As I have demonstrated in my previous post on the female prophets in Israel (see below, there are only five women who are called prophetesses in the Hebrew Bible. In other cultures of the ancient Near East, however, the situation is different. In his study on “Female Prophets in the Ancient Near East,” Jonathan Stökl says that “Among the prophetic figures attested in the extra-biblical ancient Near Eastern sources we find considerable more women than in the Bible” (2010:48).
For instance, Stökl says that in Mari there were three kinds of female prophets: the āpiltum, the professional female prophet, the muhhūtum or women who were ecstatic prophets (see 1 Samuel 19), and the qammatum, women whom Stökl calls “female lay prophets,” women employed by the temple who occasionally prophesied. According to Stökl, Neo-Assyrian documents mention thirteen female prophets whose names have survived, and other documents that refer to several female prophets without mentioning their names.
Stökl concludes his article with these words: “In this short survey of female prophets in the ancient Near East I have shown that no difference between men and women can be found with regard to their prophetic function” (2010:56).
The fact that there is no difference between male and female prophets with regard to their prophetic function may be the reason why Josiah sent his embassy to Huldah to inquire of Yahweh rather than sending his men to prominent prophets such as Jeremiah, Zephaniah, or Nahum. However, the reason Josiah consulted Huldah and not one of the male prophets who was alive in his days is not explained in the biblical text and remains a mystery.
Tal Ilan, in his article “Huldah, the Deuteronomic Prophetess of the Book of Kings,” describes the rabbi’s views on why Josiah consulted Huldah and not Jeremiah. He wrote,
So why did Josiah approach Huldah on this occasion? In their usual fashion, the rabbis suggest a variety of answers. First, they maintain that Huldah was Jeremiah’s relative and so he refrained from scolding her. Yet this answer does not satisfy them, for even if she was hanging out in Jerusalem, making a nuisance of herself and no one stopped her, why would a respectable king want her answer to his vital questions? On this they speculate that Josiah had approached Huldah because he knew that women are by nature softer and kinder than men, and he had hoped that her prophecy would spare Jerusalem. As we know, this hope had been dashed. Huldah had proved as tough as Jeremiah would have been in her place. So a third answer is suggested, by Rabbi Yohanan, who maintains that Jeremiah was not around at the time, for he had gone searching for the ten lost Tribes of Israel in order to bring them back. How the rabbi knew this remains a mystery. All these answers are highly imaginative speculations, fitting the patriarchal ideology of disbelief in the power of women that the rabbis held.
The scroll found in the temple by Hilkiah, the high priest, needed authentication. Josiah, following the practices that were common in the ancient Near East, sought a prophetic voice to provide confirmation whether the words in the scroll were indeed the words of God. Josiah consulted Huldah, the prophetess because she was a legitimate prophet of God.
When Josiah told his officers to go and inquire of the LORD on his behalf, his officers went to Huldah. It is possible that Huldah was already known by the men of Josiah and that she had already gained the respect of Josiah and his officers because there was no hesitation among Josiah’s officers in consulting her about what the scroll that had been discovered during the reparations of the Temple.
Ilan speculates that since Jeremiah is not mentioned in the book of Kings, it is possible that Jeremiah and Huldah “represented competing sources of authority” and that Jeremiah did not represent the views of those who were involved in the religious reforms of Josiah (2010:8).
Huldah is a unique female prophet in the Old Testament because she is the only woman prophet whose oracle has been preserved in the Bible. Miriam and Deborah are remembered because of the songs that bear their names. Huldah is remembered because of the words she spoke to Josiah. Huldah’s oracle will be the topic of my next post.
According to 2 Kings 22:14, Huldah was the wife of Shallum, the son of Tikvah, and the son of Harhas. Huldah’s husband was the keeper of the wardrobe. It is not known what is meant by the description of Shallum’s profession. In the temple of Baal in Samaria, there was a functionary called “the keeper of the wardrobe” (2 Kings 10:22). Thus, it seems that Huldah’s husband was a temple official responsible for the special garments used in the religious ceremonies conducted in the temple.
Huldah lived in Jerusalem, “in the Second Quarter” (2 Kings 22:14). This place, called in Hebrew “the Mishneh,” is mentioned again in Zephaniah 1:10. The Mishneh was a suburb of the city of Jerusalem located in the western part of the city. Archaeologists believe that Hezekiah expanded the walls of Jerusalem in order to accommodate the increased population in the eighth century as a result of an influx of refugees from Israel who fled to Judah as a result of the Assyrian conquest of Samaria in 722 BC.
When Josiah became king, he followed a period of great apostasy promoted by his grandfather Manasseh and by his father Amon. Influenced by faithful Yahwists, Josiah began reforming some of the religious life of Judah by eliminating some of the pagan practices introduced by his predecessors and by commanding the refurbishing of the Temple in Jerusalem.
During this repairs of the temple, the workers discovered a scroll and brought it to Hilkiah who was the high priest serving in the temple. Hilkiah told Shaphan, the king’s secretary: “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD” (2 Kings 22:8). Shaphan read the scroll and brought it to King Josiah.
After Shaphan read the book, he brought the book to Josiah and read it to him. The content of the book had a profound effect on the king. Josiah tore his clothes in great despair. In his desire to determine whether the book was authentic, Josiah sent Hilkiah, the high priest, Ahikam, son of Shaphan, Achbor, son of Micaiah, Shaphan, the secretary, and Asaiah to Huldah to determine whether or not the scroll was authentic.
When Josiah’s men came to Huldah to validate and authenticate the content of the book found in the temple, Huldah gave Josiah’s officer a message of doom. She said to them:
Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants– all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the LORD. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place (2 Kings 22:15-20).
In my next post I will discuss Huldah’s oracle.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on Women Prophets:
Ilan, Tal. “Huldah, the Deuteronomic Prophetess of the Book of Kings.” Lectio Difficilior 1/2010. http://www.lectio.unibe.ch.
Stökl, Jonathan. “Female Prophets in the Ancient Near East.” In Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel. Ed. John Day, 47-61. London: T & T Clark, 2010.