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the Empathy List #111: Loud Church Ladies
The Bible's female prophets have been ignored by Evangelicalism for too long.
Hello friend, Liz here.
For the next couple of weeks, I’m completing another round of edits for the interdisciplinary book I’m writing about seeking God in the sky, the earth and the book of Genesis. (That may or may not become the subtitle.) I’m really proud of this debut book and AM SO THRILLED to share with you… a year from now. ;-)
However, I’m reallocating my time to finish the book well. So, I’ll be re-sharing some stories here that I’ve published elsewhere about my upbringing within evangelicalism.
Today, we’re talking about the Bible’s female prophets. Ever heard of them? I hadn’t either. But now they’re my favorites. Enjoy!
Share this story with a friend and/or tell me how your experience lines up with mine? Am I speaking a foreign language or have I been reading your diary?
The Old Testament is full of female prophets that Evangelicalism has ignored.
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?)
Yet the characters I am supposed to identify most closely with, I don’t.
While I have known and loved Jesus for decades now, while I attended both Christian high school and college, while I have 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.
I struggle to even skim the stories of these women. The Hannahs and Rebeccas and Rachels and Sarahs—these women experienced sexual violence, diminishment, poverty on a level that makes every contemporary female I know squirm, whether they’d call themselves feminist or not.
Women did not count in the age when the Old Testament was lived and written down. In the Ancient Near East, a wife could be discarded for her infertility, literally abandoned in the desert to starve. First-century Jews, Jesus’s contemporaries, did not consider female testimonies valid in court because they were not considered trustworthy. The Roman empire would not even tally them in a census, let alone grant citizenship to most.
Even in the pages of my sacred text 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 enough to write down, her contribution is often that she birthed a prominent male child.
Because, from my seat, it appears that the primary reason cause female noteworthiness in the Bible is “who begat whom.”
Take Hannah. She is married to a bigamist (1 Samuel 1:1), undoubtedly because she was infertile and her husband, wanting to correct that, married another woman to double his changes of tribe expansion. But we would not know her story at all if not for her progeny, the prophet Samuel.
As a mother and former birth doula, I will agree that childbirth is notable.
I had both of my two children drug-free in an inflatable tub in my living room (yes, I am and was a hippie natural birth weirdo), and then I pursued a career in the field. I understand personally and communally the significance of motherhood.
And childbirth was more dramatic back then than it is today. In the Ancient Near East where Hannah sought to conceive, no infertility treatment existed. Her experience would hardly have resembled that of a laboring woman’s medicated hospital stay in our time. Women still die in labor today, but back then, death during childbirth was normal, expected. That meant surviving the obstacle of childbirth so that you could mother a child into adulthood was a more notable experience in the ancient world than we might see it today.
Childbirth and rearing were brutal in the ancient world. 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.”
Unfortunately, the Bible acts as a prooftext to the ancient world’s misogyny. The misogyny of the Hebrews in the Old Testament is not unusual, but reading the Bible makes it plain.
Case in point: the other major reason a female is mentioned in the Bible is because she was raped or abused by a well-chronicled male character.
Sarai and Abram’s slave Hagar is known through her surrogacy of Abram’s son, Ishmael (Genesis 16). Tamar is named because Judah mistreated her (and accidentally impregnated her). Dinah is known because an enemy raped her and her brothers took vengeance (Genesis 34:1). Would we have heard any details of these womens’ stories without the actions the male characters perpetuated against them? Seems unlikely.
In fact, I’ve often struggled with the paucity of female characters in the Scriptures at all. Because the majority of protagonists within the Bible are men.
I do not mean to say that women have no meaningful role. For example, in these pages I have met the incomparable grace of Jesus nurturing Mary Magdalene as a disciple at his feet (later, she’d be considered an apostle), of Jesus forgiving and defending the woman caught in adultery, of the widow’s son resurrected by Jesus’s word and of the commissioning of the Samaritan woman at the well to preach to her village.
But even God is called male twice over—Father and Son. Though many traditions have designated the Spirit as female (ruach, meaning breath, wind and spirit in the Hebrew, is gendered feminine)—if a spirit can be gendered at all—overall, the teachings and practice of Christianity across centuries has intentionally diminished feminine aspects of God’s nature. And we have also diminished the role of the women that do exist within the pages of the Bible.
All this to say, I find myself now wrestling with the exclusionary nature of my sacred text, my religion, my God.
As I mother, can I find a place in this gospel story apart from my children?
As a female, are the most ancient Scriptures meant for me, amidst so much hatred and abuse of women that exists within its pages and my religion’s history?
As a follower, do the Father and Son themselves see and understand my struggle with gender and faith?
However, an answer has arrived in the form of characters my tradition has often overlooked.
I have found solace in the female prophets of the Old Testament.
You may be surprised to discover that the Bible contains accounts of a dozen women who prophesied on behalf of God to a crowd of God’s people. Further, they are universally lauded for their heroism within the pages Old Testament, and they tend to appear at moments when the men in their patriarchal society have fallen down on the job.
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. 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 [also translated as leading, as in the NIV] Israel…” What did Deborah’s leadership look like? Did she spend all her time with Israel’s infants? ;-) Nope.
Judges 4:5 says that Deborah “holds court,” monarchical language that evokes the actions of ruling. She decides disputes by determining religious doctrine and dispensing wisdom, similar to the style of King Solomon later on. And she delivers military orders to Israelite generals directly from the mouth of God (5:6). She commands the army, heads the legal system, and acts as a spiritual director to the entire tribe of God’s people. Sounds like she’s their president, right?
Lest you be tempted to interpret these actions as disobedient to God—as if Deborah were a sort of a feminist upstart who ruled by accident and not by the word of God—note that her prophecies came true.1
After 20 years of enslavement at the hand of the invader Canaan, Deborah tells Barak that God will deliver Israel through him. Yet during their exchange, it becomes clear that Barak mistrusts God to act without Deborah nearby; so Deborah tells him that though Israel will win, a woman will bring down Sisera, the Canaanite commander, an honor usually reserved for the country’s leader. And though this prophecy is cryptic and unlikely to come to pass, God brings about exactly what Deborah foretells.2
Remember, one of the simplest ways to measure whether God approves of a prophet is to wait and see whether their prophecies are fulfilled by God. If yes, the prophet is from God; if they don’t, then the prophet is a huckster. So when we see Deborah’s words coming to pass, according to the methodology of Scripture itself, we can assume that God is with her.
Deborah is a woman who takes charge, speaks truth to power, and walks into battle within a society so patriarchal her story was nearly scrubbed from their history. And God blesses her leadership.
Another notable female prophet is Huldah. Huldah prophesied alongside such giants as Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum as their contemporary (all of whom have separate books chronicling their prophetic works, unlike Huldah).
Her story begins when King Josiah discovers an ancient scroll that’s been discovered in the temple. What is this and where did it come from? Is it really the legitimate history of God’s people? Are these God’s inspired words?
Yet instead of asking Jeremiah, Zephaniah, or Nahum, all three of whom were on Josiah’s payroll, King Josiah turned to Huldah for help (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22). He asks her to examine and authenticate the scroll’s origin. When she then affirms that this scroll is the book of Deuteronomy, Josiah and his royal delegation accept her conclusion without question.
Here’s why this matters:
William E. 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.”
Huldah plays a similar role as Mary Magdalene at the Jesus’s empty tomb.
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.
Their testimonies may not have counted in their governments’ court during their time, yet God required their testimony to affirm God’s dramatic, revelatory and miraculous works to the people of God.
Aside from Deborah and Huldah, other Old Testament female prophets 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 (another female ruler).
Each of these women participated in fulcrum moments of Israel’s history. 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 to remind the people of God’s character and past works, similar to Abraham’s intercessory role for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:23-32).
The patriarchy cannot impede the words of God from arriving to these women. And remarkably, their communities seem eager to hear God’s words from them.
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.
Even in the Jewish midrash, recorded and gathered during in a time of Jewish conservatism, Deborah was still considered a prophet of equal stature to Samuel within her culture.
In fact, the ancients might be surprised at the reversals that exist in our day, where Christian women are more limited within spiritual settings than within secular society. (For example, within the Southern Baptist Convention...)
The ancient Israelites understood that you did not need male anatomy to be the mouthpiece of God in the Old Testament because Godself spoke liberally through all of God’s people. Though these female prophets do not all have tomes devoted to their messages, God used them to shift history, and the people responded to their words.
The particular prophet mattered less than the power of God.
I believe the message of God to women in our time is clear: women, our words can carry the power of God.
God is still speaking through the homemakers, the chronically ill, the high-school dropouts, the unemployed to shame the educated, the powerful, the qualified, the male—even at church. Even at the most conservative Christian church. Even now.
We of the undervalued gender can also bear the words of life.
God only needs a willing vessel. Are your ears open? That’s the only qualification. Anyone can listen and speak, no particular gender required.
Thanks for reading!
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
Typically, the best way to measure whether God approves of a prophet is to wait and see whether their words come to pass. If they do, the prophet is from God; if they don’t, then the prophet is considered a huckster. So when we see Deborah’s words coming to pass, according to the methodology of Scripture itself, we can assume that God is with her.
The way God brings Deborah’s prophecy to pass is fascinating.
Barak does lead the people to war in a battle that liberates Israel from Canaan, as directed by Deborah, who tells him when and where to fight. Yet when the Canaanites lose, its leader, Sisera, high-tails it away leader from the battlefield, to the tent of Jael, wife of another nearby tribal leader with whom Canaan has an alliance. Yet Jael is a sympathizer with Israel, it seems, because though she at first offers the commander hospitality—food, a place to rest, and ostensibly, protection as she stands outside the tent and dissuades any from entering—actually, she takes justice into her own hands.
As he naps, Jael hammers a tent peg into the leader’s skull, killing him instantly. When Barak finally arrives, seeking the fleeing enemy, she shows him Sisera’s dead body. And still, centuries later, she’s still being lauded for it. (See Judges 4:17-22)