Today I begin a series of studies on the life of Huldah, the prophetess. The role of Huldah in the religious reforms of Josiah, king of Judah, is unique. Although the king could have sent an embassy to consult Jeremiah, Zephaniah, or Nahum, the prophets who were ministering in Judah during the reign of Josiah, the king sent his officials to consult Huldah, the prophetess after the book of the Law was found during the reparation of the temple in Jerusalem.
Because Huldah was able to recognize the importance of the content of the book and because she prophesied about the coming judgment upon the nation, Huldah’s oracle motivated Josiah and the religious leaders of Judah to begin a cultic reform that profoundly affected the religious life of the people of Judah.
However, before I begin to study the role of Huldah in the religious reforms of Judah, it becomes necessary to discuss the role of women prophets in the history of Israel (Note: In this post I will use the words “prophets” and “prophetesses” to speak about the women prophets in the Hebrew Bible).
Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society. It is for this reason that most women who appear in the Old Testament do so in connection with the stories of the males who are the main characters of the biblical narrative. With a few exceptions, these women are minor characters in these stories and little is said about their lives, their work, or their contribution to society.
In societies where patriarchy is the norm, in general, the roles of men and women are defined according to gender. Men are the leaders in the community and rule over the affairs of the nation. They carry out the duties that maintain and promote the life of the society in which they live. Men serve in politics, fight wars, and are in charge of the legal and religious affairs of the nation.
On the other hand, women are in charge of their household. Their main responsibility is to take care of the affairs of the house, such as cooking, baking, sowing, and taking care of children. Although many women had active roles in society, most of their work was related to duties that were characteristically assigned to women.
The Bible, however, provides a few clues that in one important position that was characteristically dominated by males, women also were visibly active in exercising their work, a work that had an important religious significance in the life of Israel. The area in which both men and women were actively serving God was in their work as prophets.
Most of the prophets of Israel were male. While there are almost thirty men who are called prophets in the Old Testament, there are only five women who are called prophetesses. The five women who are called prophets (or prophetesses) in the Old Testament are Miriam (Exod. 15:20), Deborah (Judg. 4:4), Huldah (2 Kgs. 22:14), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14), and Isaiah’s wife (Isa. 8:3), a woman whose name is not given by Isaiah.
In Israel, kingship and the priesthood were kept within traditional families. To be a king in Israel, one had to be born into a royal family. To be a priest, one had to be born into a priestly family. However, a woman could be a prophet because in Israel, a prophet was a person chosen by God to speak on his behalf. A man or woman was endowed with the Spirit of God and sent to speak God’s message to the community as God’s representative.
The word “prophet” comes from the Greek word prophetes, which means “one who speaks for another,” “an interpreter of the will of a god,” and “a proclaimer.” The Greek word prophetes translates the Hebrew word nabi’. The word nabi’ comes from the verb nābā’ which means “to call.” The nabi’ is a person who is called by God. The English word “prophetess” (Hebrew nebî’ah) is the feminine of the word nabi’, a prophet.
According to the book of Exodus, Miriam was one of the leaders of Israel, along with Moses and Aaron, whom God sent to lead the Israelites in their journey from Egypt to Sinai: “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Mic. 6:4).
Miriam led the women of Israel, with tambourines and with dancing, singing a song known as “The Song of Miriam”: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exod. 15:20-21).
Deborah was one of the leaders of Israel who was known as a prophetess and as a judge: “At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment” (Judg. 4:4-5).
During the time Deborah judged Israel, the people were being oppressed by Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army. Deborah summoned Barak and together they mobilized the tribal militia to confront their enemy.
Barak, the commander of Israel’s army, was reluctant to fight against the Canaanites. Deborah promised to go with the army and her leadership inspired the tribal militia to confront the Canaanite army. With God’s help, the army of Israel was able to defeat Sisera and decimate the enemy. Israel’s victory against Sisera is celebrated in the “Song of Deborah” (Judg. 5:1-31).
The third woman prophet in Israel appears in the book of Nehemiah. However, by the way Nehemiah addresses her, it is possible that she was a false prophet: “Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid” (Neh. 6:14).
Noadiah appears together with a group of prophets who threatened Nehemiah and opposed the construction of the wall. Nothing else is known about Noadiah. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, calls Noadiah a “prophet.” Since the name Noadiah also appears as the name of a Levite in charge of treasure of the temple (Ezra 8:33), some scholars believe that Noadiah was a male prophet, rather than a prophetess.
The fourth woman known as a prophetess in Israel was Isaiah’s wife: “And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said to me, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the child knows how to call ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (Isa. 8:3-4).
Nothing is known about this prophetess and scholars are not in agreement concerning the role she played in Isaiah’s ministry. Some scholars believe that she was called a prophetess because she was married to the prophet Isaiah. Others believe that this mysterious woman was a prophet in her own right.
Personally, I believe that Isaiah’s wife was a prophet who exercised a prophetic ministry alongside her husband. According to Isaiah 8:16, Isaiah had a group of disciples who preserved his oracles. Thus, it is possible that Isaiah’s wife was part of this prophetic guild and worked with him by giving a symbolic name to their son as a visible evidence of the message Isaiah preached to king Ahaz.
The fifth woman prophet in the Old Testament is Huldah. I will have more to say about Huldah in my next post. The significance of the ministry of Huldah as a woman prophet is that when Josiah wanted to know whether the book of the Law found in the temple was authentic, Josiah sent a group of government officials, all males, to seek the word of a woman. In a society dominated by men, none of them had any problem in seeking the counsel of a woman.
But these five women were not the only prophetesses mentioned in the Old Testament. The prophet Ezekiel mentioned a group of women who were prophesying in his day: “As for you, mortal, set your face against the daughters of your people, who prophesy out of their own imagination; prophesy against them” (Ezek. 13:17).
According to Ezekiel, these women were false prophets who were prophesying a false message about the security of Jerusalem. The significance of Ezekiel’s statement is the fact that the prophetic ministry in Israel was the work of men and women. Although most of the prophetic activity in Israel was engaged by men, the Bible indicates that many women were also engaged in prophetic activities in Israel.
According to the Rabbis, these five women were not the only women prophets in Israel. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) mentions four other women who were considered prophetesses. These four women were Sarah, Hannah, Abigail, and Esther.
Although space does not allow me to discuss the reasons the Rabbis considered these four women to be prophets, it is clear that the Bible preserves evidence that the prophetic call does not belong to men alone. This is also confirmed by the New Testament. The New Testament says that Anna was a prophet (Luke 2:36) and that Jezebel was also a prophet, albeit, a false one (Rev. 2:20).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on Women Prophets: