The invisible woman

The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.’ When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it… Shaphan the secretary informed the king, ‘The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.’ Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.

When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, ‘Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’

So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophet Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; he resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted him. He declared to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants — all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.’ They took the message back to the king (2 Kings 22:8-20, abridged).

If you know this passage (and it seems that few do, although the story occurs in both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles), you may have noticed that I made a small but significant change to the first two sentences of the last paragraph (verses 14-15). Here’s the original:  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. She declared to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel

I promised when I began this blog six years ago, or rather when I set out my guiding hermeneutic in November 2014, that one of my aims in this blog would be ‘making the female characters of the Bible, and a woman-centred understanding of key passages, more visible’. I called this a ‘her’meneutic. I think in pursuing particular interests, I have rather let this goal slip. So perhaps now is the time to take it up again.

Ask anyone who claims to know the Bible well (your church’s minister perhaps), who Huldah was, and you may be shocked how few people have actually heard of her. Yet she is key to the history of the Bible itself; she is, in fact, the first biblical interpreter recorded in its pages. And what is more remarkable is that the narrative expresses no surprise at all that she is the one consulted about the book the Temple restoration workers have found, and no questioning of her status as a prophet (the NRSV’s ‘prophetess’ appears in all versions, and may make modern feminists uncomfortable, but elsewhere in the Bible other women are described as ‘prophet’, for instance in Luke 2:36 Anna is described as a prophet, although we have none of her words, while Simeon, interestingly, is not).

Scholars believe that the book found in the restoration work was part or all of Deuteronomy, that recap of the law, and a book Jesus would later quote from frequently. Huldah’s prophetic statement basically confirms what the king has already intuited: that this is a book to be obeyed, not to be theorized about or dissected; and that the nation of Judah is under judgement for its failure to obey its commands or even to keep a copy of it. What is striking is that though the king immediately sees this, he still instructs his officials to ‘Go, inquire of the Lord for me… concerning the words of this book’; and that the first person that occurs to them to speak for God is a woman. Perhaps also notable is the fact that she adds to the king’s premonition of doom, the consoling thought that the king himself will not live to see ‘the disaster that I will bring on this place’ (‘this place’ being Jerusalem). Was it because she was a woman that she perceived and communicated this promise of mercy?

Those who forbid women to speak for God, on the basis of a single verse in 1 Timothy (and moreover one which by its grammar is clearly a temporary provision, and which is preceded by the command ‘Let a woman learn’), would do well to read this story. Sadly, Huldah seems to be invisible to most male biblical scholars. If we made her visible, would that also make visible the women in our congregations and our academies who have the gifts, scholarship and insight to speak for God, and indeed to speak for all the invisible women of God?

About veronicazundel

I'm a professional writer, amateur mother, and churchless Mennonite (ie I don't have a Mennonite church to belong to any more, so am currently attending an Anglo-Catholic church with an evangelical vicar!). I live in north London with my husband, adult son and a fat fluffy cat. I'm a second generation refugee kid, and eat Marmite on matzo crackers every morning.
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