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Old Testament Prophetesses: Deborah, Miriam, and Others

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One of the defining characteristics of the God of the Bible is that he is often surprising in that he continues to seek out his sinful people despite their many flaws, and can use any situation or person to demonstrate his glory. One would think that the Bible would be full of stories of perfectly righteous people, and yet the Old Testament focuses on deeply flawed and broken people who God continues to love and forgive by his grace. In fact, King David, who slept with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered, is God’s anointed one and an ancestor of Jesus the Messiah. In the same way when Moses tells God that he is not a good speaker and is therefore unqualified, God sends Aaron to help and uses Moses and Aaron to further his purpose. Additionally, God uses several women throughout the Old Testament to prophecy, which is completely unexpected in a patriarchal society in which women were typically not valued and trusted as much as men. In choosing women to prophecy as well as men, God demonstrates that what he finds significant is often different than the things valued by people. This paper will seek to examine the role and significance of prophetesses in the Old Testament through analysis of the lives and ministries of several major prophetesses.

Acts 2:17 reads “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams”[1]. Although this verse is found in the New Testament, it follows that God would have worked through women in the Old Testament as well. While many of the stories of the Old Testament are primarily the experiences of men, God demonstrates his love for and confidence in women through stories of strong and virtuous women after His own heart. Although scholars and theologians often disagree regarding which women of the Old Testament were truly prophetesses, it is abundantly clear that there were several prophetesses sent by God. This paper will focus on Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and Huldah, as they are agreed to be valid prophetesses by most scholars. Prior to discussing the role and significance of these specific prophetesses it is essential to understand that the way they are discussed in the Old Testament differs from the typical narrative regarding women at the time. Due to the nature of society, most stories focused on the lives of men, however, women were often involved either passively or as the cause of a problem. Within the Bible, examples of women whose main literary purpose is to cause a problem or struggle include Jezebel, Potiphar’s wife, Bathsheba, and several others.

Authors Daniel and Cathy Skidmore-Hess touch upon this idea, writing “…women might play the role of a malevolent power such as Jezebel or even be cast as the source of all the woes and sufferings that plague human life as is said of Pandora in Greek myth”[2]. Obviously within the Bible there are multiple exceptions to this, such as Ruth, Esther, and the prophetesses of the Old Testament, as well as women in the New Testament, most notably Mary. The inclusion of strong and virtuous women in the Bible differentiates God from other deities in that he includes the disenfranchised and raises up those who are often looked over. In this way, the prophetesses of the Old Testament are significant in that they are a departure from the typical representation of women at the time, and point the focus to God’s grace and tendency to use people thought of as unqualified due to some flaw. Keeping in mind that the prophetesses of the Old Testament were exceptionally strong and virtuous women, especially compared to other women literarily referenced throughout history, one can conclude that their lives and ministries reveal God to be totally unique and merciful, with a great love for all of his people. The sister of Moses, often spoken of in reference to her song, Miriam is a prophetess who exemplifies strength and leadership. When she is young she convinces the Egyptian princess who discovers Moses floating along the Nile to allow a Hebrew woman, who turns out to be his mother, to nurse and watch over him. In doing this Miriam demonstrates extreme courage, as not many people would have been brave enough to approach a princess and influence her decision. Here not only does Miriam demonstrate her courage, but is also being used by God in saving Moses, who will later lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt along with his brother Aaron. Thus it is apparent from the beginning that Miriam is a woman of distinct character and initiative. In Exodus 15:20, she is introduced as “Miriam the prophetesses, the sister of Aaron”[3], and accompanies Moses and Aaron along their journey, serving as a strong leader for the Israelite women.

In her work, Rediscovering Miriam, Moshe Reiss writes “The linking with Aaron perhaps suggests that they have parallel roles; he as leader of the men and she as leader of the women, while Moses has his distinct and more exalted role”[4]. While they are traveling Miriam leads the women in song and dance to worship the Lord. Whereas Moses says “I will sing to the Lord” (Exodus 15:1) in his song, Miriam says “Sing to the Lord” (Exodus 15:21)[5], possibly indicating a closer relationship with the people by inviting them to sing with her. Reiss writes “Miriam chose to lead by the people by addressing them in a language they could under- stand – through a non-elitist religious rite, somewhat resembling the religious rites of surrounding peoples – and by transforming the magnificent but incomprehensible prophetic song into a chant easily learned by those by those who heard it”[6]. In this way Miriam is revealed to be a leader of the people, encouraging them to participate in worship and thanking God. Prominent in Judges chapters four and five, the prophetess Deborah is “…said to combine uniquely all forms of charismatic and political authority available to her”[7] according authors Daniel and Cathy Skidmore-Hesse in their work Dousing the Fiery Woman: The Diminishing of the Prophetess Deborah. Here the authors discuss Deborah in light of her status as a judge, poetess, and prophetess. It is especially interesting that Deborah serves as a judge within the Biblical context, as most judges were men and one would not expect a woman to be endowed with that much power. However, there is no questioning her status as a judge, as Judges 4:4-5 reads “At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment”[8]. Additionally, Deborah has a poetic song associated with her, which has often been interpreted as a sign of political leadership and power. In the same way as Miriam, Deborah also leads the people in song and worship, therefore bringing glory to God and encouraging the people in their faith.

Deborah has been considered one of the most powerful women in the Bible, largely due to the fact that Barak appears to be her protégé. It is almost unheard of for a woman during Biblical times to have authority over a man, yet they are always referenced as “Deborah and Barak” in Judges chapters four and five with Deborah placed before Barak. Judges 4:6 reads “She sent and summoned Barak…”[9], indicating that Barak is respectful of Deborah’s authority and listens to her. Additionally, later in the chapter Barak’s reliance on Deborah is made apparent when he says that he will only go if she goes with him. Authors Daniel and Cathy Skidmore-Hesse highlight this revolutionary Biblical representation of a woman and a man, writing “Deborah presents an exception to prevailing gender patterns in Biblical narrative and religious and political leadership”[10] as Barak takes on a more traditionally feminine role and Deborah is given the authority. Here Deborah also demonstrates how God often works through people one would not expect. While Deborah demonstrates this because of her revolutionary authority as a woman, God also works through countless other Biblical figures in surprising ways as well. Associated with her prophetic song in 1 Samuel chapter 2, the prophetess Hannah is a prime example of a faithful servant of the Lord, and displays exemplary trust in Him.

Although not studied by many scholars, Hannah is a vital character in the Bible as she is the mother of Samuel and is the one who decides to dedicate him to the Lord. Hannah reflects the traditional gender roles of the time as she is deeply distraught that she cannot have a child, however she is significant in that her faith in God is strong and unshakeable. While her primary function is that of a mother and wife, Hannah is also presented as a woman of strong character and faith, who demonstrates that God hears the cries of his people. It is important to understand that the vow Hannah makes is not a vow made out of fear or bargaining with God, rather Hannah is demonstrating her trust in God and dedication to him. Caroline M. Breyfogle discusses the significance of vows in her work, The Religious Status of Women in the Old Testament, explaining that vows were meant to be pleasing to God, and illustrating how Hannah was taking initiative by making a vow to God on her own. Breyfogle writes “Hannah appeared as a responsible individual to make her vow at Shiloh, her husband disappearing completely into the background”[11]. In this way, Hannah reveals herself to be a woman of initiative, confident in her personal relationship with God. Additionally, it is interesting to note that Hannah is unique as “Author Cynthia Ozick cites Hannah, as the inventor of inward prayer at a time when all liturgical speech in the Tabernacle had been public, is a religious heroine”[12] according to an article from 1994, New Light on Old Testament Women. Although perhaps not viewed in the same revolutionary manner as Deborah, Hannah is significant as she reveals God to be both compassionate and merciful, ready to listen to his people and hear their cries.

Finally, although hardly ever discussed in Sunday School classes or sermons, the prophetess Huldah serves as an example of a strong woman of God, and can be viewed as another role model for Godly women. Discussed in 2 Kings, Huldah is similar to Deborah in that men of authority consult her. 2 Kings 22:14 reads “So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her”[13]. Author Esther J. Hamori discusses the significance of the prophetess Huldah in her work The Prophet and the Necromancer: Women’s Divination for Kings, as God works through Huldah to bring about Josiah’s reforms. Hamori writes “… he is not yet sure what to make of the scroll. Huldah, then, Is the one who validates the scroll, and It is only after this that Josiah takes action”[14]. In this way, it is evident that Huldah possesses more authority than most women at the time. This authority ultimately comes from God, as it is a result of her status as a prophetess. Huldah is especially interesting as she is considered a valid prophetess, yet the second half of her prophecy does not come fully true. Although she prophecies that Josiah will die in peace he is soon after killed by Neco. According to Hamori, one possible explanation for this is that “Huldah’s oracle means only that Josiah will die before—and thus not have to see—the national disaster”[15]. Yet other scholars believe that she only meant he was going to die soon and is therefore correct. Regardless of this discrepancy, Hamori writes that ultimately the Deuteronomist is not worried about Huldah’s status as a prophetess. Although scholars are unsure what to make of this, Huldah still exemplifies a strong female character in Biblical times, revolutionary in her authority, who God uses to bring about the reforms of Josiah. While the lives of prophetesses of the Old Testament differed from each other, they were all examples of strong, faithful women of God who trusted in him and may serve as role models for Christian Women today.

Often associated with song and poetry, these women played key roles in Biblical history, often encouraging others in their faith and spreading the word of God. They reveal God to be a God of surprises, who calls those viewed as weak and lifts them up to make them strong. In each case, one would not expect God to call a woman to serve him as a prophetess or in a position of authority, yet that is exactly what he does, therefore demonstrating that there is a place for all faithful believers in God’s Kingdom.

[1] Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2001. · [2] Skidmore-Hess, Daniel and Cathy Skidmore-Hess. “Dousing the Fiery Woman: The Diminishing of the Prophetess Deborah.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, Fall2012, pp. 1-17. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/sho.2012.0110. [3] Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2001. [4] Reiss, Moshe. “Miriam Rediscovered.” Jewish Bible Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3, July 2010, pp. 183-190. EBSCOhost, .cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001796739&site=ehost-live. [5] Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2001. [6] Reiss, Moshe. “Miriam Rediscovered.” Jewish Bible Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3, July 2010, pp. 183-190. EBSCOhost, .cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001796739&site=ehost-live. [7] Skidmore-Hess, Daniel and Cathy Skidmore-Hess. “Dousing the Fiery Woman: The Diminishing of the Prophetess Deborah.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, Fall2012, pp. 1-17. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/sho.2012.0110. [8] Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2001. [9] Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2001. [10] Skidmore-Hess, Daniel and Cathy Skidmore-Hess. “Dousing the Fiery Woman: The Diminishing of the Prophetess Deborah.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, Fall2012, pp. 1-17. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/sho.2012.0110. [11] Breyfogle, Caroline M. “The Religious Status of Woman in the Old Testament.” The Biblical World, vol. 35, no. 6, 1910, pp. 405–419. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3141493. [12] “New Light on Old Testament Women.” Hamilton Spectator (Ontario, Canada). 517 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2017/10/29. [13] Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2001 [14] Hamori, Esther J. “The Prophet and the Necromancer: Women’s Divination for Kings.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 132, no. 4, 2013, pp. 827-843. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001984713&site=ehost-live [15] Hamori, Esther J. “The Prophet and the Necromancer: Women’s Divination for Kings.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 132, no. 4, 2013, pp. 827-843. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001984713&site=ehost-live

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Old Testament Prophetesses: Deborah, Miriam, And Others. (2018, May 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-virtues-of-miriam-deborah-and-others-analyzing-the-prophetesses-of-the-old-testament/
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Old Testament Prophetesses: Deborah, Miriam, And Others. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-virtues-of-miriam-deborah-and-others-analyzing-the-prophetesses-of-the-old-testament/> [Accessed 25 Nov. 2020].
Old Testament Prophetesses: Deborah, Miriam, And Others [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 May 26 [cited 2020 Nov 25]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-virtues-of-miriam-deborah-and-others-analyzing-the-prophetesses-of-the-old-testament/
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