Today I conclude my studies on women prophets in the Old Testament. A list of all posts on this series is found at the end of this post. In these studies we discovered that God calls both men and women to the prophetic ministry. In fact, the Hebrew word for prophet is nabi’, a word that means “one who is called.”
Prophets were called to be messengers of God. One prerequisite for a person to be known as a true prophet is the endowment of the Spirit and divine inspiration. True prophets were sent to speak a divine message in the name of God. False prophets were not sent by God, therefore, their message was false. This is what God says about false prophets: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied” (Jer. 23:21).
In the Old Testament, the prophetic office is associated with the work of the Spirit. A biblical text that illuminates the work of the Spirit in the lives of the prophets is found in the book of the prophet Micah, who identifies himself as a prophet because he has the Spirit of God: “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, with authority and with might; to declare to Jacob his crimes and to Israel his sins” (Mic. 3:8 NAB).
Because God’s Spirit was upon Micah, he was endowed with power, authority, and might to proclaim God’s words to a rebellious people. It was the Spirit who enabled the prophets to speak on behalf of God. However, although the prophets were enabled by the Spirit to proclaim God’s word, there seems to be reluctance in some prophets to associate God’s Spirit with their prophetic authority.
In fact, Amos and Jeremiah never associated the Spirit with the message they proclaimed. Rather, they emphasized the divine word, the word that was communicated to them directly by Yahweh. The reason for the prophets’ reluctance to emphasize the work of the Spirit in their ministry was their desire to distance themselves from the raving prophets who were active in the religion of the Canaanites (see 1 Kgs. 18:28–29).
Another aspect of the work of the Spirit in the Old Testament is the anointing of special people to do God’s work. These people were charismatic leaders because they were endowed with the Spirit of God, the ruah Yahweh. The work of these leaders was attributed to the Spirit of the Lord.
Thus, it is said that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Othniel (Judg. 3:10), that the Spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon (6:34), and that the Spirit of the Lord used Jephthah (Judg. 11:29) and Samson (Judg. 13:25) to defeat the enemies of Israel.
But, the gift of the Spirit was limited to a few individuals whom God called and endowed with the gift of the Spirit to do a special work in Israel. This is clearly seen in the story of the elders of Israel found in Numbers 11:25-29.
The story of the elders comes in the context of the people of Israel complaining to Moses in the wilderness that they did not have enough food to feed themselves and of Moses lamenting to the Lord that the burden he was carrying was too much for him.
So, in order to help Moses with the leadership of the people, the Lord made provisions to alleviate Moses’ burden by appointing seventy elders to help him:
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Is the LORD’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.’ So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Num. 11:25-29).
Moses was the leader of Israel and he had the fullness of the Spirit. Once the leadership of the people was divided among the seventy elders, the endowment of the Spirit was shared with the elders when they were installed into their office. This sharing of the Spirit means that the elders’ authority was derived through Moses. The prophesying of the elders was a confirmation to the community that they were chosen to assist Moses in his responsibilities as leaders of the community.
Two elders, Eldad and Medad, had not joined the other elders around the Tent of Meeting when the Spirit came upon the group: “Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp” (Num. 11:26).
When Eldad and Medad began to prophesy, Joshua, Moses’ helper, was concerned and told Moses to halt their prophesying. In response to Joshua’s concern, Moses told Joshua: “Do you think you need to stand up for me? I wish all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them” (Num. 11:29).
The story of Eldad and Medad may be a reference against the desire to restrict the work of the Spirit of God. Joshua was concerned that their activity would restrict or limit the work of Moses. So, he asked Moses to stop them from prophesying. Moses’ response to Joshua reflects the attitude of an individual who believed that God’s work was not limited to a few individuals. Moses rejects Joshua’s request by expressing the wish that the spirit of prophecy would come upon all of God’s people.
Moses’ desire that all of God’s people would receive the Spirit and become prophets had to wait hundreds of years before his wish became a reality. Moses’ wish becomes a prophetic oracle in the mouth of the prophet Joel:
“Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28-29).
The prophet Joel spoke of the pouring of the Spirit on all flesh in the coming day of the Lord. This apocalyptic oracle reflects the hope that someday in the future the Lord would come and deliver his people from the hands of their enemies. On that day, all of God’s people will receive the fullness of the Spirit and every one of them, men and women, young and old, slaves or free will prophesy.
The reference to “all flesh” is not a reference to all humanity, but only to God’s people. When Joel spoke of “your sons and daughters,” the prophet was speaking about God’s people. The spirit that is poured out on all people is the spirit of prophecy. This spirit of prophecy will lead people to dream dreams and see visions.
God’s spirit will be given to all God’s people, not just to a select group of people as it was done in the past. In the Old Testament the manifestation of the Spirit of God was selective; it came upon a few individuals, but according to Joel’s promise, this will change because everyone will have the fullness of God’s spirit. Joel was saying that the promise would be for all God’s people so that from the least to the greatest, all people would become prophets.
According to Peter, what happened in the day of Pentecost was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Those gathered in Jerusalem were Jews and Proselytes who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover and Pentecost. Although the promise of the pouring of the Spirit was for the Jews only, eventually the spirit of God also fell upon Gentiles: “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).
When Joel prophesied about the pouring of the Spirit, Israelite society tended to exclude some people and have a limited view of the role of women in the religious life of Israel. As Smith wrote: “With few exceptions, the Israel of Joel’s time was narrow and exclusive, hating and hated by other peoples” (1902: 418).
The Day of Pentecost was the day when Moses’ wish was granted. Moses wished that all God’s people were filled with the Spirit and that all God’s people were prophets.
The implication of Joel’s words is immense. To prophesy, to have dreams, and to see visions are things associated with the work of the prophets and the fullness of God’s spirit. So according to Joel and according to Peter’s interpretation of Joel’s prophecy, the Day of Pentecost was the day when all of God’s people became prophets. Now, people everywhere, men and women can proclaim the gospel of God’s love and offer a message of hope and salvation in the name of Christ.
According to Joel, even slaves will share in the democratization of the gift of the Spirit and no one will be able to restrict or limit the ability of men and women, young and old, bound or free, to proclaim God’ word to a lost world.
Joel’s statement that slaves will receive the gift of prophecy is extraordinary, for nowhere in the Old Testament is said that a slave received the gift of prophecy. This view is so unique that the translators of the Septuagint could not accept the fact that slaves also would become prophets. So they change the text to “my servants.” Thus, the translators said that these slaves are “servants of God” rather than slaves of men.
Thus, the calling of women in the Old Testament to be prophets was not a fluke. It was part of God’s plan to save humanity. With the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the idea of gender, age, and social status is eliminated; now both men and women can prophesy.
This is what Paul meant when he wrote: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Joel’s prophecy and the outpouring of the Spirit reveal that God is no respecter of persons. God calls men and women to the prophetic ministry.
Moses said: “I wish all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them” (Num. 11:29). By the pouring of God’s spirit on all flesh, God granted Moses’ wish.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Smith, George Adam. The Book of the Twelve Prophets. New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1902.
Studies on Women Prophets: