The Old Testament enthralls me: the poetry, the heat and sand, the incomprehensible language, the culture and mystery (Who was Cain’s wife? What are the Nephilim? What about Pangea and the dinosaurs?). But the characters I am supposed to identify most closely with—the Hannahs and Rebeccas and Rachels and Sarahs—I don’t.
While I have known and loved Jesus for decades now, while I went to Christian high school and college, while I diligently underlined phrases in handfuls of Bibles—from the Adventures in Odyssey-themed Bible through She Reads Truth’s illuminated text—I have not seen myself in the pages of Scripture.
I want to like the women of the Old Testament, I really do. But I don’t like them. I struggle to even skim the stories of those women. Their experiences of sexual violence, diminishment, poverty and discomfort overwhelm me. Because culturally, women did not count. In the ancient near east, a wife could be discarded for her infertility; first-century Jews did not consider female testimonies valid in court; the Roman empire did not even count them citizens in a census.
Even in the pages of my beloved Scriptures, women do not always seem to count. For one, whenever the women do happen to be mentioned by name, to be notable enough for a male author to deem her legacy worthy, her contribution is that she birthed a prominent male child. Take Hannah. She is married to a bigamist (1 Samuel 1:1), undoubtedly because she was infertile and he took another wife to continue his lineage. But her story is only mentionable at all because of her progeny, the prophet Samuel.
As a mother, I will not dispute that childbirth is notable. I had both of my children drug-free in an inflatable tub in my living room, and then I pursued a career as a birth doula. I can appreciate the significance of motherhood to a woman’s story. Not to mention, childbirth in the ancient near east did not come close to a medicated hospital stay as we know it. Women died in labor of every complication we seek to avoid today.
Yet the misogyny of ancient near eastern Judaism is apparent to anyone who reads the text on the face and it only repels further upon inspection. For example, another reason a woman might be named in Scripture is because she was raped by a well-chronicled male character (as happened in the cases of Sarai and Abram’s abuse of the slave Hagar that ultimately led to the birth of the illegitimate son, Ishmael (Genesis 16), and the case of the sexual assault of Dinah (Genesis 34:1)).
Childbirth and rearing were brutal in the ancient world and was women’s work exclusively. As scholar Stephanie Lynn Budin puts it in her book, Sex in Antiquity,
“For males, reproduction [was] simple, almost effortless. There [was] no downside to a plethora of offspring, merely the pride of being of proven fertility and potency. For females, reproduction was dangerous, stressful, and exhausting. Not credited with the creation of new life [that came from the male contribution], women bore the full drudgery of childbirth and rearing.
“[In fact,] The emphasis on maternity comes across most strongly in the Hebrew Bible. Here, the biblical matriarchs, denied any access to the religious or political hierarchy available to women in other ANE societies, wielded power and status exclusively through their male offspring, offspring pointedly given by a male deity and recorded in a text voiced and penned exclusively by males.”
As a postmodern evangelical looking backward at a culture and language centuries past, I am offended by these women. Worse, I feel disturbed by the miniscule role women play in the pages of Scripture as a whole. Yes, in these pages I have met the incomparable grace of Jesus nurturing Mary as a disciple at his feet, of Jesus forgiving and defending the woman caught in adultery, of the widow’s son resurrected by his word and the commissioning of the Samaritan woman at the well to preach to her village.
But still—the primary reason for female noteworthiness in the Bible is “who begat whom.” I wonder now, as a mother, can I find a place in this gospel story apart from my children? Are the most ancient Scriptures meant for me, amidst so much hatred and abuse of women? Does the Father see my struggle?
The answer to my questions is found in the females who are lauded for their heroism within the Old Testament, often at moments when the men in their patriarchal society have fallen down on the job. And in particular, I have found solace in the female prophets.
Take the story of Deborah, the controversial judge and prophet of Israel—controversial because of how her story is interpreted in light of current debates about the role of women in the church. In fact, Deborah stands in contrast to the narrative that women are entirely discounted and disenfranchised in the Scriptures.
In Judges 4:4, Deborah is named as a “prophet who was judging (or leading) Israel…” Judges 4:5 says that she “holds court” (language that echoes the actions of a monarch); she decides disputes (determining doctrine and dispensing wisdom, similar to the style of leadership of King Solomon later in the history of the Israelites); and she delivers military orders to Israelite men from the mouth of God (5:6).
Further, her prophecies come to pass: after 20 years of enslavement at the hand of the invader Canaan, Deborah tells Barak that God will deliver Israel through him—without weapons, training, or opportunity. And God does it, through the hand of Jael, a foreigner and sympathizer with Israel. (In Judges 4:21, Jael first feigns hospitality and safety to Sisera, the Canaanite commander running from Israel’s commander, Barak, and then, as he sleeps, Jael hammers a tent peg into his skull.)
Deborah is a female who takes charge, speaks truth to power, and walks into battle within a society so patriarchal her story was nearly scrubbed from their history. But instead of being chastised by God, she is blessed and favored and her prophecies come true.
And Deborah is not the only female prophet of the Old Testament. Chief among the others is Huldah, who, according to William E. Phipps, prophesied alongside such giants as Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum (all of whom have separate books chronicling their prophetic works). However, when King Josiah needed a prophet to authenticate an ancient scroll, he turned to Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22) instead of Jeremiah, Zephaniah, or Nahum, though all three were on Josiah’s payroll. Then, he and his royal delegation accepted her interpretation without question. The scroll they had discovered was indeed the book of Deuteronomy and Huldah was the first to authenticate it.
Phipps says, “Huldah did a momentous thing at her home that day in 621 B.C.E. Until then, no writings had ever been declared to be Holy Scripture. Manuscripts about the past had been accumulating since the rise of Israelite literacy several centuries earlier but none had been singled as out as a witness to God’s will.”
Arlene Swidler says of Huldah, “The authority to pass judgment on this initial entry into the canon was given to a woman… in Huldah we discover the first Scripture authority, the founder of biblical studies.” In the same way that Mary at the tomb was first to witness and preach the resurrection, Huldah is first to verify written words as God’s inspired Scriptures.
Other prominent females credited with prophesying in the Old Testament in Jewish and Christian tradition include Sarah, Abraham’s wife and the mother of Isaac; Miriam, the sister of Moses (Exodus 15:20); Hannah, the mother of Samuel; Abigail, King David’s third wife; Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14); the prophetess of Isaiah 8:3; and Esther. Each prophet played a pivotal role at a fulcrum in Israel’s history, and their job was simple: to speak the words of God to the people of God. (In some of the above cases, the role of the prophet was simply to remind God of his promises to his people or of God’s character to his people, in the same way that Abraham reminded God of his mercy by interceding for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:23-32).
Remarkably, the patriarchy of the time period does not make the female prophet’s words ineffective. As Phipps continues, expounding on the story of Huldah, “Huldah’s gender is apparently irrelevant; the biblical text does not suggest that seeking the divine revelation from a woman is at all unusual. Modern readers, who are aware of the strong male chauvinism throughout most of recorded history, are amazed that a male high priest and a male secretary of state would seek expert knowledge from a woman, but the ancient chronicler does not express surprise at the situation. The cabinet officials go to Huldah’s home to consult with her, and they accept without question her right to state authoritatively, ‘Thus says Yahweh.’”
Perhaps the practice of ancient religious cults, in which priestesses often played a leading role in worship, created less stigma around seeking spiritual guidance from female prophets than we postmoderns would expect. While the status of women in ancient near eastern society was limited to her familial connections, a spiritual “profession” was not off-limits. In many ways, the ancients might be surprised at the reversals in our day, where Christian women are more limited within spiritual settings than within secular society.
Even in the Jewish Midrash, in a time of Jewish conservatism, Deborah was considered to be a prophet of equal stature to Samuel. As it turns out, you did not need male anatomy to be the mouthpiece of God in the Old Testament; you needed a God who speaks liberally through his people.
The particular prophet mattered less than the power of God. These female prophets may not have whole books devoted to their messages, but God used them to shift history. From studying these women, I believe the message of God to women in our time is clear: women, our words can carry the power of God.
Perhaps this is the “magic” of the prophet: the ability to speak a word that makes no sense but that is made true by a Creator who controls the universe. God is still bent on speaking through the homemakers, the chronically ill, the high-school dropouts, and the unemployed to shame the educated and powerful. All he needs is a willing vessel, no particular gender required.