a motherly longing for reconciliation with Ephraim. God says, and this is Trible’s translation, “my womb trembles” for Ephraim. The Hebrew word here means “inner parts,” and considering the mother/child images and other clues from the context, “womb” stands out as a strong choice of word. The desire is for wayward Ephraim to return to his mother who birthed him.
So, by the time you get to the final statement of the poem, we have an abundance of female imagery, and a vision of returning to mother’s loving embrace and care. And it is now that it says, “God has created a new thing in the land: woman surrounds man.”
Altogether, this poem offers us a multitude of female images for God, for dealing with suffering, for seeking redemption, and for new creation. The images are, albeit, mostly limited to motherhood, leading the scholar Walter Brueggemann to call the poem “sexist,” but the poem’s final line invites us to imagine a new way of female being: “woman encompasses man."
What the male-supremacist translations I discussed earlier fail to articulate, is that the real punch of Jeremiah 31:22 is in its stark troubling of gender roles. God has created a new thing on the earth: woman encompasses man. The supposed “weaker sex” protects the supposed “stronger sex.” The surprise is the point! The prophet is inciting the people to imagine a totally other world.
Jeremiah 31:22 imagines the liberation of the oppressed. The lion will lay down with the lamb (Isa. 65:25), the last will be first (Mark 10:31), the meek will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5)—woman will protect man. It’s an image of a just society, of a state of peace, with necessarily different roles for human beings to play.
Ephraim will return to his mother, God, who will heal his wounds. No longer will Rachel cry out in labor pangs. The curse will be lifted. Man will not rule over woman, but woman will surround man. The new thing God has done is symbolized by this vision of restoration and equality.
In the days that come, we may or may not catch a glimpse of the new thing God has created. We may spend more time weeping than singing. We may find ourselves in a state of hopelessness, feeling like there is “terror all around.” There is room in God’s motherly embrace for all of that pain and struggle. But Jeremiah also asks us to continually imagine new ways of being.
When Jeremiah says, “God has created a new thing,” this is the first and only usage of this particular Hebrew verb for “create” in the book of Jeremiah. It is as if even the prophet’s very statement about God’s new creation calls for a totally new verb—because God’s creative activity is always new, always transgressing our limits.
Correspondingly, Jeremiah offers us new roles to take up as children of God, roles not bound to patriarchy, but which reflect harmony and a revolutionary peace: woman surrounds man.
 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 40.
 Ibid., 128.
 See Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22; 49:24; 50:43.
 Jeremiah 10:19, 15:18, 30:12.
 Jeremiah 6:25, 8:15, 14:19, 20:3, 20:10, 46:5, 49:29.
 Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015), 228.
 John Bright, Jeremiah, vol. 21 of The Anchor Bible, eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965).
 Jeremiah 38:22 LXX-B.
 Keown, Scalise, and Smothers, Word Biblical Commentary, 123.
 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. John King; Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847), paragraph 39218.
 See David L. Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), ch.3
 Calvin, paragraph 39219.
 “Justly does [the prophet] set forth this as a wonderful thing, for it was a sort of revolution in the world when God thus raised up his servants, so that they who had enslaved [his servants] should become far unequal to them.” Calvin, paragraph 39504.
 Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).
 Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 40-50.
 Ibid., 45.
 Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 288.
 William L. Holladay, Jeremiah: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Chapters 26–52, vol. 24B of Hermeneia, ed. Paul D. Hanson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 195.