Women in Christianity: Prophetesses in the OT

In bona fide has produced a mini educational video series Women in Christianity under the project financed by Global Fund for Women.

Prophetesses in the OT
Author of text: Ela Magda Džafić
Editor in chief: Lana Bobić
Production: Natko Stipaničev

What is the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word ‘prophet’? Maybe we picture a man with long tangled hair and beard, in worn out clothes, walking around yelling about future events. Maybe we picture a well-dressed, rich man, addressing a large crowd about how life could be if they do what he says. Maybe we picture a priest announcing the end of the world from the pulpit. Whatever our idea, most of us will probably picture a person that is talking about future events. But, who is a prophet, in the biblical context? 

The Hebrew language uses the word ‘nabi’ for a prophet. Nabi comes from the Hebrew verb ‘naba’, which means to declare or announce, and which is inevitably followed by public appearance and speech. In the Old Testament, prophets were people called by God to speak in his name. The phrase that often identifies prophets is “so says the Lord”. 

A prophesy, in that context, wasn’t just an announcement of future events. The act of prophesying encompassed many different activities, i.e. intercessory prayer, dance, playing instruments, singing, interpreting the Law, anointing kings, conflict resolution, miracle working, encouraging the army, leading battles, having visions, talking to the Lord. 

The text and context of the Old Testament lead us to believe that there were many prophets, and that those we know of were only a small portion of the prophets of that time. But, were there women among them?

To answer that question, it is important to have something in mind: first, the biblical history, given the culture of the time, was written in a patriarchal context, from a male perspective. Therefore, it is quite possible that the activity of women was often overlooked by biblical writers. Second, if there is only one man in a group of people, the Hebrew grammar will make the plural noun masculine. In that way, if there is a group of women prophets, and only one man among them, they will be referred to as male prophets.   

In spite of that, some women have left such an impact in the biblical history that it was impossible to omit them. Through those women we see that this role was not intended only for men. 

The book of Exodus is a record of one of the key moments in the history of Israel. It chronicles the exodus from slavery in Egypt, led by Moses. In chapter 15, Miriam is mentioned for the first time with the title prophetess, as she leads God’s people in worship following the parting of the Red sea.  

Shortly before that, in chapter 2, when the Pharaoh’s daughter finds baby Moses, the tradition identifies Miriam as Moses’ sister who suggested to the Pharaoh’s daughter to give the baby to a Hebrew to be nursed, and then returns Moses to his mother.

Even though she isn’t mentioned often, it is clear that she was recognized by Israel as a prophetess; as one who speaks with God and leads his people in worship. 

The book of Judges describes a period in Israel’s history, when they resided in Canaan after Joshua’s death, before Israel had appointed a king. Judges were people God appointed as leaders every time Israel would pray for deliverance. They were political, military, moral leaders, leading God’s people. 

Deborah appears at the very beginning of the book, in chapter 4. She is identified as a judge and prophetess, to whom Israelites would come so she would judge their disputes. She was also crucial in the victory and deliverance of God’s people in the battle against the Canaanite king. Not only did she give God’s message to Barack, the military general, but she followed him into battle, because he didn’t want to go without her. 

The prophetess Hulda is mentioned in the second book of Kings, in the time of King Josiah, who is described as one who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord”. After a priest finds the Book of the Law during the restoration of the Temple, he tells the King about what he has read. The King, shocked by Israel’s unfaithfulness to God’s law, tears his clothes and sends messengers to the prophetess Hulda, to ask what they need to do. 

Hulda shares God’s message, saying that because of King Josiah’s humble hearth, God will hear his prayer and not allow disaster to come to the people while the King lives. 

The book of Nehemiah is an Old Testament book, where Nehemiah, the cupbearer of King Artaxerxes, learns about Jerusalem’s ruins and leaves to rebuild them. Throughout the whole book we follow Nehemiah’s endeavors to mobilize the people to finish the rebuilding of the walls, as well as his struggle with many internal and external enemies. 

In chapter 6, after some intense enemy attacks, Nehemiah shortly prays and asks God to judge prophetess Noadiah and other prophets according to their deeds. Noadiah isn’t a key figure here, or a positive one, but the mention of her is an important sign of the presence and influence prophetesses had on Israel. 

Besides these, who were mentioned by name, there are several mentions of ‘prophetess’. None of these mentions hint at the fact that prophetesses were something unusual. On the contrary, it seems like it goes without saying that women would be in those positions. 

So, the answer to our question is – yes, the role of prophets was given to women as well. Through the history of his people, God called both women and men, giving them opportunities to serve him, to be his voice to the people, and to guide them to the fulfillment of God’s plan for the renewal of the world.