In previous posts, I studied all the women prophets whose names appear in the Old Testament. In today’s post, I propose to study a group of nameless women prophets whose work is mentioned in the book of Ezekiel. This is what the prophet has to say about these nameless prophetesses:
As for you, mortal, set your face against the daughters of your people, who prophesy out of their own imagination; prophesy against them and say, Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the women who sew bands on all wrists, and make veils for the heads of persons of every height, in the hunt for human lives! Will you hunt down lives among my people, and maintain your own lives? You have profaned me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, putting to death persons who should not die and keeping alive persons who should not live, by your lies to my people, who listen to lies.
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: I am against your bands with which you hunt lives; I will tear them from your arms, and let the lives go free, the lives that you hunt down like birds. I will tear off your veils, and save my people from your hands; they shall no longer be prey in your hands; and you shall know that I am the LORD. Because you have disheartened the righteous falsely, although I have not disheartened them, and you have encouraged the wicked not to turn from their wicked way and save their lives; therefore you shall no longer see false visions or practice divination; I will save my people from your hand. Then you will know that I am the LORD (Ezek. 13:17-23 NRSV).
The work of these nameless women is different from the work of other women prophets in the Old Testament. While the women prophets received their message from God, the women prophets mentioned in Ezekiel “prophesy out of their own imagination” (v. 17). Ezekiel’s words are similar to the words Jeremiah used to describe the false prophets: “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD” (Jer. 23:16). These women are called by some scholars false prophets, female diviners, and even sorcerers because of their use of the magical arts and because they do not proclaim a true word from God.
These women used magical elements in order to prophesy to the people. Their work is so different from the classical prophets of the Old Testament that their prophecy cannot be compared to the prophecies of the other Old Testament prophets nor their work to the work of the other women prophets mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
In fact, when Yahweh tells Ezekiel to prophesy against these women, he calls them “the daughters of your people, who prophesy.” They are not called “prophetess,” nebî’ah, like the other women prophets who spoke to the people on behalf of God. It is possible that the avoidance of the word nebî’ah to describe these nameless women is a deliberate attempt by Ezekiel to show contempt for their work.
One problem that Ezekiel finds with the work of these nameless women is that they put in danger the lives of many Israelites who believed their words and work. The words of Ezekiel are not easy to understand because some of the expressions he used to describe their work are not very clear and because some of the rituals described by the prophets probably reflect magical rituals that were practiced in Babylon.
However, there are several things that can be known from the text. First, these women demanded payment for their oracles: “You have profaned me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread.” Ezekiel says that these women demanded barley and bread for their services.
The practice of paying prophets for oracles can be seen in 1 Samuel 9:7: “Then Saul replied to the boy, ‘But if we go, what can we bring the man? For the bread in our sacks is gone, and there is no present to bring to the man of God’” (1 Sam. 9:7).
The prophet Micah condemned the false prophets because they gave oracles according to the payment they received: “Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths” (Mic. 3:5).
Second, these women prophets did their work using magical incantations: “Woe to the women who sew bands on all wrists, and make veils for the heads of persons of every height, in the hunt for human lives.” The NIV calls these bands “magical bands.”
Scholars are divided whether these bands and the veils were used by the prophetesses or were used by their clients. From the realm of the magic art, it is probable that these items were amulets used to ward off evil spirits. Since the veils were made “for the heads of persons of every height,” it is possible that the veils were used as covering to protect the clients with their magical power.
These women were “in the hunt for human lives.” They were seeking people to become their clients and to use their services. They needed more people to use their services because their livelihood depended on people coming to them and paying for their services: “Will you hunt down lives among my people, and maintain your own lives?”
Ezekiel accuses these women of having profaned the name of Yahweh by their practices. The prophet does not explain how the women profaned God’s name. One possibility is that they used the name of God to give validation to their magical rituals.
The expression in verse 19 is difficult to explain: “Putting to death persons who should not die and keeping alive persons who should not live, by your lies to my people, who listen to lies.”
In his commentary on Ezekiel, Walther Eichrodt explains what these false prophetesses were doing:
There can be no doubt that Ezekiel took for granted that these prophetesses could and did produce solid results. When he accuses them of deceiving Yahweh’s people and says they gain credit with the people, because they are so afraid of the truth as to turn away from it, he is not suggesting that all they do is a mere ineffective fraud; what he is pointing to is the falsehood of their claim to be acting with God’s commission or according to his will. We see at this point what dangerous rivals they are to genuine prophecy. Under the appearance of devoutness, they bring about the death of some who were destined to life, by misleading them to their ruin, or by frightening them to death by gloomy suggestion of coming destruction. Others, delivered over to death by sickness or accident in accordance with God’s will, they preserve alive by exercising their powers. Such evil doings serve to lead the whole people astray, by obscuring for them the clear will of God which they ought to obey and by enslaving them to uncontrollable forces. Genuine prophecy finds itself caricatured and ousted by demonic soothsaying, which seems to work within a very limited sphere, and yet poisons the whole atmosphere.
Because of their false work and because these nameless prophetesses deceived the people, Yahweh declared that his judgment would be coming upon them:
“Because you have disheartened the righteous falsely, although I have not disheartened them, and you have encouraged the wicked not to turn from their wicked way and save their lives; therefore you shall no longer see false visions or practice divination; I will save my people from your hand. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
The prophets of Israel had to contend with the work of the false prophets and their work was against the eternal purposes of God. In his accusation against these false prophetesses, Yahweh accuses them of troubling the spiritual lives of the righteous by shaking their confidence in God and by making them doubt in his power.
On the other hand, these women are accused of having “encouraged the wicked not to turn from their wicked way and save their lives.” Ezekiel says that God wants to save wicked people if they turn from their evil ways and turn to God. However, these false prophetesses encouraged them not to abandon their evil ways and be saved.
Thus, the ministry of the many women called by God to become messengers of God’s love to all Israel was marred by the ministry of a few women who wanted, by deceit, to join their ranks. These false prophetesses, like all the false prophets mentioned in the Old Testament, deceived the people by preaching a message they never received from God: “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD” (Jer. 23:16). These false prophets were never called to proclaim God’s word: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied” (Jer. 23:21).
The problem of counterfeit prophets was not a phenomenon unique to Israel. False prophets will plague God’s people to the end of time. Jesus said: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15).
Faced by a myriad of voices claiming to speak on behalf of God, believers must depend on a faith that has been disciplined through fellowship with God, a faith that can see through a vision that does not come from God, but out of the prophet’s own mind.
Only faith and the knowledge of God’s Word can judge the truth and falsehood of prophecy. When Christians have their faith focused on Jesus, they “will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:5).
Studies on Women Prophets:
Walther Eichrodt. Ezekiel: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2003.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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