Were Women Prophets with All the Rights and Authority Therein?

The duck test – “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck” – suggests that something can be identified by its habitual characteristics. I would apply this age-old principle to the biblical text and say, “If she’s called a prophet, talks like a prophet, and acts like a prophet, then she’s probably a prophet.”

women in ministry


The Demotion of the Old Testament Female Prophets

Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4). 


Thomas Schreiner agrees that women functioned as prophets, both in the Old and New Testaments. [132] However, he makes two arguments minimizing the role of women prophets. [133]


The first is that although women were allowed to prophesy they were restricted to doing so only in a way the upheld male headship (he argues this is true both in the Old and New Testaments). He points to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as a proof text. [134]


I will address this text thoroughly when I review the ministry of Paul. For now, I would just point out that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 addresses how women wear their hair while prophesying, but in no way diminishes the authority or efficacy of the prophetic work of women in the church.


Schreiner concludes, “Paul affirms that women can prophesy, but even in the process of prophesying they are to do so in a manner and with a demeanor that will not violate male headship.” [135]


I would suggest that Paul instructed the women to prophesy in a way that would not violate male sensibilities and cultural traditions. Nowhere did Paul indicate, for example, that the men had to approve the words of the female prophets, nor did he mandate that the women needed permission to speak.


These facts, in and of themselves, are astounding in the face of the first century Mediterranean cultural attitudes towards women. Paul was addressing order and peace in the worship assembly, and therefore, only spoke against the unnecessary abrogation of the cultural milieu of Corinth.


Schreiner attempts to show this same principle in effect in the Old Testament by arguing that the work of the three most famous Old Testament female prophets, Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah, was also subordinated to male leadership.


His claim is that Deborah and Huldah did not prophecy publicly, but only privately in deference to the male leadership of their day. Miriam, he contends, prophesied only to women. [136]


Miriam, the Singing Prophet

Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing” (Exodus 15:20).


Miriam, Moses’ sister, was called a prophet. After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, Miriam, tambourine in hand, followed by the women, sang what seems to be a reprise of the longer song sung by Moses (Exodus 20:1-18).


The song of Moses was sung by all the Israelites, men and women (Exodus 20:1). Everyone was participating and in the audience. Miriam’s song was sung by Miriam and the women (who followed her with tambourine and dancing).


However, the scene had not changed. All of Israel was still present. The congregation had not moved from the banks of the Red Sea (which they would do in the next scene, Exodus 20:22). If Moses sang his song publicly to all the Israelites, then Miriam had the same audience.


There is no indication, as Schreiner implies, that her words were directed only to the women. The narrative only indicates that women joined Miriam in announcing, to the entire congregation of Israel, the mighty works of God.


In addition, Miriam was addressed by the formal title of prophet. Just because this was the only scene that depicted Miriam’s prophetic activity, does not mean it was the only time she prophesied.


In fact, since she was identified as “Miriam the prophet” to distinguish her from other Miriams, it was a title she must have been known by (not only in her generation but in the subsequent generations that would perpetuate the story), she most likely prophesied before and after this recorded instance. Most people do not become known for something they only do once.


In conclusion, Miriam was a prophet in her own right, her prophet work was public and known (even by subsequent generations), and there is no explicit indication of her subordination to a man. There is little doubt that Miriam was subordinate to Moses, but so were Aaron, Joshua, and every other man in Israel at that time.


Deborah, the Moses of the Judges

She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided” (Judges 4:5). 


Deborah was a prophet and a judge, and unlike other judges, was the undisputed leader of Israel (Judges 4:4). Her actions were similar to those of Moses in several places.


Schreiner contends that Deborah was a special case because (a) she was the only judge who was not a military leader, (b) she only prophesied privately, and (c) there is no explicit reference to her having been “raise up by the Lord,” as with most of the other judges. [137]


Schreiner focuses on what Deborah didn’t do, compared to the other judges. The judges were each very unique. If we applied that same approach to each of the judges we would have a long list of differences.


First, Schreiner characterizes Deborah as different from the male judges in that she was not a military commander. There is no doubt that Deborah worked in tandem with Barak, her military captain. However, the narrative is clear that Deborah was Barak’s leader (Judges 4:6, 14), and her leadership was a matter of public knowledge.


Deborah, in fact, seemed to act more as a combination military general and prophet, creating strategy, giving orders to her military commander, Barak, and making prophetic announcements.


Moses, David, and Elijah all acted in the same way at one time or another. Moses is never recorded as directly leading armies into battle, yet his leadership and authority are never questioned.


Deborah’s leadership over Barak is clear, and her orders being carried out by someone else no more diminishes her authority or leadership than it did for David, Moses, or Solomon when they did the same.


In fact, Barak’s concern that Israel cannot win the battle without Deborah’s presence is similar to Joshua’s plea for Moses to remain close to the battle lest the Israelites falter. The Israelites would win the battle only if Moses could keep his hands in the air (Exodus 17:12-13). Barak knew he could conquer the enemy only if Deborah was present.


On another note, Deborah is shown to be a capable prophet when she predicted that the enemy would be handed over to a woman, and in short order, her prophecy was fulfilled (Judges 4:9, 21).


Scheiner further argues that Deborah’s leadership was different from the men’s because there is no explicit reference to her being “raised up” by the Lord. However, the Scripture is clear that the phrase “raised up by the Lord” applied to all the judges.


The narrator reported that whenever there was a crisis the Lord would “raise up” a judge who would deliver the people from the crisis (Judges 2:16, 18). Deborah certainly fits this description.


Schreiner also fails to note that several of the other judges are not explicitly introduced with the phrase “raised up by the Lord.” Shamgar, Abimelech (who seems to have been self-appointed), Jair, Jephthah, and Samson, to name a few, are not characterized directly as having been “raised up by the Lord.”


The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the absence of that particular appellation does not in any way indicate a differentiated leader. It is simply used with some, implied with others, and not used at all with still others.


It could also be argued that Judges 5:7 used the same terminology (raised up) to imply that Deborah did “arise” as a Judge commissioned by God.


Schreiner also bases his case on the claim that Deborah did not prophecy in public, but rather “her prophetic role seemed to be limited to private and individual instruction.” [138] He uses Judges 4:5 as a proof text.


Yet, it was obviously public knowledge that Deborah was ruling from her position in Ephraim. How else would all “the sons of Israel” know to go there in order for her to pronounce her rulings (Judges 4:5)?


It is erroneous to characterize the palm tree under which Deborah sat, as a private consultation, when (a) everyone in Israel knew about it; and (b) it was outdoors in plain view!


Clearly, the men of Israel saw Deborah as their leader and judge. That’s why they traveled from afar to see her. How can that possibly be seen as a private endeavor?


In fact, the portrait of Deborah judging under the palm tree as all of “the sons of Israel” came to her is akin to that of Moses. Moses also ruled (the same word – judge – is used of Moses and Deborah) as all the people of Israel came to him so that he could hear their cases (Exodus 18:13-16).


On a final note, Deborah called for Barak (not the other way around), and he reported to her in obedience (Judges 4:6). This alone is an astonishing break of the patriarchal code on male leadership.


Deborah was operating like Moses, the greatest and most authoritative prophet in Hebrew history.


Schreiner admits that the leadership of Deborah poses the most difficulty for the case of the hierarchists. [139] In the end, his argument that “she exercised her prophetic ministry in a way that did not obstruct male headship,” [140] seems like wishful thinking and is not supported by the most natural reading of the narrative.


Although she had no desire to emasculate her male subordinates, she was clearly their leader, and everyone knew it.


Huldah, the Quiet, Scholarly Prophet


Schreiner also mentions Huldah as a test case for the female prophet’s subordination to male leadership.


During the reign of King Josiah, a scroll was found while refurbishing Solomon’s Temple. Hilkiah the High Priest found the scroll and gave it to Shaphan the royal scribe, who reported it to the king.


King Josiah was disturbed by the scroll and appointed a group of five men from his court (Hilkiah, Shaphan, his son, Ahikam, Achbor, and Asaiah) to inquire from the Lord about a proper course of action. They took the scroll directly to Huldah, the prophet.


Huldah spoke a prophetic word concerning the scroll. The five messengers returned to the King to report Huldah’s pronouncement. The King sprang into action in order to inform the nation of their discovery (2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34:14-30).


In contrast to Schreiner’s claims, there is every reason to believe that Huldah was a prophet extraordinaire, who prophesied in the tradition of all the great male prophets.


A committee of five men that included three of the most important religious leaders in Israel was not exactly a private consultation. There is no indication that their visit to Huldah was top secret.


Again, the strength of Schreiner’s case is built on an argument from silence. Because, in this one case, Huldah did not prophecy in an overtly public setting, Schreiner concludes that she never prophesied in a public setting. The narrative doesn’t say that. In fact, it implies the opposite.


Huldah was obviously a well-known prophet in the city of Jerusalem. Why else would these influential men have gone to her? John Priest, using literary comparisons, makes a convincing case for Huldah’s connection to the temple as a cult prophetess. [141]


In any case, whatever Huldah’s relationship to the temple, there is no indication that the officials went to male prophets first, and only to Huldah as a last resort. There is no indication that they had any misgivings about going to her as a woman. And there is no indication that they doubted her prophetic utterance as being less authoritative than that of any other prophet.


In fact, they acted on her words rather quickly and without reservation.


In addition, a careful analysis of Huldah’s oracle shows that she spoke in very similar terms to male prophets.


She used the classic “messenger formula” used by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, to name only a few. [142] This form of authoritative speech places her in the same league as the greatest prophets, including Moses.


Based on her rhetorical form, and the positive reaction of her male counterparts, there is absolutely no reason to marginalize Huldah’s work as anything less than truly prophetic.


The fact that her story was included in the biblical narrative twice also implies that her ministry, in general, was very well known and therefore, public (2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34:14-30).


Again, Schreiner’s analysis seems to be based primarily on the incredulity of a female filling the exact same role as a male prophet. His hermeneutical North Star of 1 Timothy 2:11 demands that he uncover something in the text to diminish the authority that was obviously present.


If she quacks like a prophet, then she’s probably a prophet … with all the rights, privileges, and authority, therein.








132. Piper, RBMW, Schreiner Article entitled: “The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership: A Survey of Old and New Testament Examples and Teaching,” p.209.

133. Modern-day hierarchists are not the first to seek to diminish the role of female prophets in the Old Testaments. Tal Ilan, professor for Jewish Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, writes, “It should come as no surprise though that a later evaluation of Deborah’s story does much to diminish her role. The rabbis, for example, take issue with her name – bee. They view it as a reflection of her negative character traits. They couple Deborah with the other prophetess – Huldah, whose name refers to an even more repulsive animal – a weasel. They say: “There were two arrogant women whose names were hateful. One was named ‘wasp’ (in Aramaic זיבורתא) and the other ‘rat’ (in Aramaic כרכושתא). Of the wasp it is written: ‘She sent and summoned Barak’ (Judges 4:6) rather than go to him. Of the rat it is written: ‘Tell the man’ (2 Kings 22:15) rather than ‘tell the king’ ” (bMegillah 14b). Probably because in their time, a woman in such a position was unthinkable, even more than the biblical authors, the rabbis were disturbed by women attaining such power and they attributed them disagreeable personal traits because they didn’t like their success.”  Tal Ilan, “Huldah, the Deuteronomic Prophetess of the Book of Kings,” lectio difficilior, 2010, p.6.

134. Piper, RBMW, p.217.

135. Ibid., p.211.

136. Ibid., p.211.

137. Ibid., p.215.

138. Ibid., p.216.

139. Ibid., p.215.

140. Ibid, p.216.

141. John Priest, “Huldah’s Oracle,” Vetus Testamentum 30 (1980) 366-8

142. Huldah used the messenger formula of “thus sayeth the Lord,” which is found in the oracles of most of the great prophets. See Exodus 5:1; Jeremiah 2:5; Isaiah 7:7; Amos 1:3, Haggai 1:5; Malachi 1:4, just to name a few.






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