For the past few weeks I have been writing a series of posts on the women prophets in the Old Testament. The list of posts on these amazing Old Testament women is given below.
Although some of my readers have disagreed with my view that these women lived in a patriarchal society, a society which limited what women could do, the reality is that very few women enjoyed positions of leadership in ancient Israelite society.
In her book The Creation of Patriarchy, Gerda Lerner wrote:
A number of recent studies of the role of women in the Old Testament have tried to balance the overwhelming evidence of patriarchal domination by citing a few female heroic figures or women who take independent action of one sort or another. Phyllis Trible has even asserted the existence of a “counter-culture” to the “patriarchal culture of Israel.” In an interpretive essay which details the various expressions of patriarchal dominance in the Old Testament, another feminist scholar, Phyllis Bird, states correctly, as her evidence shows, that women are legally and economically deemed inferior to man in the Biblical narrative and that this reflected actual conditions in Hebrew society. Nevertheless, she asserts that man in the Old Testament recognizes woman “as his opposite and equal,” an assertion for which she offers precious little evidence.
The few women mentioned as having a respected or heroic role are quite overwhelmed by the many women described in servile, submissive, or subordinate roles. Clearly, the narrative, especially in the Song of Deborah and in the reference to the prophetess Huldah, lends support to the statement that women were recognized as prophetesses. But when we place these narratives in chronological order, it appears that this was so in the early period of Hebrew history, before or shortly after state formation. In the monarchy and thereafter we do not find women in such roles (1986:176).
This patriarchal view of women in leadership roles continued even into rabbinical times. In his article, “Huldah, the Deuteronomic Prophetess of the Book of Kings,” Tal Ilan describes how the rabbis viewed Deborah and Ruth. Ilan wrote:
It should come as no surprise though that a later evaluation of Deborah’s story does much to diminish her role. The rabbis, for example, take issue with her name – bee. They view it as a reflection of her negative character traits. They couple Deborah with the other prophetess – Huldah, whose name refers to an even more repulsive animal – a weasel. They say: “There were two arrogant women whose names were hateful. One was named ‘wasp’ (in Aramaic זיבורתא ) and the other ‘rat’ (in Aramaic כרכושתא). Of the wasp it is written: ‘She sent and summoned Barak’ (Judges 4:6) rather than go to him. Of the rat it is written: ‘Tell the man’ (2 Kings 22:15) rather than ‘tell the king’ ” (b. Megillah 14b). Probably because in their time, a woman in such a position was unthinkable, even more than the biblical authors, the rabbis were disturbed by women attaining such power and they attributed them disagreeable personal traits because they didn’t like their success.
Patriarchy was a reality in ancient Israel, but the patriarchal view of women breaks down in the case of the women prophets. The reason is that while most positions of leadership were chosen by men or were past from father to son, the prophet was a person called by God. Thus, when the spirit of God chooses an individual to the prophetic ministry, God does not look at the gender of that individual. God can choose both men and women to proclaim his message to people who do not know him.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Other Posts on Women Prophets:
Ilan, Tal. “Huldah, the Deuteronomic Prophetess of the Book of Kings.” Lectio Difficilior 1/2010. http://www.lectio.unibe.ch.
Lerna, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.