How much simpler it would be to define policy and practice if we did not have to reckon with a prophet like Jeremiah! How he scrambles the familiar equations when he prescribes something that has never been the norm!
Jeremiah is the Old Testament prophet of novelty without peer. Not only does he map the way to an unimagined future for which there is no precedent—he also rethinks and reimagines the past (Jer. 3:16, 17; 7:21-23). Indeed, Jeremiah switches back and forth between the reremembered past and the reconfigured future so as to cast a dizzy spell on the reader.
“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the daythat I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer. 31:31, 32).1
“How long will you gad about, O you backsliding daughter? For the Lord has created a new thing in the earth—a woman shall encompass a man” (verse 22).
Throughout, the orientation toward the future and away from the past is the most striking feature. It is the unknown, yet-to-be described future that counts (cf. Jer. 3:16; 23:7; 31:29 [“In those days they shall say no more”]; 23:7; 31:31 [“Behold, the days are coming”]).
The new reality cannot flourish as long as the old reality is in place, especially when people’s understanding of God’s original intention is flawed. This is fully in keeping with the texture of Jeremiah’s call and ministry. Was he not appointed “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10, ESV)?2 Must not the old, whether past instruction or people’s perception of past instruction, be removed before the new can rise?
Jeremiah 31 is the most important chapter detailing the shape of the new reality. This chapter is also crucial from the point of view of the New Testament (cf. Heb. 8:8-12). Above all, the new will be built on a foundation of hope. Hope, in turn, is nourished by memory (Jer. 31:2-4). Hope, too, is a luxury item in this book because Jeremiah’s ministry unfolds in a context of crisis. The crisis is national and political as much as it is personal and spiritual (cf. Jer. 30:5, 6).
Yet hope is proclaimed precisely when bewilderment, hopelessness, and panic prevail. No one seems to know what to do. Males are especially discomfited, even males represented at their most masculine as warriors and protectors (geber). In Jeremiah’s analysis, masculinity counts for nothing. He sees “every man with his hands on his loins like a woman in labor” (verse 6).
The gender representation is important: it follows the stereotype of male and female. Here a role reversal is in the making in the sense that males suddenly seem to be pregnant, wholly given over to the pain and panic that accompany birth. Much cannot be expected from the males in Jeremiah’s representation.
Jeremiah’s notion of “new” also has an eschatological texture.
In the setting of crisis hope must count on exceptional means and unprecedented action. We have now reached the key text. “How long will you waver, O faithless daughter? For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encircles a man (Jer. 31:22, ESV).
Novelty indeed! So much so that it is hardly possible to describe the promised divine action in more radical terms.
The text says that in a time of crisis, there will be divine action. God does not stand idly by, arms folded, allowing ruin to run its course. The precise wording is important. “For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth” (verse 22, ESV). The verb “create” denotes an action concerning which God alone can be the subject. Genesis should come to mind, creation now reconstituted and refitted to match the demands of the new reality. This is the only occurrence of this word in Jeremiah and therefore merits close attention.
“New” (h.ādāsh) is another big word, occurring twice in this chapter, the second occurrence describing the new covenant the Lord will make (verse 31). The covenantal overtone invests the vision with normative powers. We have in our hands a piece of late-breaking news from the Creator.
What is the content of the novelty? Jeremiah specifies a spectacular gender role reversal that must be read in slow motion in order to be fully appreciated: “a woman (neqēbâ) encompasses a man (geber)” (verse 22).
First, then, Genesis is again in view, the word for woman retracing the terminology of the Creation story: “male and female (neqēbâ) he created them” (Gen. 1:27). The original configuration of gender and gender roles are now given a new shape and content.
Second, the woman is described by actions normally attributed to males; indeed, the action borrows luster from Old Testament memories that depict God’s intervention as liberator and protector. Thus, for the verbal action, when God found Israel in the wilderness, “he shielded him [using the same Hebrew verbal form as “encompass”] and cared for him; guarded him as the apple of his eye” (Deut. 32:10, NIV),3 a similar action now envisioned for a woman in Jeremiah (Jer. 31:22). The verb in Jeremiah conveys a surrounding, shielding, and protecting action.
Third, the man that will be encompassed by the woman is represented in his warrior role. The root (gbr)is associated with warfare and calls to mind the strength and vitality of the successful warrior. It is the panicked warrior represented earlier as a woman in labor (Jer. 30:6) that will benefit from the intervention of the caring and protecting female in Jeremiah’s vision of the future (Jer. 31:22).
As to specifics, William Holladay suggests at least three options for the role reversal in the text, all of them possible and legitimate.
First, “ ‘a female shall encompass a hero’ suggests that the female shall be the initiator in sexual relations.”4 If this seems touchy, it seizes on an area of life where gender role reversal can be captured in a way that is likely to get the reader’s attention.
Second, the text casts the woman in the role of protector.5 In the context of crisis and panicking males, God comes up with an unexpected, novel remedy. It is as if He says to Israel, “Your warriors have become female? Look: the female will surmount the warrior! Take heart; come home.”6
Third, the text proposes a broad role reversal that can be seen as metaphorical as well as practical. That is to say, the limitations of traditional roles are loosened and reconfigured to fit the new reality and an extraordinary need. One metaphorical option is transformation, the woman cast in the role of transforming agent.7 For all these options, hope, possibility, and divine resourcefulness are at the root. Jeremiah’s vision, though radical in every way, “is not a curse, but a promise, as may be seen from passages elsewhere in the writings of the Hebrew Bible prophets.”8
What we see in this text, then, is not only novelty upending convention. To some extent it is also novelty as the new norm. While the new norm is configured to match urgent needs, Jeremiah’s notion of “new” also has an eschatological texture. We are entering the home stretch, as it were. As the old world falls apart, the “new” that will arise replaces the old order.
Such a vision is a hard sell because norms are usually set by convention. Conventional norms, by their very nature, resist novelty and are to some extent the bulwark against novelty. Jeremiah’s v
ision of new things in the earth throws a wrench into arguments based on convention. An argument from convention is a broken reed before a novelty that is divinely ordained, and the broken reed metaphor applies here to gender roles.
What drives this change, however, is easily missed. Where appeals to conventional practice appear to envision a stable, reliable, resilient institution within a fundamentally stable world, Jeremiah speaks of a new, unprecedented response in a world that is fundamentally unstable. Instability in the world calls for measures hitherto unimagined. The novelty that will be the new norm is superior—above all—for taking the better measure of the world. The radical reassignment of gender roles in Jeremiah is God-inspired and world-informed, Jeremiah perceiving the world at the point of dissolution, as suggested in Jeremiah 4:23-26.
For a need thus perceived God tailors a response that will be up to the task. Jeremiah here indicates two convictions: first, that the situation is far worse than people could imagine, so that God must move all the way back to Genesis 1 to make it right; and second, that God will make it right even so. The reassignment of sexual roles is innovative past all conventional belief, but it is not inconceivable to the Lord.
What drives the change is present need, not past norms. The undoing of the world creates new urgency. Need and urgency combine to unleash action of a new kind and on a different scale. If people, in Jeremiah’s time or now, object that the heralded change in gender roles is unwarranted and contrary to biblical precedent, they are at fault not only because they run afoul of the divine plan but also because they fail to take the correct measure of the world.
In the new form of existence, it can even be said that “an inverse order of things is the norm.”9 This would be a risky claim to make if not for the fact that novelty is writ large and all over the place in the immediate context of the verse to which we have listened. The prophet’s attention is turned to the future and not to the past. Again he talks of novelty and not of tradition; again he thinks big and not small—this time not for reasons of crisis but because of what was God’s plan all along. The words of Jeremiah 31:31-34 underline profound change and newness in one sweeping vision.
Jeremiah promises a change touching more than entrenched gender roles. The institutional structure is in for a major overhaul. In his vision, all those who have been forgiven and whose sins are remembered no more are authorized to speak authoritatively on God’s behalf, diminishing the need for the specially illuminated person to shoulder the task (verses 31-34). This theology of change, expressed as late-breaking news and conveyed by God through a prophet who specialized in what has not yet been, represents a true challenge, both individually and corporately. Yet there can be no turning back, not for those who heed the promise: “Call to me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jer. 33:3).
Sigve K. Tonstad is a professor of religion and theological studies in the School of Religion and an assistant professor in the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University.