The Patristic Interpretation: A Maternal Mystery (Jeremiah 31:22)

“How long will you waver,
O faithless daughter?
For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth:
a woman encircles a man.” —Jeremiah 31:22

Domenico_Ghirlandaio_-_St_Jerome_in_his_study.jpg
St. Jerome in His Study (1480), by Domenico Ghirlandaio

That the promises of restoration given in the “Book of Consolation” (a name given to Jeremiah 30–33; cf. Jeremiah 30:1) involve more far more than was realized with the return to Zion under Cyrus is made plain in that the “new thing” spoken of here is soon unfolded as the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34). Now that’s a whopper of a sentence to open with but it’s good prep for what’s to come. We’re dealing with something enigmatic here.

Israel is not to waver in receiving the comfort her God extends because of the new thing He is doing. As to what this new thing is, I want us to look not to DC Talk, but to an ancient interpretation that has been widely disregarded by contemporary scholars. As this “new thing” is only briefly explained, and then with a mysterious metaphor, there are interpretations aplenty. I think the best modern opinion is that striking language is used by Yahweh to speak of the virgin Israel now clinging to Him in covenant love. Though this image flips the relational roles between husband and wife (“encircles” has connotations of protection) I can go with this interpretation, but I still don’t think it best.

Perhaps another enigmatic statement can help us make sense of this one—another instance where startling masculine language is used of a woman. In Genesis 3:15 man’s hope is to be found in the seed of the woman. The ESV can obscure this a bit, but note the little footnote explaining that the word for offspring is “seed.” The King James’ wins points for more than elegance at this point. Compare the ESV with the KJV.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (ESV).”

“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (KJV).”

A woman’s seed! That’s not something to gloss over with “offspring.” Though the Biblically astute student may meditatively stop here, recalling that “offspring” in the Scripture are always recorded in reference to the father, “seed” makes the point emphatic. Something surprising, miraculous, mysterious is afoot.

Further, the “new thing” Yahweh does is not just any doing. A peculiar word is used for God’s doing. He creates. That falls a bit flat in translation as well, but no English translation can do justice in this instance. In the Hebrew tongue, God gets his own verb. There is a kind of doing God does that only He can do. He is the only one that does this kind of creation. The identical verb is used in Genesis 1:1. This new thing is new creation, and it involves a woman on earth. See where this is going?

The work of the Holy Spirit in the conception of our Lord is spoken of in terms that recall Genesis 1:1 where we are told that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” When Mary asked “How will this be since I am a virgin?” the angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:34–35).

New creation begins with the Second Adam, conceived in the womb by the Holy Spirit, made out “nothing”—the seed of the woman. A women encircles a man. Mysterious? Enigmatic? You betcha. But for those very reasons, this old interpretation doesn’t seem a bit out of date to me.

“Concerning her we read of a great miracle in the same prophecy—that a woman should compass a man, and that the Father of all things should be contained in a virgin’s womb” (Jerome, Against Jovinianus).

Meridian Church · Jeremiah 31:1–26 || Rest || Josh King

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