Chapter 7: Deborah and other women prophets
A general survey of the secular historical record would suggest that in almost every sphere of life: literature, culture, science, governance etc. men featured a great deal more than women, despite there being many exceptions. In today’s culture, including in church circles, there has in recent years been an effort to redress the balance and things like creating gender equality in all aspects of life has become important. While the role of women, particularly when it comes to church leadership and the like, may be a contentious one, it is not a subject for this book other than the observation this “imbalance” applied to the Bible too.
When it came to Old Testament prophets, if the Talmud is to be believed, there was 48 prophets and only 7 prophetesses. While unsurprisingly there were many more times men than women who fulfilled the office of prophet, the women who did were formidable characters who discharged their duties with credit. Of the seven prophetesses (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Sarah, Abigail, Hannah and Esther) mentioned, the first three were given that title in the Bible account, but as for the other four, cases can be made these were indeed prophets. As far as this chapter is concerned, we will consider all seven, followed by woman in the Old Testament we can make a case for, as being prophets, followed by New Testament women prophets, followed by women false prophets in the Bible.
While not mentioned by name, Miriam is believed to be the older sister of Moses, the very one who had the brave, quick wit to go to and advise Pharoah’s daughter who adopted baby Moses as her own, and which was the alternative to death. It was almost eighty years later that she features again, and that was when the children of Israel were able to escape Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. We read: “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea” Exodus 15:21. Miriam was clearly looked upon as a leader, especially among the women, and we find the first of a number of associations between music (and dance) and prophecy. We don’t know much about Miriam besides her being the brother of Aaron and married to Hur (who held Moses arms up when he fought the Amelekites) and her grandson played an important part in the construction of the Tabernacle. It appears, along with brother Aaron, she was part of Moses’ “inner circle”. Centuries later, another prophet could look back when speaking to Israel: “For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” Micah 6:4.
There was one story where Miriam played a major part but it did not redound to her credit. “And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman… And the Lord spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation. And they three came out… And the Lord came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam: and they both came forth … And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous… And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again” Numbers 20:1, 4, 5, 10, 15. If anything, it shows her pride and jealousy, but also God’s severity and His mercy, for He heard Moses prayer and Miriam’s leprosy went away.
As for her end: “Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there” Numbers 20:1. It was in the final (fortieth) year of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, when later Aaron, followed by Moses also died, thus handing over the leadership of the people to a new generation. While we may look with consternation at how Miriam who had been such a support to Moses and inspired leader among the people might have refrained from her criticism, there was little doubt her role was an important one and other Jewish records talk of people mourning her death. From the young girl who saved her brother, to the older woman who led the people in worship, to the very old woman who helped lead the people, Miriam will always be looked upon as the prophetess who played an important part in Israel’s story.
As we will see in Chapter 8, the period of the Judges (and Deborah was one of them) recounted the ups and downs of Israel when in the Promised land, after it had entered in under Joshua and before the kings, beginning with Saul, began to reign. What happened was Israel sinned; they were oppressed by one or other of its neighbours; they cried to God; God sent them a deliverer (judge) who helped rescue them, and then there was a period of peace. This happened time and time again. The story of Deborah found in Judges 4 and 5 occurred in one such cycle. One of the remarkable things about Deborah was she was a prophet and a judge and the only obvious woman prophet between Miriam and Huldah under Josiah.
The story begins: “And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, when Ehud was dead. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor; the captain of whose host was Sisera, which dwelt in Harosheth of the Gentiles. And the children of Israel cried unto the Lord: for he had nine hundred chariots of iron; and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel. And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment”. Even from this beginning, we learn a number of things. One was Israel lived under an oppressor that possessed much military might. Another is that Israel was in another of its “cried unto the Lord” periods. Yet another is, while we know little of Deborah’s background other than being married to Lapidoth (no other reference found of him), she judged Israel and had a certain presence and was respected by people coming to her.
What this remarkable women did was bring together different tribes of Israel to go to war under the generalship of a reluctant Barak and then she told them the strategy they needed to adopt, as from the Lord: “And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the Lord gone out before thee? So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him. And the Lord discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot, and fled away on his feet” Judges 4:14-15. The result was a mighty victory with a twist (Jael killed Sisera using a tent peg), followed by a period of peace and prosperity, at least until the next cycle.
Judges 5 is devoted to Deborah’s song: “Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying, Praise ye the Lord for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves. Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, even I, will sing unto the Lord; I will sing praise to the Lord God of Israel… The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel. … So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord: but let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might. And the land had rest forty years” (5:1-3,7,31). Here the details of the battle were recorded, including Sisera’s inglorious end and Israel’s predicament that under Deborah, a “mother in Israel”, achieved a mighty victory with God’s help. This prophet and judge was also prepared to lay her life on the line for the sake of the people, and who God was well able to use, even though a woman.
Huldah came to our attention during the reign of good king Josiah, when she provided timely reassurance and stern counsel from the Lord. The context was the discovery of scrolls of the Law that hitherto had been overlooked, when having a clear out / clean up of the Temple, that had long been neglected. Josiah realised that things were not right in the relationship between God and Israel and sought counsel from of all people, a woman, albeit a knowledgeable one. “So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asahiah, went unto Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; (now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the college;) and they communed with her” 2 Kings 22:14. We know little more about Huldah the person than what we read here. We know more about her husband, who appeared to have had an important position in the royal household.
Her response was clear and unambiguous: “And she said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Tell the man that sent you to me, Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah hath read: Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and shall not be quenched. But to the king of Judah which sent you to enquire of the Lord, thus shall ye say to him, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, As touching the words which thou hast heard; Because thine heart was tender, and thou hast humbled thyself before the Lord, when thou heardest what I spake against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and hast rent thy clothes, and wept before me; I also have heard thee, saith the Lord. Behold therefore, I will gather thee unto thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered into thy grave in peace; and thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place. And they brought the king word again” 1Kings 22:15-20.
As for Huldah’s response, it was direct and no nonsense, fully grasping the significance of the discovery and mindful of God’s nature and purposes, promises and warnings. Because she was a prophet, she was able to counsel what needed to happen next. Unlike so often was the case, the king heeded the word of the prophet and did what Huldah said and for a period the land enjoyed peace and a measure of prosperity. Sadly, it was only a temporary respite from the Lord’s anger, Huldah had revealed, and for Israel, following the death of Josiah in an ill-advised military operation, it was tragically downhill after that. We are ever grateful for Huldah for her timely counsel, saying what needed to be said, without mincing her words, which in Josiah’s case were well received.
We read concerning Sarah in the great hall of faith chapter of the Bible “And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” Hebrews 11:11-12. While our focus in those chapters of the Bible, when Sarah was given a odd mentions, would likely be on her husband, Abraham, it is clear Sarah’s role was a significant one. While she may never have uttered any word of prophecy, her actions might be deemed to be prophetic and to this day sets an example: “Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was only one man, and I blessed him and made him many” Isaiah 51:2, and “like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear” 1 Peter 3:6.
The story of Abigail in the Bible is an unusual one, with an interesting twist and is told, almost in its entirety, in 1Samuel 25. We learn “Now the name of the man was Nabal; and the name of his wife Abigail: and she was a woman of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance: but the man was churlish and evil in his doings; and he was of the house of Caleb” 1 Samuel 25:3. Nabal was a man of churlish character that David, then an outlaw, came to for help, whose emissaries were rudely sent away. This made David angry, who resolved then to kill Nabal. “But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, saying, Behold, David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he railed on them … Then Abigail made haste, and took two hundred loaves, and two bottles of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and five measures of parched corn, and an hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on asses” 1 Samuel 25:14, 18. With tact and wisdom, Abigail managed to win David over and he changed his mind as to seeking revenge: “And when Abigail saw David, she hasted, and lighted off the ass, and fell before David on her face, and bowed herself to the ground … And David said to Abigail, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, which sent thee this day to meet me” 1 Samuel 25:23,32. Not long after that, Nabal died and David married Abigail. Her wise, God inspired, actions saved the day and averted disaster.
Hannah is an integral part of the Samuel story. She was barren and prayed to God for a son and promised to dedicate him to the Lord’s service: “And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head” 1Samuel 1:10,11. She had a son and she carried out her promise, with Samuel later becoming a great prophet. “For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him: Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord. And he worshipped the Lord there” 1Samuel 1:27,28. Her amazing prayer, reminiscent in part to Mary’s Magnificat, could be seen as prophetic, on top of her earlier prayer and her dedication, concerning Samuel: “And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation. There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God… The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them. He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them: the Lord shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed” 1Samuel 2:1-2, 7-10.
The story of Esther, recounted in the Book of Esther, is a remarkable one. While God is never mentioned, when reading between the lines it would seem clear God was active in carrying out His purposes, in particular preserving his special people, Israel, and using as his instrument, Esther, to do so. Esther had found herself, it would be seem by quirk of fate, to be queen to the ruler of the Persian Empire, King Ahasuerus. In doing so, she hid her Jewish identity, but when it came clear that all the Jews in the Empire were going to be killed because of the wicked designs of the king’s prime minister, Haman, action needed to be taken and as encouraged by her mentor, her uncle, Mordecai, she responded: “For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this? Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish” Esther 4:15, 16. The story is a fascinating one, full of action but, since God is in the equation, not chance happenings, and Esther by her brave and appropriate responses, managed to save the Jewish people. One could only imagine what might have been if she had not. Jewish people to this day remember this event when each year they celebrate the Feast of Purim.
Other Old Testament women prophets
It is not the intention here to prolong the citing of further examples of women prophets, other than refer to one woman, discussed in Chapter 8, Ruth the Moabites, and one we will simply refer to as Mrs Isaiah, since we do not know her name. Ruth was arguably every bit a prophet as Sarah, Abigail, Hannah and Esther, but is not referred to as such in the Talmud, likely because she was not a Hebrew. Moreover, the Law had hard things to say about barring those from Moab from their community. No doubt Ruth knew this but it did not deter her returning to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi: “for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” Ruth 1:16. Her meeting and marrying Boaz is one of the lovely stories of the Bible as was her being an ancestor of Jesus. While like these other four ladies she did not prophesy, her life was every bit as prophetic. While the Old Testament focuses on Israel and the New on the Church, that are now mainly Gentiles along with Jews who believe in Jesus their Messiah, the way God dealt with Ruth was a sign for future generations there is a place in his purposes and blessings for those not the physical descendants of Abraham.
As for Mrs Isaiah, other than being mother of Isaiah’s children, all we can find out about her from the Bible is: “I went to the prophetess; and she conceived, and bore a son. Then said the LORD to me, Call his name Mahershalal hashbaz” Isaiah 8:3. Whether she was a prophetess in her own right or merely because she was married to a prophet is a matter for discussion. It is not one the author has strong views on either way, but is mentioned here for completeness.
New Testament women prophets
In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit had fallen upon the believers there gathered, Peter quotes from the Book of Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” Acts 2:17. We can infer that the gift of prophesy, along with the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, was as much available to women as men although, as we will discuss in Chapter 14, there are widespread differences between the Old and New Testament when it came to the use of the gift of prophesy. When the baby Jesus was brought to the Temple, there is a lovely story of the first prophetess mentioned in the New Testament: “And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” Luke 2:36-38. As for an example of women prophets, we find: “And the same man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy” Acts 21:9. While the gift of prophesy was encouraged among women in the early church, we should take note of Paul’s teaching: “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven” 1Corinthians 11:5 and “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” 1Timothy 2:12.
Women false prophets
Just as there were men false prophets, there were also women false prophets, both in the Old Testament e.g. Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14) (who went out of her way to discourage Nehemiah from building the wall – although the Bible record does not have her down as false per se) and the “daughters of your people who prophesy out of their own imagination” (Ezekiel 13:17) and the New Testament e.g. “a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination” (Acts 16:16) and Jezebel of Thyatira (Revelation 2:20) who brought false teaching. The ability to deceive and lead people astray was there among women just as it was among men. The fact that in the Bible women false prophets held a certain sway is further evidence that women prophets were taken seriously in a male dominated society. Women as well as men false prophets are considered in Chapter 6.