Huldah Who? The Forgotten Ministry of a Lady ProphetAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Contemporary Ethics, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Kingdom, Ministry, Preaching, Women
Where to Begin?
I have long been fascinated by the enigmatic figure of Huldah. I discovered Huldah in 1988 in an “OT” Survey class reading through the Bible. We never actually discussed her and I am not sure we could have done so. But I never forgot her. She has been a poltergeist floating in my mind for nearly 20 years!
Here was this woman placing a stamp of authenticity on Scripture, interpreting it and exercising authority over men . . . all at the same time! I did not know what to do with her. Since then I have been involved in many discussions regarding women in Scripture. Invariably I am told a woman never exercised authority over men with God’s approval because Paul forbade it. I then ask, “What about Huldah?” The response is almost (without exception) “Huldah Who?”
Here are two representative samples (out of many that could have been picked) of some attitudes towards women’s role among conservative Christians. I mention these not to make fun, nor to demean, but simply to illustrate my point:
“Prophets were not preachers. They did not preach; they did not do the work of a pastor nor the work of an evangelist, nor of a Bible teacher. To prophesy means to foretell the future. A prophecy is a revelation of the future. A prophet is a man who receives a divine revelation. A prophetess is a woman who receives a divine revelation concerning the future.
Prophetesses never preached in the Bible. They received brief divine revelation to give to individuals, but were never sent to preach, to address public assemblies as expounders of the Word, nor to do the work of a pastor or evangelist.”
John R. Rice, Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers
(Sword of the Lord Publications, 1941), 48-49
“Lindy Adams’ article dealing with the role of women reveals an area of debate that fails to consider the heart of the problem. We are not saying a great deal about the role of women in the secular realm. This is the heart of the issue. This the area in which all the problems of leadership originate. But the first question we must answer is, “Does the Bible authorize women to be in positions of authority over men in any area of life?” It is my belief and one in which I would debate, that women have no biblical authority to be over men in any area of life. Her subjection role was given at creation and has never been changed.”
Tony Demonbreun, “Letter to the Editor,”
Christian Chronicle 61 (December 2004), 31
But there is another perspective. It comes from a 9 year old little girl. I did not ask for this, but Rachael gave it to me. She knew I was studying for this presentation [for ACU] and got out her Bible. She laid out on the floor next to me and asked where she could read about Huldah. She went off and made a ‘report’ (we do this often for our home schooling) on Huldah and gave it to me on Friday night . . . If you do not mind I would like to share it with you. Please bear in mind this is written by a 9 year old girl.
The Prophetess Huldah by Rachael Valentine a Nine Year Old
The King of Jerusalem sent the priest Hilkiah over to Huldah to speak to her she said to him a message from the Lord, to be sent to the King. The Lord God is ruler over Jerusalem. The people will be under a curse. The fire of my anger won’t be put out. I am doing this because for so long have you worshipped the Baals. You will be with your ancestors. You won’t see what I am going to do to this place.
God is having a little trouble with people [sic]. He is troubled with the people’s disobedience to the Covenant. The Covenant was a promise to only to worship God. But as I said, they had been burning insence [sic] to the Baals, breaking the Covenant. Obviously, Huldah is warning them, giving them a chance to repent. And repent they do. The King of Jerusalem gathered a meeting of all the people. They burned offerings to the Lord. The King sent away the priests who served other Baals. The people are trying to get out of God’s anger.
My daughter, Rachael, told me what to say. If any of you would like to have some encouragement let us know while we stand and sing.”
The open faith of a child . . . Sounds quite a bit different than what we saw a moment ago from some older men. I laughed until my stomach hurt at that last line, but I was so moved by it I asked her if I could share it with you.
What is a Biblical Prophet?
You will recall that Rice stated that a prophet simply predicts the future, that a prophet never acts the part of an evangelist, nor as a Bible teacher. (One wonders if he ever heard of Jonah? Or Moses? Surely these prophets were evangelists and bible teachers) Others, like LaGard Smith (and I am not picking on him), take away from the authority of the prophetic ministry by saying prophets were only ad hoc agents and the “real stuff” of God was located in the priesthood. I have serious problems with characterization. Can we come to a biblical definition of what a prophet is?
1) In Exodus 7.1 Yahweh says “See I make you as God to Pharaoh and Aaron your prophet.”
2) Amos 7.16 Amaziah says to Amos “Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Israel.” The synonymous parallelism here make it almost certain that “to prophesy” and to “preach” are the same thing.
3) Paul says in 1 Cor 14.3 that “those who prophesy speak to other people For their up building and encouragement and consolation.”
From just these very select passages it is clear that a prophet speaks a word from God to instruct his people. Some times a prediction is involved, but more often it is not. The prophet preaches the word of God to build up, to encourage and to console . . . and to challenge.
Female Prophets in Scripture
For those who know who she is, Huldah has been either an irritant or an inspiration. But she need not be the former for there are other women with the honor of “prophet”
Miriam (Exodus 15.20; cf. Micah 6.4)
Deborah (Judges 4-5)
The False Prophet Noadiah (Nehemiah 6.14 . . . False for not telling the truth, not because she is a woman)
Wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8.3)
Huldah (2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34)
False Female Prophets of Ezekiel (13.17-23, cf. vv. 1-16 for false male prophets)
Anna (Luke 2.36-38)
Female Prophets of Pentecost (Acts 2.17-18)
Philips Four Daughters (Acts 21. 8-9)
Corinthian Female Prophets (1 Corinthians 11.4-5)
The Bible of the early Church also contained wonderful stories of other great women of God like Susanna, Judith and Greek/Old Latin Esther . . . Wonderful narratives of women in the service of God. In Tobit, Sarah (wonderful prayer of hers) and Anna are brought to life. We should avail ourselves to these tales of faith and courage by women of God.
Setting of the Huldah Narrative
Huldah is extremely important to the history known as Joshua-Samuel-Kings and also Chronicles. Most of the names we think of when we hear the word “prophet” are not even mentioned by either of these histories. Jonah and Isaiah (“writing prophets”) are mentioned in Kings. Jeremiah is not, to my knowledge mentioned at all. In Chronicles, Isaiah is mentioned as is Jeremiah mentioned briefly as the author of a lament over Josiah (2 C 35.25) and in 2 C 36. 12, 21. He is never mentioned in connection with Josiah’s reform . . . But Huldah is given considerable space (comparatively) by both Kings and Chronicles.
As we shall see the Huldah narrative is central not only to the Josiah episode but to the entire structure of Chronicles (where I will spend most of my time). Here is a structural outline that highlights what I mean:
A. Formulaic Introduction (34.1-2)
B. Cultic Purification of Judah & Jerusalem (34.3-5)
C. Cultic Purification of the North (34.6-7)
D. Discovery of the Book (34.8-18)
E. Prophecy of Huldah (34.19-32)
D’ Implementation of the Book (34.29-32)
C’ Cultic Purification of the North (34.33)
B’ Celebration of the Passover (35.1-19)
A’ Extended Formulaic Conclusion (35.20-36.1)
This structure, known as a chiasm (where the structure of the work forms a mirror), places Hudah’s work as the theological and structural center of the Josiah narrative. It stresses the authority of the prophetic word and scripture. The king and the people stand under the prophetic word.
Josiah’s Question (read 34. 14-21)
In response to the discovery of the “book of the Law,” Josiah is alarmed. But he is not foolhardy. He needs to know if this work is authentic . . . If it is “true.” What Josiah does next fits well with what we know from Assyrian parallels of Esarhaddon and Nabonidus. When the king receives an oracle or an omen he would “double-check” it with another “god.” Josiah has just received bad news (an omen!) and wants to know if it is really the word of the Lord. So he “double-checks” so to speak with the Prophet Huldah.
So Josiah sends five men to “inquire of Yahweh.” Not just any men mind you, but some of the, if not the, most important men in the nation. It might pay to reflect on who these men are for just a moment:
1) Hilkiah the High Priest. The highest spiritual leader in the country.
2) Ahikam son of Shaphan. The Shaphan family is important in Judah. Ahikam is father of Gedaliah who becomes governor (2 Kgs 25.22)
3) Abdon (nothing known of him)
4) Shaphan the Secretary. He is basically the secretary of state or chief of staff for the king.
5) Asiah the king’s attendant.
These men are important in ancient Judah both theologically and politically. We should not miss this fact.
Josiah’s instruction to these five men is “inquire” or literally “seek the Lord.” “Seek” is a major theme in Chronicles. God seeks seekers in Chronicles. Josiah does not “seek” for himself alone but for the entire people of God (v. 21). The question is a question about authenticity and interpretation: “seek/inquire . . . ABOUT what is written in this book.” Is it true? Will we die? Is there no hope? These are significant questions, in Josiah’s day and our own.
Enter Huldah Who? (34.22-28)
When Josiah was in the midst of a great spiritual and moral crises, Huldah is the single person to whom he turned. Josiah sent these men to Huldah. The King wanted answers and these five very important men went directly and naturally, apparently, to Huldah!
Given our history, and disposition, one is disposed to ask “why Huldah?” The question is even more important when we realize that there were male prophets active at this time. Most “famously” would be Jeremiah. But Zephaniah, Nahum are also active prophets at this time and Habakkuk would be prophesying by no later than 612. Another male prophet is mentioned in the narrative itself, a “Jeduthan” who is called the “king’s seer” (35.15) So why Huldah? One scholar opines, “It is clear that Huldah was a major cult official, and her reputation in her own time probably was greater than Jeremiah” (John Otwell, And Sarah Laughed: The Status of Women in the OT, p. 158). I think in light of Huldah’s place in the narrative of both Kings and Chronicles and the relative silence regarding Jeremiah and other prophets that Otwell is correct in his opinion.
After the longest “introduction” given to a prophet in Chronicles (Hicks, p. 296) we hear the word of God flow from the lips of a female prophet. (READ 34.23-28).
Huldah “authorizes” the Book. She places her stamp of approval on the content as truly from the Lord. For the first time in history (that is recorded) we read of a writing being declared to be scripture . . . And a woman did it! As another has written,
“The authority to pass judgment on this initial entry into the canon was given to a woman. At the beginning of the Bible we find Huldah; in her we discover the first scripture authority. . . How could we have lost sight of her all these years” (Swidler, p. 1783)
Huldah’s authority is unquestioned by the king or his men. I have to conclude that she likewise had the authority to declare the “book” to be a fraud. If she would have declared it to be a hoax, I do believe that Josiah would have followed her lead in the matter. But her authority is what gave the book credibility and power. But she did more than authenticate the book.
Josiah had placed the burden of the guilt of Judah in the past (v.21, “because of our fathers”), Huldah places the burden in the present (v.25, ‘they have forsaken me”). Please note that Huldah did not only place her stamp of approval on the book brought by the High Priest and his entourage. She became its interpreter. She set its announcement of doom in Judah’s contemporary condition. In fact I believe there are three implicit claims made by Huldah . . . And endorsed by the inspired authors of Kings and Chronicles. These claims are in “authorization movements”:
1) Huldah began as an authoritative person, one who made a claim, recognized by the king, the high priest and the secretary of state as a legitimate claim, to speak for the Lord God of Israel.
2) Regarding the text she claimed the authority to declare it worthy of obedience and representative of the will of God in the present day (of Judah)
3) She judged the validity of the text vis-à-vis history by interpreting it in light of the present condition.
These are no small claims but these are in fact what the Chronicler describes Josiah and the People of God giving her . . . And he does himself.
By way of just passing notice does not Esther do the same in Esther 9.29, 32?
Huldah the Female Prophet of God did the following things: she declared this book to be scripture, she interpreted it and applied it for and to both men and the nation of Israel as a whole.
Huldah in Light of Chronicles’ Theology
The second half of Huldah’s oracle gives a positive word to Josiah. Because he repented and “humbled” himself before Yahweh he would not see these evil days. The term humble oneself is a key theme (and functions with the “seek” theme) in the larger framework of the book. It appears in a number of significant passages which are not found in the parallel accounts in Kings.
A key to the Chronicler’s use of the term “humble oneself” is 2 C 7.14. After Solomon prays at the temple dedication, the Lord promises that the peoples prayers will be heard if they “humble themselves”. In the Chronicler’s account, Rehoboam is spared when he “humbles himself” (2 C 20). Hezekiah humbles himself before the Lord in 2 C 32.36. Manasseh is spared and restored to the throne in 2 C 33.12 and 19 because he “humbled himself” before Yahweh. Josiah is spared destruction in his day because he humbled himself before God. This is the only one of these passages which is paralleled in Kings. What is important for our purposes is that the Hebrew root is used only once in 2 Kgs 22.19 but the Chronicler uses it twice in 2 C 34.27 in order to emphasize it.
The last occurrence of the term “humble oneself” in the book of Chronicles is also significant and forms a climax to the mercy theme God grants to those who are humble before him. This is found in 2 C 36.12 in the introduction to Zedekiah. He did “evil” in the sight of God and the Chronicler adds “he did not humble himself” before the word of the Lord.
This theme expressed by the word “humble oneself” ( ) runs through out the Chroniclers account of the kingdom from Solomon’s prayer to the fall of Jerusalem when Zedekiah refuses to humble himself. The use of “humble himself” twice in the prophecy of Huldah makes her articulate one of the most important concerns of the Chronicler himself. Far from being a peripheral character she expresses the heart of the theology of Chronicles.
This theological analysis lends support to our previous structural analysis suggesting that Huldah is not a “who” but a very important person in the history of redemption.
What is Huldah’s legacy? Does she have one? Yes and No! If her legacy was great in the modern church I would not have titled my presentation “Huldah Who? The Forgotten Story of a Female Prophet.”
But it has not always been so. She has been an inspiration to both men and women of God through the centuries beginning with our Spirit guided biblical historians. They did not want her forgotten . . . Historians are selective in what they can place in a work and they made sure she was included. That says a lot, I believe. If we had only Kgs we would never even know Jeremiah or Amos existed . . . But we would know of Huldah! She was so significant in Jewish history (she is responsible for the Josiah Reformation!) that her name was splashed on the Temple itself as Herod’s Temple had the prominent Huldah Gate!
The early church recognized her greatness (along with other women of God) in the prayer for the ordination of a deaconess in the Apostolic Constitutions (Fourth Century A.D.):
“O eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of Woman, who filled Miriam, Anna, Deborah and Huldah with the Spirit . . . Look upon your servant who is chosen for the ministry and grant her your Holy Spirit.”
Women from our own history like Abigail Roberts, Nancy Towle, Rebecca Miller, Sadie McCoy Crank, and Selina Holman have felt the call to ministry or teach . . . And all appealed to Huldah. Miller for example appealed to Huldah as an example of women serving the Lord in ministry:
“That Huldah, being an approved prophetess of the Lord, was consulted by Josiah, the penitent king of Judah, to whom she sent so thrilling a message from the Lord that it cause all Judah and Jerusalem to tremble and turn to the Lord” (quoted in Brekus, Strangers & Pilgrims, p. 218)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton defended her work on behalf of women’s right to vote by appealing to Huldah. In her mind Huldah was one of the greatest of all God‘s servants:
“The greatest character among the women thus far mentioned (in the OT) is Huldah the prophetess, residing in the college in Jerusalem . . . Her wisdom and insight were well known to Josiah the king; and when the wise men came to him with the ‘Book of the Law,’ to learn what was written therein, Josiah ordered them to take it to Huldah, as neither the wise men nor Josiah himself could interpret its contents . . . We should not have had such a struggle in our day to open the college doors (to women) had the clergy read of the dignity accorded to Huldah. People who talk the most of what the Bible teaches often know the least about its contents.” (quoted in Phipps, p. 15).
Huldah is an incredible woman of God. She was called by God to be a prophet. She had a great reputation in ancient Israel. She did in fact exercise authority by the very nature of her ministry. She is the first person to declare a text scripture but she also interpreted and applied it to her day. She stands at the very heart of the Josiah narrative and in fact his reform movement was the result of her prophetic work. But the Chronicler also uses her to articulate one the central motifs of his entire work . . . The theme of mercy given to those who humbly seek the Lord. It says more about ourselves than it does God’s opinion when we filter Huldah out of our consciousness!
One of our own, the incredibly conservative debater C. R. Nichol, wrestled with Huldah in a book written in 1938 called God’s Woman. This is an amazing book. As we close our time together I would like to share some of his conclusions from studying Huldah:
“Sex relationship was the same in the days of Huldah that was in the days of the apostles. Huldah was inspired by the Holy Spirit to teach a group of men, and she did teach them without violating the law of Jehovah. Though we do not have inspired men and women today, it does not follow that a group of men may not be taught by a man, or a woman. (God’s Woman, p. 30).
I do not have all the answers to the tough questions regarding women, or even, men in God’s church. But I do know this that we need to deal with all of God’s word and we need to deal with it honestly. We need to let Huldah challenge our notions. It is simply not the case that a woman has never exercised authority over men with God’s approval. Huldah did that . . . And much more. Must Huldah remain “Huldah Who?” Can we not be like Josiah and Hilkiah, and learn from her?
Hesed & Shalom,