Prophetesses of the Jews
Rabbenu Hananel, Rashi, and the Vilna Gaon — the rabbinic sages who engaged in typology — all enumerated seven identical Jewish prophetesses. These included a Matriarch, a Judge, a pilgrim, queens and a schoolteacher.
All of these women had distinct features and flaws (with the possible exception of Hannah, whose earnestness and saintliness is perhaps unparalleled in all of the Tanakh), and led faithful lives in eventful eras. It is telling that, while the number and identity of the prophets vary between Rabbenu Hananel, Rashi and the Vilna Gaon, there is no dispute about the prophetesses.
- Sarah, a.k.a. Sarai, Yiscah (c. 2000 BCE) The first Matriarch and mother of the Jewish people. While still known as Sarai, she married Abram (Abraham) in Ur. Sarai was either Abram’s half-sister and Terah’s daughter (but with a different mother from Abram), or else Abram’s niece and Terah’s granddaughter (affirming her identification with Yiscah). She had migrated with her husband from Ur in Babylonia to Haran in Syria before venturing into Canaan. After sojourning in Shechem and near Beth-El, the first Hebrew family was driven by famine into Egypt, where the beautiful Sarai was passed off as Abram’s sister (a half-truth, at best), so that the latter would escape Pharaoh’s jealous wrath when Sarai was claimed for the royal harem. It was possibly at this time that Sarai procured Hagar as her handmaid, as a gift from Pharaoh). A similar incident recurred with the Philistine King Avimelech of Gerar; both times Abram was gifted with material goods in exchange for being deprived of his wife. Sarai was barren for many decades and finally gave Abram Hagar as a concubine. Hagar soon conceived and gave birth to Ishmael. When Abram was 99, God appeared to him and changed his name to Abraham. and that of Sarai to Sarah, in order to reaffirm His everlasting covenant with them, which would make them into the forebears of a multitude of nations. Although Sarah later denied it, she laughed at the overheard claim made by a heaven-sent guest that she would give birth after the age of 90. But a year later, she had indeed delivered Isaac. Sarah died at the age of 127 in Kiryat-Arba (Hebron), whither she had gone perhaps aggrieved by Abraham’s binding of Isaac, and where she was the first to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah.
- Miriam (c. 1300 BCE) The daughter of Amram and Yocheved, and the older sister of Aaron and Moses. Miriam is the first woman explicitly described as a prophetess in the Torah. She waited by the bulrushes and watched from a distance while the baby Moses was floated along the Nile in an ark, and she arranged for their mother, Yocheved, to nurse Moses after Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya (Bithiah), had discovered the child and adopted him into the royal palace. She led the women in celebratory song and dance after the Egyptian army perished in the Sea of Reeds. For her sins of slandering Moses’s marriage to a Kushite woman (either Tzipporah the Midianite or else a second wife) and challenging Moses’s monopoly on leadership, Miriam was afflicted with leprosy. Aaron pled on her behalf, and Moses cried out to God, saying, “Please, please, heal her!” (Num. 12:13). She was healed, but obliged to remain outside the Israelite camp for a week, during which time the nation waited for her as she had once waited for Moses long ago. Miriam has been identified with the midwife Puah, and is thought to have been married to Caleb and to have mothered Hur, from whom Bezalel the artist and artisan of the Tabernacle descended. Traditionally it is held that a well of water accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness while Miriam lived. She died at Kadesh in the Sinai desert before entering the Promised Land.
- Devorah (c. 1150 BCE) A prophetess and Judge of Israel, and the wife of Lapidot. Devorah lived in the hill country of Ephraim, between Ramah and Beth-El, and used to sit beneath a palm tree named in her honor, while the people approached her for judgment. She directed the Israelite general, Barak, to marshal 10,000 soldiers of Naftali and Zevulun and confront at Mount Tavor in the Valley of Jezreel the oppressive Canaanite King Yavin of Hazor and his general Sisera, who commanded 900 iron chariots. Barak agreed, on the condition that Devorah accompany him, which she did. The battle transpired during the rainy season, and Sisera’s chariots were soon mired in mud. The Israelites routed the Canaanites and inflicted heavy casualties. Sisera fled the battlefield on foot and escaped to the camp of the Kenites, where the chieftain’s wife, Yael, offered him hospitality and refuge. Once Sisera, lulled with milk, fell asleep in her tent, Yael slew him by hammering a tent peg into his temple. Hot in pursuit, Barak discovered Sisera’s fate, and thereafter King Yavin’s power waned, then ceased. Like Miriam, Devorah sang a glorious song of triumph in the wake of victory over Israel’s oppressors.
- Hannah (c. 1120 BCE) The favored wife of Elkanah, and the mother of Samuel. Dwelling in Ramathaim-Zophim in the hill country of Ephraim, she used to make the annual pilgrimage with Elkanah and her co-wife, Peninah, to offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle in Shiloh, where Eli the Priest officiated. As in the fraught relationship between Sarah and Hagar, Hannah was long barren and taunted for this by her rival. Once, when Hannah was whispering her heartfelt prayers in the Tabernacle, pledging to dedicate a son to the service of God, she was mistakenly censured by Eli for what he perceived as drunken behavior. Upon learning of his error, Eli added his blessing to her mouthed pleas. Hannah soon gave birth to Samuel, weaning him before bringing him to the Tabernacle, where she offered a sacrifice and thanksgiving song, leaving Samuel there in Eli’s care to serve in the sacred precincts for life. Hannah visited Samuel several times annually when she made the pilgrimages to Shiloh, bringing him new cloaks to wear. Eli blessed her, and Hannah bore three more sons and two daughters. She is credited with being the first person to use the term “Lord of hosts” as a divine appellation.
- Avigayil, a.k.a. Abigail (c. 975 BCE) The wife of Naval of Maon and later of David. Known for her good understanding and beautiful form, Avigayil proved prudent and responsible, in contrast to her churlish first husband. When the wealthy Naval refused to show generosity to the unknown David and his men for their protection during the festive sheep-shearing at Carmel, an occasion for hospitality, Avigayil rode a donkey and met the outlaw prince and his 400 swordsmen with abundant foodstuffs, bowing before David and earning his favor. while sparing Naval from David’s threatened attack. She prophesied David’s rise and prosperity, telling him that his soul would be “bound in the bundle of life with the Lord your God” (I Samuel 25:29). She also entreated David to remember her with gratitude when God would bless him. David accepted the victuals and departed peacefully. About 10 days later, Naval died and David married Avigayil. By the time King David was reigning in Hebron, Avigayil bore him his second-born son, Chilav (also known as Daniel), who might have died before reaching manhood.
- Huldah (c. 640 BCE) The wife of Shallum, the royal wardrobe-keeper of King Josiah of Judah. As mutual descendants of Joshua and Rachav, Huldah was a kinswoman of Jeremiah, and she prophesied to the women, while Jeremiah prophesied in the marketplace and streets. Rather than Jeremiah, Huldah was consulted by Josiah upon the rediscovery of Deuteronomy (Devarim) in the Temple by Hilkiah the priest. The reason for this is thought to have been because the monarch sought the greater compassion of a woman who would intercede with God on the royal’s behalf. She foretold that evil would befall Jerusalem, but that the pious Josiah would not live to see it. Huldah dwelt in the second quarter of Jerusalem near the courts of learning, and conducted an academy in the capital, where she taught publicly, specializing in the Oral Law; the Huldah Gate at the southern end of the Temple Mount was formerly the entryway leading to her schoolhouse.
- Esther (c. 475 BCE?) The daughter of Avichayil, from the tribe of Benjamin. Orphaned at a young age, the Persian Jewess, Hadassah, was raised by her older cousin, Mordechai, in Susa (Shushan), the imperial capital. She was among the maidens called to the palace by Persian Emperor Xerxes I the Great (Achashverosh/Ahasuerus), when he sought to replace his defiant wife, Vashti. “Hadassah” means myrtle in Hebrew, and “Esther” might have been derived from its Median cognate, astra; otherwise, it could have derived from the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, and might have been adopted by Hadassah either when she entered the imperial harem or exited it when elevated as queen. Alternatively, Esther may derive from the apropos Hebrew word hester (concealed). Plucked from obscurity, Hadassah initially concealed her Jewish origins from her royal consort. But when the Persian grand vizier, Haman the Agagite (a descendant of the Amalekites), plotted to eradicate Jewry and obtained the imperial permission to execute his intention, Esther was confronted with the choice of advocating on her people’s behalf or preserving her silence and saving her own neck. Mordechai highlighted for her that her accession may have come about for just such a time and purpose. She resolved to reveal herself to her husband and accuse Haman at a pair of private banquets, and requested the observance of a three-day fast by all Jews. Haman and his sons were hanged on gibbets and the enemies of the Jews were killed in their stead. With Mordechai’s instrumental assistance, Esther saved the Jewish population of the Persian Empire. The traditional tomb of Esther and Mordechai is in Hamadan, Iran. There remain doubts about the historicity of the Scroll of Esther, with some critics considering it historical romance literature. (Much relies on the identification of Ahasuerus with Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I or Artaxerxes II.) Clearly historical is the Purim festival, attested in the Hasmonean era in Maccabees II.
Among the prophetesses, kindred pairs are distinguishable for their affinities in personality or activity: Sarah and Hannah (both were childless for many years and mocked by rival wives, but each eventually bore a son destined to be a leader of his people); Devorah and Huldah (both were named after animal nuisances and made powerful men come to them); and Avigayil and Esther (both rose from humble beginnings to become royalty; both were married to wealthy men who made grave errors in judgment, engendering the threat of mass violence; and both displayed great discretion during times of crisis). Sarah and Miriam were sisters of pioneering prophets, while Huldah and Esther were cousins of great prophets. Sarah and Avigayil are well-known for offering generous hospitality to comers. Sarah journeyed from Ur to Haran to Canaan, while Hannah journeyed annually to Shiloh. Miriam and Devorah are renowned for their famous songs of joy and praise, post-triumph, as is Hannah for her thanksgiving prayer after triumphing over childlessness. Miriam helped save her baby brother, Moses, from a watery death, while Avigayil saved her husband from David’s vengeance, and Esther helped save the Jewish people throughout the Persian Empire. Both Sarah and Esther were involuntarily inducted into the harems of eastern rulers, and both had their names changed to define a new stage in their lives.
Together, the prophetesses attest to the exceptionalism of women whose leadership and proximity to the divine played a crucial role in their own generations, as well as throughout the life of the nation through their descendants.