Female Prophets in the Bible


There are four female prophets mentioned in the biblical tradition: Miriam, Deborah, Hulda, and Noadia.

The Bible describes Miriam as a prophetess and a poet who leads “the community of women” in the desert and raises her voice in song to express thanks on behalf of the public. Deborah is described as a prophetess and a judge who leads the people of Israel and initiates decisive political steps in the period of the Judges. Hulda is described as delivering the word of God to the Temple and palace leadership in Jerusalem, and prophesying the fate of King Yoshiyahu and the people in Judah at the end of the period of the Kings. Noadiah is described as prophesying in the period of the return to Zion along with other prophets.

In biblical tradition, female prophets are depicted as a natural phenomenon. Their spirit of prophesy can inspire both women and men in circumstances that require “divine knowledge,” inspired leadership, far-reaching vision, initiative, educated criticism of prevailing perceptions, responsibility for public affairs, and the ability to express the insight of the public’s experience.

The rabbinic tradition, to which gender equality is alien, approaches the biblical tradition of female prophets from a completely different perspective. According to the sages, women have neither place in leadership, public activism, positions of authority, nor in the world of study and creativity, nor in spiritual, legal, or ritual leadership. This blatantly contradicts biblical tradition.

The sages, who upheld a non-egalitarian ideology in the public realm and distanced the entire female community from the world of authority and knowledge, sought to minimize and diminish the image of the extraordinary women who had been known for generations as prophets, judges, and poets. They accomplished this by means of interpretations that obfuscated the women’s uniqueness, underplayed the significance of their prophecies, and replaced the beauty of their spirits with the beauty of their bodies.

The rabbinic tradition grouped women, known for their beauty and sexuality, with the four female prophets mentioned in the Bible as having public status by virtue of inspiration. The sages added Sarah, Abigail, and Esther to the gallery of female prophets. The common denominator between them, was their beauty. According to the Gemara, “There were four women of great beauty in the world: Sarah, Abigail, Rahab and Esther” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 15a). Not surprisingly, the discussion that follows this quotation is on the subject of prostitution, lewdness and seduction rather than prophecy or inspiration.

The sages about Miriam: Miriam the prophetess was the sister of Aharon. Was she only the sister of Aaron and not the sister of Moses? R. Nahman said in the name of Rab—She was called this because she prophesied when she was the sister of Aharon alone saying: “My mother will give birth to a child who will redeem Israel.” When he was born the whole house was filled with his light. Her father arose and kissed her head and said: “Your prophecy has been fulfilled my daughter.” But when they threw him into the Nile her father tapped (struck) her on the head and said: “Where is your prophecy my daughter?” So it is written, and his sister stood far off to know, what would be the outcome of her prophecy (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, 14a).

In this tradition, the speakers ignore the circumstances under which Miriam prophesies in the Bible (Exodus 28,29), which are related to public status, prophetic and poetic inspiration, and leadership of the female community in the desert (Exodus 15,20-21, Michah 3-5). They alter the story from a highly significant public event to a family occasion—a story subordinated by the story of Moses. The tellers transfer the story of her prophesy to her childhood, returning her to the familial realm and the authority of her father, who praises her for the message and upbraids her for her apparent falsification, striking her on the head in anger.

Likewise, Deborah is described in biblical tradition as a prophetess, judge, and poet active during the period of the Judges. She instigated a war in the name of God, escorted the commander in the battle against the Canaanites, and interpreted the essence of the changes taking place during this war in poetry of rare lyrical force. The sages however, are deprecating: “Deborah, as it is written (Judges 4) and the prophetess Deborah the wife of Lapidoth. Why eshet lapidoth? Because she would make wicks for the Temple. And she sat beneath a palm tree…. because she was avoiding privacy” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, ibid.). Deborah the prophet was a leader of vision, a judge who is the object of pilgrimage, and an independent woman of vast wisdom. In the rabbinic interpretation, however, she becomes a woman who spins wicks to be lit in the Temple and takes to sitting beneath a palm in public lest she be suspected of consorting with those who seek her advice and judgment.

Hulda, the Jerusalem prophetess of noble lineage, who prophesies to the palace and Temple leadership in the second book of Kings, becomes, in rabbinic tradition, the descendent of the prostitute Rahab: “Eight prophets that were priests came forth from Rahab the harlot… R. Yehudah says even Hulda the prophetess was among the descendents of Rahab the harlot” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, 14b). Hulda is not described as a prophet in her own right, but as a relative of the prophet Jeremiah who substitutes for him under duress. According to the sages, the high priest and palace leadership, who turned to Hulda because of her prophetic rank, only did so because they needed Jeremiah the prophet, but he was out of the city, having gone to return the 10 tribes (Megillah, 14b).

The common denominator that the sages added to the prophetesses is that their actions were connected to their physical beauty, the realm of personal modesty, or the visible and desired physicality. This is contrary to the biblical portrayal of the prophetesses, who are active in the public realm by virtue of their wisdom and inspiration—not their beauty.

The generations of Jewish literature, which after the biblical period were written solely by men, contain diverse traditions that redescribe biblical women from different points of view, formulated in the light of new values and changing needs. Attention should, however, be drawn to the fact that what the biblical tradition regards as natural—prophesy, cultural status, public authority, leadership, judgment, intellect, wisdom and far-sightedness—is the domain of both women and men. Conversely, the rabbinic tradition removes women from positions of leadership and authority in the public realm and distances them entirely from the spheres of knowledge, creativity, and law.

The causes of the change in attitude toward the public and cultural status of Jewish women, which occurred during the transition from the ancient period to the Mishnaic-Talmudic period, are not clear. They may be related to patterns consolidated after the destruction of the Temple in times of distress and struggle for the continued physical existence of the nation, which necessitated recruiting women only for reproductive purposes. It should be remembered, however, that the claim for the male world’s exclusive intellectual authority is nothing more than one the various positions offered by the generations of Jewish culture.

* Citations from the Bible are loosely based on the translation issued by the Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1958. Citations from Tractate Megillah are loosely based on the Soncino English translation.

This essay is reprinted with permission from Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought (Center for Cultural Judaism, 2003), and with permission from the author.