What Can We Learn from Women Prophets of the Old Testament?

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from 40 Questions About Women in Ministry
by Sue Edwards & Kelley Mathews

Before we begin to discern the answer, we must consider several preliminary questions. Then we’ll delve into two biblical accounts of Old Testament women prophets, Deborah and Huldah.

What Is a Prophet, and What Is Prophecy?

A prophet was a man or woman God used to communicate his message to the people.

For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)

I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17–18, quoting Joel 2:28–29)

Prophets’ communication consisted of both forthtelling (a moral message to that generation often warning of impending judgment unless they changed their ways) and foretelling (a prediction of future events).[1]

Most Old Testament prophets were male, but five women carried the title prophet: Miriam (Exod. 15:20), Deborah (Judg. 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chron. 34:22), Noadiah, a false prophet (Neh. 6:14), and Isaiah’s wife (Isa. 8:3). We will look at Deborah and Huldah briefly.

The Prophet Deborah (Judg. 4:4–5)

Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. (Judg. 4:4–5)

After Israel settled in the Promised Land around 1250 BC, God raised up judges to lead them. Although in a general sense Israel conquered all of Canaan, pockets of enemy groups still existed, attacking, pillaging, and testing whether or not the Israelites would trust and obey God. When Israel did, God blessed them with victory in battle followed by times of peace and prosperity. But typically the nation waffled between times of blessing and periods when “everyone did as they saw fit” (Judg. 21:25). God called twelve judges to deliver God’s people from these warring groups and then to rule them during the times of peace.[2]


Obviously, Deborah led Israel at that time as the highest-ranking “judge” as well as a prophet. However, some hierarchs dispute whether she carried out her leadership positions as male judges did. Also, hierarchs try to understand why God raised up a woman to this high place of leadership because it doesn’t fit their view of the created order. French sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin laid the foundation for the belief that female prophets in the Old Testament were “breakouts,” extraordinary acts of God, exceptions that “do not overturn the patterns and rules that govern and bind us today.”[3]

Some insist that God permitted women to lead during times when Israel experienced a vacuum of adequate male leaders. For example, they say, Moses’s sister, Miriam, was allowed to lead because no qualified men were available after years of slavery in Egypt. During the period of the judges, God raised up Deborah as a female prophet and judge, exceptional measures, because of Israel’s depravity when everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Wayne Grudem exclaims, “Something is abnormal, something is wrong—there are no men to function as judge!”[4]

Verse 5 also challenges the hierarchical view of the created order. Typically, male leaders held court outdoors where the Israelites, both men and women, traveled from all over the country to meet with the judge, who would dispense justice. Verse 5 seems to fit with this custom but not with the hierarchs’ “created order” presupposition. How do they reconcile this alleged contradiction?

John Piper attempts an answer by distinguishing between personal and directive influence versus nonpersonal and nondirective influence. He writes,

To the degree that a woman’s influence over man is personal and directive it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order. A woman may design the traffic pattern of a city’s streets and thus exert a kind of influence over all male drivers. But this influence will be non-personal and therefore not necessarily an offense against God’s order.[5]

Piper and others in his camp argue that women prophets in the Old Testament only exhibited this nonpersonal and nondirective kind of influence. Thus, women prophets limited their speaking and teaching to private judgments, speaking, and teaching. They reason that although the function and office of a prophet was open to women, the offices of priest and king were not. She could speak for the Lord, but she didn’t possess the personal authority to oversee, rule, or execute orders like a king or priest.[6] She could never teach or preach, and she could only prophesy in private, never publicly. Also, she could speak for God, but she had no authority to explain what she prophesied or apply it to her listeners. Only priests could teach God’s message.[7]


Heterarchs see Old Testament women prophets as evidence that God calls women into leadership roles. They say that the women prophets open the door for women to serve as senior pastors and elders. They point out that the biblical text never states or hints that Deborah was lifted to the position of judge and
prophet due to the lack of a qualified man. Therefore, they reject the presupposition that women cannot teach or lead both men and women. They believe that God can always identify, equip, and use leaders to carry out his will regardless of situational challenges, as he does so many other times in the Bible.

Heterarchs deem it impossible for Deborah to speak for God and judge Israel in a way that resulted in the land enjoying peace for forty years (Judg. 5:31) without judging and speaking publicly. These scholars believe that she presided over public gatherings outdoors at the Palm of Deborah within hearing distance of officials and bystanders, much as any other judge would. They reject any teaching that Deborah only taught or judged privately as an unsupported extrapolation of the text.

The Prophet Huldah (2 Kings 22:14–20; 2 Chron. 34:22–28)

Huldah might stump most Christians in a Bible quiz, but she’s an important figure in women’s quest to know whether or not God limits their service to him. She ministered at a critical time in Judah’s history, about 640 BC, during the reign of King Josiah, the last righteous king before the corrupt nation crumbled. The temple lay in shambles. The people mixed a tepid faith in Yahweh with Baal worship and idolatry. In the midst of temple repair ordered by the king, workmen discovered a scroll with some portion of God’s Word on it. King Josiah sought a prophet to learn more. Although the prophets Jeremiah and Zephaniah were Huldah’s contemporaries and neither were out of town, the king sent the high priest and his other top officials to the prophet Huldah.

Heterarchs surmise that “the delegation sought her out immediately. She must have had a reputation as a true prophetess of the Lord. . . The Scripture gives no indication that anyone thought it strange that Josiah would seek a woman in order to hear from the Lord.”[8] Alice Mathews suggests that she must have been well known for her piety, wisdom, and trustworthiness.[9] Huldah prophesied severe judgment on Judah but mercy for her penitent and God-fearing king who would be spared witnessing the nation’s destruction (2 Kings 22:15–20).[10]

Generally, hierarchs and heterarchs use the same arguments to support their views about Huldah as they do about Deborah. Hierarchs attempt to show similar reasons why Huldah’s service to God limits women’s service today, and heterarchs argue the opposite.


Hierarchs argue that Deborah and Huldah and other women prophets lived out their leadership roles in a more limited way than male leaders, illustrating that God continues to limit how women can serve him. But they differ greatly in their determination of how much God actually limits them. The spectrum spreads from no leadership roles all the way to any role except senior pastor and elder.

Heterarchs interpret Deborah’s key role as prophet, judge, and the nation’s top leader and military adviser and Huldah’s role as prophet as God sanctioning women today to occupy any leadership role for which they are gifted, equipped, and called.

[1] Nathan D. Holsteen and Michael J. Svigel, Exploring Christian Theology, vol. 1, Revelation,
Scripture, and the Triune God (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2014), 265–66.

[2] Irving L. Jensen, Judges & Ruth: A Self-Study Guide (Chicago: Moody, 1987), 3–5.

[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 1979), 67.

[4] Grudem, EFBT, 134.

[5] John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined
according to the Bible,” in RBMW, 51.

[6] Thomas Finley provides a thorough discussion on women and leaders in ancient Israel in “The Ministry of Women in the Old Testament,” in Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective, eds. Robert L. Saucy and Judith K. TenElshof (Chicago: Moody, 2001), 73–88. The first section focuses on general insights followed by a section on four prominent women: Deborah, Miriam, Huldah, and the ideal wife in Proverbs 31:10–31. We find Finley’s moderate views on the complementarian perspective helpful.

[7] For more detail on this view, see Grudem, EFBT, 136–38, where Grudem refutes the egalitarian claim that Old Testament female prophets give precedents for women in leadership roles today.

[8] Finley, “The Ministry of Women,” 84. Finley is a hierarch but is more moderate than others, illustrating again the broad spectrum of views in the hierarchs’ camp. For more on his ideas about Huldah, see 83–84.

[9] Alice Mathews, A Woman God Can Lead: Lessons from Women of the Bible Help You Make Today’s Choices (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1998), 135.

[10] For a well-researched treatment of this female prophet, see Christa L. McKirkland, “Huldah: Malfunction with the Wardrobe-Keeper’s Wife,” in Vindicating the Vixens, 213–32.

This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Women in Ministry by Sue Edwards & Kelley Mathews. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

40 Questions About Women in Ministry charts a course for understanding differing views on the topic regarding the ministries of women. The accessible question-and-answer format guides readers to specific areas of confusion, and authors helpfully zero in on the foundations of varied beliefs and practices. Edwards and Mathews cover interpretive, theological, historical, and practical matters such as:

  • What did God mean by the woman as man’s “helper”?
  • How is it that Christians reach different conclusions about 1 Timothy 2:11-15?
  • How did Western culture influence the role of women in society and the church?

Combining a strong adherence to Scripture, vast academic and ministry experiences, and a commitment to Christ-honoring dialogue, 40 Questions About Women in Ministry is a valuable guide to pastors, ministry leaders, church groups, and seminarians.


Sue Edwards (MA, Dallas Theological Seminary; D.Min., Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is associate professor of educational ministry and leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary. She has more than twenty-five years of experience teaching, pastoring, and directing women’s ministries. In addition, Sue speaks at retreats, conferences, and seminars across the country, and is author of the Discover Together Bible Study Series. Visit www.discovertogetherseries.com for bible study videos, free leader’s guides and more!

Kelley Mathews (Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary) is a freelance writer and editor. A former women’s ministry leader, she is the coauthor of Women’s Retreats and New Doors in Ministry to Women. She lives with her husband, John, and her children in Texas. Find her blog at patheos.com/blogs/kelleymathews/.

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