This week, I’ve been reading up about Huldah the prophetess. I’ve looked at various books, commentaries and articles. I also looked at what the authors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW) have to say about this woman whose prophetic counsel was sought out by some of the top men in Judah. Here’s what John Piper and Wayne Grudem write in RBMW: “Huldah evidently exercised her prophetic gift not in a public preaching ministry but by means of private consultation.”[1] Is “private consultation” a fair and reasonable way of describing Huldah’s ministry? What does the Bible say about her?

Huldah and the Scroll of the Law

We read about Huldah in 2 Kings 22:8-20 and, again, in 2 Chronicles 34:1-28 where the same story is repeated.[2] In these narratives, Josiah, the king of Judah, has just been told that the book (i.e. scroll) of the law has been rediscovered after having been forgotten and neglected for many years.[3]

Shaphan, Josiah’s secretary, then reads the book to him.

Josiah, being a godly king, is deeply concerned with what he hears, and is stricken with remorse because he realises his nation has not followed God’s ordinances. So he commissions a delegation with the charge: “Go and ask the Lord on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah concerning the contents of this scroll that has been found” (2 Kings 22:13a CEB).

This is not a minor task. The king is asking for the LORD’s guidance for the sake of his nation. Reflecting the importance of the mission, Josiah sends some of his most important and trusted men.

Linda Belleville observes:

The size and prestige of the embassy that sought her counsel indicates something about not only the seriousness of the situation but also Huldah’s professional stature: the High Priest (Hilkiah), the father of the future governor (Ahikam), the son of a prophet (Achbor), the secretary of state (Shaphan) and the king’s officer (Asaiah).[4]

Five men are named in all.[5] They may have also been accompanied by unnamed attendants.

Jeremiah and Zephaniah were prophets at that time. (Jeremiah may have been in Jerusalem or nearby Anathoth.) But the narrative indicates that the delegation go straight to Huldah, who lives in Jerusalem near the temple (2 Kings 22:14).[6]

Christa McKirland suggests:

The fact that they immediately sought Huldah would seem to indicate one of two possibilities: either Josiah’s default prophet was Huldah, and the dignitaries already knew this; or Huldah was not the king’s default prophet, but she was the obvious choice for the five dignitaries, for whatever reason.[7]

The men then speak on behalf of the king and the nation. And Huldah speaks on behalf of the LORD. Walter Kaiser writes that “Huldah held nothing back as she declared thrice over, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says’ (2 Chron. 34:23, 24, 26). Her exposition of a half dozen or more texts from Deuteronomy 29:20, 23, 25, 26, 28, 29 thundered against Judah and her King Josiah!”[8]

The men return and deliver her message to the king, which he accepts.[9]

The scroll of the law is central to the biblical record of Huldah’s story, as Claudia Camp observes:

Huldah’s story is notable in the biblical tradition in that her prophetic words of judgement are centered on a written document: she authorizes what will become the core of Scripture for Judaism and Christianity. Her validation of the text thus stands as the first recognizable act in the long process of canon formation. Huldah authenticates a document as being God’s word, thereby affording it the sanctity required for a text as authoritative, or canonical.[10]

The effects of Huldah’s words and her authentication of the scroll were far-reaching. Josiah enacts reforms based on the information in the scroll, and a national, religious revival follows (2 Kings 23:24ff).

Public Versus Private Ministry

Huldah’s ministry raises concerns for some people.

[Huldah] enters the narrative as one seemingly known and trusted by the king, sought with urgency, entreated by his highest officials, and consulted on the most authoritative basis possible. At the same time, her being inquired of is stated as a matter of fact, without any need to explain why she is sought over anyone else. . . this is an unsettling thought for some commentators, requiring their speculation as to why the king preferred—and why God used—a woman instead of a man.[11]

As well as speculation, some commentators have attempted to contain, that is, limit the parameters of, Huldah’s ministry. This includes the suggestion that her ministry was private and not public. Does the account of her ministry, as we have it in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, really amount to a private consultation, as Piper and Grudem have described it?

Huldah was consulted by a group of men who were acting as envoys of the king who was acting on behalf of “all Judah”. And, the story surrounding the consultation, along with a summary of her prophetic words, has been recorded in the Bible. Countless people have read about this consultation. So “private”, with the sense of being hidden from public view, does not seem an appropriate adjective.[12]

Nevertheless, Thomas Schreiner in chapter 11 of RBMW describes the prophetic ministry of Huldah, and surprisingly that of Deborah also, as being private. Schreiner writes:

Both Deborah and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20) exercised their gift of prophecy differently from the men who possessed the gift. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other male prophets exercised a public ministry where they proclaimed the word of the Lord. But note that Deborah did not prophecy in public. Instead, her prophetic role seems to be limited to private and individual instruction. Judges 4:5 says, “And she used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment” (NASB). Note that Deborah did not go out and publicly proclaim the word of the Lord. Instead, individuals came to her in private for a word from the Lord. The difference between Deborah’s prophetic ministry and that of male Old Testament prophets is clear. She did not exercise her ministry in a public forum as they did. . . . A confirming argument for this view is found in the case of Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20). She did not publicly proclaim God’s word. Rather, she explained in private the word of the Lord when Josiah sent messengers to her.[13]

Huldah’s ministry, however, was not dissimilar to the ministry of male prophets. Like male prophets such as Nathan, Huldah acted as an advisor to a king.[14] Like male prophets such as Micah, Huldah delivered warnings of divine judgement and punishment. Only a few male prophets are recorded as speaking to a crowd and, while the Bible does not record that Huldah spoke before a large group of people, we cannot rule out that she never did this.

Huldah was a highly respected prophetess, as demonstrated by the fact that she was sought out by the king’s men, and she would have prophesied on many other occasions that are not recorded in the Bible. One thing is certain, however; unlike what Schreiner states, Huldah did indeed proclaim the word of the LORD, even if her audience, in the one biblical account of her ministry, consisted of five men.

William Weinrich follows a similar tack to Schreiner and, in chapter 15 of RBMW, he states that “there is no evidence that Deborah delivered speeches to the people.” This is true; there is no evidence. Yet Judges chapter 5 is devoted to a song Deborah and Barak sang, presumably publicly. Though not technically a speech, it was prophetic communication (cf. 2 Chron. 25:1-7). If she sang this song publicly, there is no reason to presume Deborah did not also speak publicly at times, even if the Bible does not record these occasions.

Weinrich also mentions Huldah and states that she “did not speak to the people” (italics added). But we simply don’t know if this is the case. She certainly spoke to some people.

But Weinrich goes further and asserts that Anna the prophetess, also, “did not speak publicly.”[15] Since Luke tells us in his Gospel that Anna never left the temple—the temple being a public place—and that she spoke about Jesus “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38 ESV), it is difficult to understand why Weinrich thinks that Anna did not, on occasion, speak publicly.

Huldah, Deborah and Anna had speaking ministries. They heard from God and spoke for God and gave guidance to men. They are plainly identified as prophets in the scriptures.[16] Moreover, there was a recognised and respected place for male and female prophets in Israel; they did not, ordinarily, minister in the shadows. Deborah regularly ministered in a public place (Judg. 4:5) [17], as did Anna (Luke 2:37), and perhaps Huldah also. Huldah may even have been the official prophet of Josiah’s court.

Prophesying in Paul’s Churches

Unlike what the authors of RBMW assert, the Bible does not reveal a marked difference between the ministries of male prophets and female prophets.[18] And, the only reason a distinction between public ministry and private ministry is brought up is because some Christians think women are unsuitable for public ministry in churches. But the New Testament letters say nothing about public or private ministries or ministers. The setting of ministry was simply not significant, nor the size of congregations or audiences.

Furthermore, a public-private distinction does not take into account that New Testament churches typically met in homes, in domestic settings where the line between public and private was blurred. Differentiating between public and private speaking ministries is an unhelpful, artificial exercise that has no relevance to church-life in the apostolic period.

Women were not silent in churches founded by Paul.[19] They prophesied aloud in Corinthian assemblies, for instance (1 Cor. 11:5), where they could also contribute other vocal ministries.[20] Paul did not specify gender, or make a public-private distinction, when he wrote: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1 ESV).

We need to be encouraging people to desire, develop and practise ministries, and not curtail or restrict the ministries of godly, gifted and capable people simply on the basis of gender. We need to dismiss the contrived public-private distinction. There are other Huldahs and Deborahs and Annas whose voices need to be heard.


References

[1] Piper and Grudem’s statement is in response to a hypothetical question, “How do you explain God’s apparent endorsement of women in the Old Testament who had prophetic or leadership roles?” John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “Chapter 2: An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 60–92, 72.
https://document.desiringgod.org/recovering-biblical-manhood-and-womanhood-en.pdf
I’ve also been involved in an online discussion this week where a person has been arguing that women can teach “outside” in private situations but not “inside” church assemblies. Like Piper and Grudem, this person thinks it is somehow wrong for women to speak and lead and teach in church meetings.

[2] In Christian Bibles, 1 & 2 Kings come under the heading of “The Historical Books.” But in the Jewish canon of the Hebrew Bible, Kings (1 & 2), along with Joshua, Judges and Samuel (1 & 2), are categorised as “The Former Prophets.” Christa McKirland says this about the role of prophets in 1 and 2 Kings:

The primary markers of 1 and 2 Kings are ironically not the kings of the two kingdoms that comprise the people of God. Instead, the books focus is on the prophets, who establish the significant historical landmarks as the king and people either adhere to or reject Yahweh’s covenant, when reiterated through the prophet’s warnings and judgments.
Christa L. McKirland, “Chapter 10: Huldah: Malfunction with the Wardrobe-Keeper’s Wife,” in  Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, Sandra Glahn (ed) (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2017), 213–232, 217.

[3] “The consensus view among scholars is that the book was probably an early form of the book of Deuteronomy and that this find played an influential role in the development of the Deuteronomistic movement that continued over a period, with some ups and downs, into the exile.” Louis C. Jonker, 1 & 2 Chronicles (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013) (Online Source)

[4] Linda L. Belleville, “Women Leaders in the Bible,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (eds) (Leicester: InterVaristy Press, 2004), 110–125, 113.

[5] Regarding the pedigree of the people listed in 2 Kings 22:14: “The detailed enumeration of the names and patrilineage of Josiah’s men, along with similar descriptive matter about Huldah in v.14 suggests a picture of social and economic identity among royal, priestly and prophetic families.” Burke O. Long, 2 Kings (The Forms of the Old Testament Literature Vol. 10) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 262.
As is the custom in patriarchal societies, Huldah, as a woman, is identified by her relationship to her husband, a man, and she is identified by his Levitical ancestry (2 Kings 22:14). Nevertheless, “such a formal convention does not detract from her own royally recognized authority to speak in the name of YHWH.” Claudia V. Camp, “Huldah,” in Women in Scripture:  A Dictionary of the named and unnamed women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, Carol Meyer, et al (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 96.

[6] Huldah lived in the “second quarter” of Jerusalem. “This district lay in the angle formed by the western wall of the temple and the ancient wall of the city.” Ronald F. Youngblood (ed), Unlock the Bible: Keys to Discovering the People and Places (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 360. “According to Jewish tradition, this area had been established by Samuel as a place where prophets could be trained. As appealing as this interpretation of her dwelling is, it . . .[goes] beyond the text.” McKirland, “Huldah,” 226. There is no solid evidence for the school.

On the other hand, Sarah Harris, who draws on the research of Pongratz-Leisten, writes,

Female prophetesses were well known in the ANE at this time [Huldah’s time]. They were highly educated and held considerable political power as they informed the king’s actions and policies through their oracles. The king would turn to the prophet and other cultic specialists in all religious, political, and health matters. Pongratz-Leisten describes prophets as the ‘intellectuals of their time’. Jewish tradition records Huldah as having a school for women in Jerusalem where she taught the word of God (Targum II Kgs 22.14), and in light of knowledge we have of prophets at this time in the ANE, this is entirely possible.
Sarah Harris, Letting (H)Anna Speak: An Intertextual Reading of the New Testament Prophetess (Luke 2.36–38), Feminist Theology, 27.1 (2018), 60–74, 66–67.
See B. Pongratz-Leisten “Cassandra’s colleagues: prophetesses in the Neo-Assyrian empire,” Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies 1.1 (2006): 23–29.

[7] McKirland, “Huldah,” 219.

[8] Walter C. Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” in Priscilla Papers 19.2 (2005), 5–11, 7.
https://www.cbeinternational.org/sites/default/files/pp192_2cc_3.pdf

[9] McKirland, “Huldah,” 223

[10] Camp, “Huldah,” 96.

[11] McKirland, “Huldah,” 221. On page 224 of her book chapter, McKirland quotes from Calvin’s Commentary on Ezekiel (vol. 2) where Calvin diminishes the ministries of both Huldah and Deborah with, “God doubtless wished to raise them on high to shame the men, and obliquely to show them their slothfulness.”

[12] Consider the following definitions of “public” in the Oxford Dictionary and the influence of Huldah’s ministry: (1) Of or concerning the people as a whole; (1.1) Open to or shared by all the people of an area or country; (1.2) Of or involved in the affairs of the community, especially in government or entertainment; (2) Done, perceived, or existing in open view; etc. (Online source)

[13] Thomas R. Schreiner, “Chapter 11: The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership: A Survey of Old and New Testament Examples and Teaching,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 209-224, 216.

[14] Many kings “when they inquired of the Lord, did so through trusted prophets. Jehoshaphat consulted Elisha (2 Kings 3:11), and Hezekiah conferred with Isaiah (20:1–11). During the reigns of Jotham and Hezekiah, the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah were the prophets on call (Isa. 1:1; Hos. 1:1; Mic. 1:1).” McKirland, “Huldah,” 214.

[15] William Weinrich, “Chapter 15: Church History: Women in the History of the Church: Learned and Holy, but Not Pastors,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 263–279, 275.

[16] Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14//2 Chronicles 34:22; Luke 2:36.

[17] Deborah’s seat was under a palm tree, known as ”the Palm of Deborah.” This landmark was situated just north of the crossroads of busy trading routes in the centre of Israel (Judg. 4:5).

[18] With Huldah in mind, Claudia Camp observes, “The biblical evidence, however, makes clear that prophecy was a role open to women on an equal basis with men . . . and the narrators of Kings and Chronicles take no notice of Huldah’s gender.” Camp, “Huldah,” 96.

[19] The two Pauline passages where women are told to be silent (1 Cor. 14:34-35) and quiet (1 Tim. 2:11-15) are addressing the bad behaviour of a few women. Paul’s intention was not to silence godly women with valid speaking ministries. More on these verses here and here.

[20] Without respect to gender, Paul wrote, “In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28); “All these manifestations of the Spirit are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person” (1 Cor. 12:11; cf. Acts 2:17-18); “When you meet together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All these things must be done to build up the church” (1 Cor. 14:26).


Related Articles

Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Deborah and the “no available men” argument
Many women leaders in the Bible had this one thing in common
King Lemuel’s Mother: The Other Proverbs 31 Woman

Further Reading

I recommend Christa L. McKirland’s chapter on Huldah in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, edited by Sandra Glahn (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2017) available at Amazon.

Vindicating the Vixens