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Prophet and Prophecy

Dictionary and encyclopedia entries on "prophet and prophecy" focus on the phenomenon

as presented in the HB. Attention is given to the meaning of various terms, similar phenomena in

Western Asia, the topics of prophetic call, message, and conflict, and relation to other Israelite

traditions and institutions. Distinctions between Former Prophets and Latter Prophets,

preclassical and classical prophecy, or pre- and post-exilic prophecy may be emphasized.

Prophecy in the NT may also be described. Despite commonalities, there is no agreed upon

definition of either prophet or the phenomenon of prophecy. Most entries ignore the existence of

female prophets. A few identify the women identified as prophet in both Testaments. The

question of whether prophecy is a gendered phenomenon is not considered so women's prophecy

is often discounted when it does not conform to the writer's definition of prophet.

The initial task for a feminist understanding of prophet and prophecy is to recover the

texts about female prophets. The English word "prophet" is derived from the Greek word

(prophetes profhthj), which translates the Hebrew word (nabª< )ybinF). The feminine form

(nébª<ah h)fybin:) identifies five women as a prophet: Miriam (Exod 15:20); Deborah (Judg 4:4);

Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14=2 Chron 34:22); (presumably) the wife of Isaiah (Isa 8:3); and Noadiah

(Neh 6:14). In addition, there are unnamed women who engage in prophetic activity, identified

by forms of the verb "to prophesy" (n-b-< )-b-n). These are "the daughters of [the] people" who

prophesy (Ezek 13:17-23) and the daughters who will prophesy in days to come (Joel 2:28-29

[3:1-2]). In the NT, the appellation "prophet" is attached to Anna (Luke 2:36) and an unknown

"Jezebel" (Rev 2:20). In addition, women who receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-20), the
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daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9), and women in Corinth (1 Cor 11:5; 14:1-5) were engaged in

prophetic activity.

If the definition of prophecy is partly determined by what prophets do, then we should

examine these women's activities. Miriam is designated as prophet as she leads the women in a

victory song of God's triumph over Pharaoh at the Reed Sea (Exod 15:20-21). Miriam, with

Aaron, also disputes Moses' exclusive prophetic role (Num 12:1-2). Deborah announces the

outcome of an impending battle (Judg 4:6-7, 9), a standard prophetic role (e.g., 1 Kgs 20:13-14,

22-28, 35-42; 22:1-6). Deborah, like Miriam, sings a victory song (Judg 5). Huldah's oracular

speech (2 Kgs 22:15-20) is most like the standard definition of prophetic activity. It includes the

messenger formula, "Thus says YHWH," judgment against Jerusalem, and a word of salvation to

King Josiah. In authenticating the scroll found in the temple and its message (2 Kgs 22:8-13),

Huldah provides the prophetic authority for Josiah's reforms (2 Kgs 23:1-25). Why she is chosen

over her contemporary, Jeremiah, remains a gap. The unnamed female prophet who conceives

and bears a son to Isaiah engages in a sign-act. The child's name and age symbolically and

visually represent Isaiah's message (Isa 8:3-4; also Isa 7:3-4, 13-16). The activities of the

prophesying women condemned by Ezekiel (Ezek 13:17-23) resemble those associated with

Mesopotamian witchcraft rituals and may be classified as divination techniques associated with

pregnancy and childbirth (see Bowen 1999). Joel anticipates a day when prophecy will be

available to all Israel, female and male, and not just a few individuals (cp. Num 11:29). All that

is known of Noadiah is that she is one of many prophets who oppose Nehemiah (Neh 9:6).

Anna is an elderly widow who fasts and prays in the temple. Her words are not recorded,

but apparently she speaks of Jesus as Israel's redemption (Luke 2:36-38). The NT sees the

outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy. Both the large number of "all
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believers" and the identification of specific women indicate women were among those receiving

the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14-15). Nothing is known of the activities of Philip's daughters except

that they had "the gift of prophecy." Wire argues that the Corinthian women viewed their

prophecy as inspired divine speech, perhaps in oracular form (1995, 145-46). Paul considers the

purpose of prophetic speech to be for the upbuidling, encouragment, and consolation of the

community (1 Cor 14:3). Whether "Jezebel" is actually a person's name or a taunt, this Thyatiran

woman self-identifies as a prophet. The actual content of her prophecy is unknown.

Because the Bible only gives a limited and skewed picture of female prophets, these may

or may not be representative of women's prophetic activity. Assuming they are representative

makes it possible to expand the picture of women engaged in prophetic activity. The singing of

victory songs, often accompanied by a hand drum, appears to be a ritualized role for women,

exemplified by Miriam and Deborah. Women's prophetic activity is therefore indicated by the

appearance of handdrums and/or victory songs (e.g., Judg 5:1-31; 11:34; 1 Sam 2:1-10; 18:6; 2

Sam 6:5; Isa 24:8; Jer 31:4; Luke 1:46-55). Miriam and Noadiah are depicted as challenging the

current leadership, as did male prophets. Other women who challenge leaders might be identified

as prophetic speakers, including Abigail (1 Sam 25:24-31), the wise women of Tekoa (2 Sam

14:4-20) and Abel of Beth-Maacah (2 Sam 20:16-22—a town known for its prophetic activity, v.

18), and the Syro-Phoenecian woman (Mark 7:28). The sign-act of the unnamed prophet (Isa 8:3)

evokes Gomer (Hos 1:2-9), perhaps a prophet in her own right. Rizpah's tending of the exposed

bodies of her and Merab's sons (2 Sam 21:10) and the dismembered body of the Levite's

concubine (Judg 19:29-30) are also powerful prophetic sign-acts. In the NT prophetic activity is

associated with the Holy Spirit, which would make Elizabeth's "loud cry" prophetic speech
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(Luke 1:41-45). The Montanist movement indicates that Corinthian women and "Jezebel" were

not the only women prophets among Hellenistic house churches.

One of the traditional roles of the prophet was as health care specialist (see Avalos 1999).

Since religion and health care were intertwined in antiquity, prognosis and therapeutic rituals

were aspects of prophetic activity (e.g., 1 Kgs 17:17-24; 2 Kgs 4:18-37; 5:81-4; 8:7-10; Isa 38:1-

8). It is likely that women functioned as prophet healers especially in regard to fertility,

pregnancy, and childbirth. Midwives would have been the most common health care consultants

for women, thus they should be viewed as prophet healers (Gen 35:17; 38:28; Exod 1:15-21).

Rebekah engages in prophetic inquiry regarding her difficult pregancy (Gen 25:22-23). She may

have inquired of a midwife. Unrelated to women's health, Tamar's preparation of cakes for an

allegedly ailing Amnon, may reflect this medico-religious role (2 Sam 13:5-9). Although the NT

is replete with stories about the healing of women and women healers were known in the

Graeco-Roman world (see Wainwright 2006, 33-63), there are no explicit representatives of

women prophet healers in the NT. Using postcolonial and ecofeminist hermeneutics Wainright

argues for recognizing the actions of the woman who anoints Jesus (Mark 14:3-9) as those of a

healer. The healing capacities of myhrr are used to heal Jesus' dis-ease of spirit, thereby

strengthening his body for his death and burial (ibid., 131-37). Wainright further argues that we

should interpret women possessed of "evil spirits" and "demons" (Luke 8:1-3) as a form of

witchcraft accusation, not unlike the accusations Ezekiel made against female prophet healers or

that the crowds made against Jesus in a healing situation (Luke 11:14-23). Wainright suggests

their being "cured" means they are freed from the accusation of demonization so their healing

arts can be incorporated into Jesus' healing ministry (ibid., 164-71).


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Beyond those labeled "prophet," the terms "man of God," "seer" (ro<eh h)ero m.sing.ptc.)

and "visionary" (˙ozeh hzExo m.sing.ptc.; also often translated as "seer") are viewed as prophetic

activity. The terms at times overlap (1 Sam 9:9; 2 Sam 24:11; 2 Kgs 5:8; 17:13; Is 29:10; 30:10;

1 Chron 29:29; 2 Chron 9:29; 12:15; 29:25). The wide range of activites these persons engaged

in demonstrate the complexity of the phenonmenon "prophecy." Cross cultural studies of various

activities and practioners known from Western Asian texts further complicate definition. It has

become conventional to describe these varied practioners as "intermediaries" between the divine

and human realms. Scholars debate whether these other forms of intermediation are legitimately

included in the category of "prophet." From a feminist perspective, the broader category of

intermediation makes it possible to continue to expand the picture of women engaged in

prophetic activity.

There are no grammatically female equivalents "woman of God," "seer" (f. sing. ptc.), or

"visionary" (f. sing. ptc.). Judgment against the female prophets includes that "they shall no

longer see visions" (Ezek 13:23), suggesting they had visions. Hagar may be identified as a

"seer" since she has seen God and lived (Gen 16:13-14). A number of activities, generally

understood as types of divination, are viewed as illegitimate forms of intermediation: magicians

(Exod 7:11, 22; Isa 3:3; Dan 2:27), dream divination (Deut 13:1-5 [2-6]), divination practioner,

soothsayer, augur, sorcerer, spell caster, consulter of ghosts, seeker of oracles from the dead

(Deut 18:10-12). There are some equivalent Hebrew female forms. The female prophets are

banned from practicing divination (Ezek 13:23), again suggesting they were currently doing so.

In the Covenant Code, women sorcerers should be put to death (Exod 22:18). The woman of

Endor whom Saul consults is described as a "ghost mistress" or necromancer (medium). Gafney

argues for potential prophetic activity on the part of the women sanctuary guardians in Exodus
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38:8 within the context of battle (2008, 153-56). In the NT, a slave-girl has "a spirit of

divination" that enables her to accurately speak of the apostles (Acts 16:16-17).

Examination of intermediation in Western Asia reveals a greater prevalence of female

practioners than found in the Bible. Texts include named and unnamed women engaged in

various forms of intermediation, including women for whom oracular speech was their primary

mode (see Gafney 2008, 49-73). Female intermediation appears normative in antiquity and the

activities of the women prophets in the Bible are representative of this larger context. Because of

biases of biblical writers/redactors the number of women intermediaries in Israel remains a gap.

Cross cultural studies suggest the number would be higher than represented in the Bible.

The issue of prophetic conflict was a central concern for male prophets. There is no

biblical evidence of conflict between female prophets, but their activity may be condemned or

restricted by male authorities. The authors of Ezekiel, Nehemiah, and Revelation condemn

women's prophetic activities and actively seek their destruction. We might wonder why there is

no "Book of Huldah" in the canon when she would surely have uttered many more oracles as an

established prophet. In the NT Paul exorcises the slave-girl of "a spirit of divination" (Acts

16:18). Contra Wainright, the curing of the demon possessed women might instead function to

exclude them from being prophet healers from the Jesus movement. Corinthian women's

prophetic activities are restricted (1 Cor 14:33-35) and women's prophetic activity in the

Monatist movement were soundly condemned by later Church authorities. The circumstances

that rendered women's prophetic activity within the Bible as legitimate or illegitimate are not

well understood. In the HB, the issue is often whether the activity is viewed as legitimately

Yahwistic. In the NT, Hellenistic cultural norms regarding women's legitimate public roles seems

as determinitive as Christological considerations.


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A feminist examination of prophet and prophecy focuses on recovery of texts of women

prophets and ways to expand the definition of prophecy, including considering activities that may

be specifically gendered, such as those associated with women's health care. In addition to what

is considered here, Gafney argues that the prophetic women in Ezekiel and women musicians

(hand drummers and/or singers) should be considered as female guilds. She further argues that

women were part of funerary and scribal guilds, which should be also included in the category of

prophetic activity (2008, 120-130). Another possible area of expansion is based upon

understanding the gendering of Hebrew and Greek, where masculine plural forms are used for

groups that would contain men and women. Whenever masculine plural forms of "prophets" or

"prophesying" are used in the Bible, readers are encouraged to consider that women might also

be present. Because of the limits of the sources, many of the expansions remain speculative.

From a feminist perspective, another issue in regard to prophets and prophecy is the use

of marriage as a metaphor for the divine/human relationship in prophetic literature (Hos 1-3; Jere

2-3; Ezek 16, 23; Isa 54:1-10). The concern here is not with identifying women's prophetic

activity, but the impact of male prophetic speech upon the lives of women in antiquity and today.

The marriage metaphor participates in the general biblical view of marriage where a

husband has exclusive rights to his wife’s sexuality. Her sexual faithfulness is the primary sign of

a woman’s loyalty to her husband. The relationship is hierarchically structured—the wife

submits to the husband's control. Deviation from that norm dishonors the husband and requires

the husband to punish the wife in order to reassert control. When applied to the divine/human

relationship in prophetic literature, the believing community is depicted as the female spouse of

the male god—called on to love God with the exclusive love of a wife and punished for failure to

do so. The absolute sexual fidelity required of a married woman becomes the trope by which the
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theological (in)fidelity of the covenant people is judged. The metaphor is continued in the NT

where the Christian church is viewed the bride of Christ (1 Cor 11:3; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:23; Rev

21:2, 9). Feminist interpretation of this metaphor critiques the portrayal of YHWH's judgment

against Jerusalem in violent images of sexual assault and the ways God's behavior mirrors what

is known about the behavior of human batterers (see essays in Brenner). Insofar as the ideology

underlying violence against even metaphorical women functions to support violence against real

women today, feminist readers will critique and resist this and any other prophetic language that

similarly harms women.

Avalos, Hector. 1999. Heath Care and the Rise of Christianity. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Bowen, Nancy R. 1999. "The Daughters of Your People: Female Prophets in Ezekiel 13:17-23."

JBL 118: 417-33.

Brenner, Athalya, ed. 1995. A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets. Sheffield: Sheffield

Academic Press.

Gafney, Wilda C. 2008. Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis:

Fortress.

Wainwright, Elaine M. 2006. Women Healing/Healing Women: The Genderization of Healing in

Early Christianity. London: Equinox Publishing.

Wire, Antoinette Clark. 1995. The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction through Paul's

Rhetoric. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Nancy R. Bowen
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