A Prophet in the Hebrew Bible That Helped to Shape Judaism as We Know it
Huldah was a Jewish prophetess who lived in the 7th century BCE and served during the reign of the seventeenth king of Judah, Josiah. Yes, we are talking about a woman. About a woman who did not only interpret, but also authorized the first document that became the core of scripture for Judaism and Christianity, as biblical scholar Claudia Camp points out. Yet unlike most other prophets we hear very little or nothing about her.
Huldah the prophetess (Photo: margmowczko.com)
Women prophetesses existed among early Israelites. According to Jewish tradition, Huldah was one of the seven prophetesses, with Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail and Esther. These women bear witness to the presence of a female prophetic voice in early Jewish culture and tradition. Huldah is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.
Lets look at the story. King Josiah of Judah reigned from 640-609 BCE. During the religious reform he decided to resume service in the Beit Hamikdash (Jerusalem Temple). Repairs and restorations were needed. In the midst of this work, the king’s courtiers discovered ancient Sefer ha-torah, a book of teaching, from the time of Moses, stashed away in the Temple.
„When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Phaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asiah the king’s attendant: ‘Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found.“ (2 Kings: 11- 14)
So the king was devastated and terrified that the warnings of the Sefer ha-Torah were true. He needed spiritual guidance. So they took this ancient book and went to Huldah. The question is – why they went to her in the first place? We know that there were other respectable prophets around that could have been consulted. At that time we know from Jeremiah 22:15-16 there was the respectable prophet Jeremiah. But they did not go to him. Maybe he was not in town, as some sources claim. But there was also the prophet Zephaniah, but they did not consult him either. They chose to consult Huldah. The Babylonian teacher Rav Shila suggested it was because women are more compassionate than men. Also, Huldah the prophetess was well-known for her spiritual perspective and for her intelligence. Overall, it is interesting, that the decisive word was not from the priests or the literal fundamentalism, but her prophetic interpretation; her vocation to assess and intepret the found file in its current state.
What is unfortunate, we know very little about her background. We know Huldah was the „wife of Shallum ben Tikvah“, as it is written in 2 Kings 22:14. This man was the keeper of the king’s wardrobe, so he was part of the royal court. At that time, Jerusalem was separated into four quadrants and Huldah lived in the second one, in which the Beit Hamikdash was located. That all means that Huldah lived close to the palace and the Temple.
So, Huldah assured them that the Book of the Teaching is indeed authentic and the judgment would surely come. God was going to bring calamity at the kingdom of Judah and its inhabitants. It was just because the people of the kingdom behaved despicably for too long. But Huldah also said that because of king’s tender heart and because he was humble before the Lord, he would go to his grave in peace.
Huldah predicts the fate of King Josiah to the High Priest. Copper engraving by C. Schuler.
King Josiah learned from the message and greatly regretted the way his father and grandfather had behaved. So, under Josiah’s reign only worship in the Temple was allowed and idolatry was finally overcome.
Rabbi Sybil Sheridan in his article about Huldah in The Jewish Chronicle points out that Huldah presents an anomaly, as a woman in a position of authority who can give instructions to a king and for that reason we find a series of midrashim that undermine her position.
Although part of Huldah’s message was not fulfilled because the king died in the Battle of Megiddo (perhaps not very peaceful – but he actually did not have to witness the destruction of Jerusalem), thanks to her story we can see that even in a patriarchal society as a married woman in her day, Huldah was a prophetess respected by her people, respected by the king, who chose her and sent his men to her. The rabbis saw her as an important teacher of Torah at the time. The Book of teaching that Huldah validated is identified as an early form of the fifth and final book of the Torah – showing her pivotal role in the development of the Torah. Her great influence is undeniable and her prophecy is an everlasting heritage. Huldah and other six wise and divine prophetesses testify to us of the presence of a female prophetic voice in an early Jewish culture and tradition.