The influential prophet that you may never have heard of

The Bible devotes just a few lines to Huldah but she helped shape Judaism as we know it


The most influential prophet in the Hebrew Bible is one you may never have heard of. She is described in only six verses, yet Judaism was transformed by her. Yes, her… for this prophet was a woman.

I am talking about Huldah, — hardly a household name — a prophetess in Judah. In 640 BCE Josiah became the king. Eighteen years into his reign, he ordered repairs to the Temple building. During the work, the High Priest, Hilkiah, found the “sefer torah” a book of teaching in the Temple. He showed it to the scribe Shaphan, who reported immediately back to the king.

Whatever was in the book, its contents were explosive because Josiah immediately tore his clothes. “Go, enquire of the Eternal, on my behalf, and on behalf of the people and on behalf of all Judah concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great must be the wrath of the Eternal God against us, since our forebears did not listen to its words or do what is written there” (II Kings 22:13).

It seems what they found was from the book of Deuteronomy. After summarising all the laws before his death, “Moses wrote down this torah and gave it to the priests, sons of Levi who carried the Ark of the Eternal and to all the elders of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:9).

The alarm engendered in the king and his ministers was because,in the chapters before, there are a series of curses that graphically detail all the terrible things that will happen to Israel if they do not obey the teachings. Clearly something had to be done and quickly.

Firstly, the book needed verification and who best to establish its authenticity than a prophet? So they go to Huldah. In true prophetic fashion she announced, “Thus said the Eternal; I am going to bring disaster upon this place…” And indeed disaster came soon after.

On hearing Huldah’s words, Josiah sets to work immediately. He gathers all the men of Judah, the priests, the prophets and reads them the book. He burns every idolatrous object found in the Temple, he destroys all the shrines in the country and demands that every priest come and sacrifice in Jerusalem.

It is under Josiah that idolatry is finally overcome and worship only in the Temple became prime. The religion we have today was only made possible by King Josiah’s reforms — and they all boil down to Huldah.

But Huldah presents an anomaly. A woman in a position of authority who can give instructions to a king? For the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, this simply could not be. A pious, devoted woman would not act like Huldah, so we find a series of midrashim that systematically undermine her position.

First arises the question, why choose Huldah? There was at least one perfectly respectable prophet around at the time that could have been consulted — Jeremiah. The Midrash goes to some length to explain that Huldah and Jeremiah were related. Because of this, Jeremiah did not object to her prophesying (Megillah 14b).

But why go to her in the first place? Rav Shila suggests it is because women are more compassionate. Maybe, in the light of the grave sins committed by Judah, Josiah hoped she would intercede with God. Rabbi Yochanan has a more prosaic answer. Jeremiah was away at the time.

This makes Huldah very much the second choice; requiring Jeremiah’s permission to prophesy, and asked, because they couldn’t get him. The Talmud goes further and destroys her reputation. Rav Nachman declares: “Haughtiness does not befit a woman. And her name is loathsome.”

She is haughty because she referred to King Josiah as “the man” in her prophesy rather than giving him his full title (II Kings 22:15). Her name is loathsome because it means “weasel”. By the end of her treatment in the Talmud, one wonders why on earth Josiah went to her in the first place.

Actually, though, Huldah did get the prophesy wrong. She promised that Josiah, would not see the terrors that lay ahead, but would die and be laid in his tomb in peace. Josiah died at the battle of Megiddo. He was shot by enemy archers, and conveyed in a chariot in an agonising journey back to Jerusalem (II Chronicles 35:23-24) — hardly a peaceful death.

Those who are victim of Twitter trolls may take note that even 3,000 years ago, a woman who rose to a position of respect and authority was subject to abuse. But there is another moral to Huldah’s story — and Jeremiah confirms it. If you wish to be remembered and live on in posterity… you have to write a book.

Rabbi Sheridan will be speaking about Huldah on March 17 as part of her course on the Seven Biblical Prophetesses for the Lyons Learning Project,


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