Women of the Bible Series: Huldah
Mary Ann Shumway McFarland has been coloring in coloring books since before it was cool. She is great at sending Christmas cards, terrible with warranties, and has finally discovered the joys of flossing (just as it turns out to be useless). She is a little bit miffed that everyone is so surprised the family dog loves her best.
I first studied Huldah’s story eight years ago when we named our son Josiah. At that point I thought it was a wonderful model to follow: a righteous king sending to a woman for counsel and then following her directions. In fact, my husband blessed our new son that he would be sensitive to exactly that: listening to the counsel of righteous women in his life and following it. In the tumultuous intervening years for me and other women in the church, Huldah has taken on a wistfulness for me that was not there before. Here is a woman who has authority. In fact, in the LDS faith, (if you’ll pardon the phrase) she has the mother of all callings: she is a prophetess. She is unquestioningly respected by male authority, temporal authority, national authority, all personified in King Josiah. She does not have to qualify her words, or justify them because she is a woman, or fight for her right to be a prophetess, or even explain herself. She simply fulfills her office with four “Thus saith the Lord”s.
We don’t talk very much about Huldah and her role in the history of Jerusalem. I do not have a good explanation for this, only a couple of guesses: 1. that it is confusing to find her story, as it is repeated in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, and 2. We aren’t as familiar with her since we have not been naming little girls after her the way we do with Abigail, Rachel, Rebecca, or Miriam. Huldah as baby name reached her peak of popularity back in 1900 when 23 girls were named after her. But that should change.
Huldah’s appearance in the Old Testament is inextricably woven with King Josiah’s reign. His story is, in turn, one peak in the sine wave that is the history of the children of Israel. When his father, Amon, was assassinated, Josiah was crowned king at age eight. If that seems young to become the ruler of Judah and Jerusalem, it may strain credulity that he had a spiritual awakening at the age of 16. At that point, he set about cleansing the land of the pagan influences: breaking idols and statues, razing the places of worship, and sprinkling the resulting debris on graves to contaminate it with the dead.
A decade later, Josiah also set a group to renovating Solomon’s temple, which had become desecrated by pagan worship in the intervening generations. In the midst of their cleaning and repairs, Hilkiah the high priest found a book or scroll. Scholars generally agree that it contained most or all of the book of Deuteronomy. These verses prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and occupation of Judah in vengeance for their idol-worshipping and ignoring God. Hilkiah took the scroll to Josiah who rent his clothes upon hearing the contents.
In 2 Kings 22:13 King Josiah commanded five men to “Go ye, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us (also 2 Chronicles 34:21). For a young king who was expending so much energy trying to reconcile his people to God, the discovery of these verses was a terrible blow. Josiah sent the men to inquire of a representative of God. They went to Huldah.
Huldah was a prophetess who lived in the second quarter of Jerusalem, or Mishneh. We know more about her husband Shallum, the keeper of the wardrobe, than we do about Huldah herself, but it was her prophetic perspective the king desired. It is notable that the men came to her rather than summoning her to the king because it shows her stature in Jerusalem. In 2 Kings 22:14 it says that the men “communed with her”, at which point she gave a divine reply. While Huldah is not the only prophetess spoken of in the Bible, she is the only one whose oracle is preserved in the book. Her prophecy can be found in both 2 Kings 22: 15-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:23-28.
Why did King Josiah send his officials to Huldah? There were other prophets available in Jerusalem at the time. Jeremiah would have been a logical choice–he was a member of the high priest Hilkiah’s household[4[. Zephaniah would also have been a possibility; he was a great great grandson of King Hezekiah. The king could also have sought out Lehi, who lived in Jerusalem during King Josiah’s reign. Later reports suggest that Josiah asked for Huldah by name with an even stronger injunction than the inquiry stated in the Bible: that he “bid them go to her, and say that [he desired] she would appease God, and endeavor to render Him propitious to them.” Some scholars have postulated that King Josiah chose Huldah above the other prophets of the day because he hoped her pronouncement would be more compassionate and merciful to the people of Judah. If that is true, his hopes would have been dashed by her divine response:
2 Chronicles 34:23-28
23. And she answered them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Tell ye the man that sent you to me,
24. Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the curses that are written in the book which they have read before the king of Judah:
25. Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be poured out upon this place, and shall not be quenched.
26. And as for the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, so shall ye say unto him, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel concerning the words which thou hast heard;
27. Because thine heart was tender, and thou didst humble thyself before God, when thou heardest his words against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, and humbledst thyself before me, and didst rend thy clothes, and weep before me; I have even heard thee also, saith the Lord.
28. Behold, I will gather thee to thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered to thy grave in peace, neither shall thine eyes see all the evil that I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the same. So they brought the king word again.
Once Huldah had spoken, the delegation took her prophecy back to King Josiah without delay. When he received the divine response, he then called his people together to the temple. In 2 Chronicles:19-20, he gathered “the elders of Judah and Jerusalem”, “men of Judah”, “inhabitants of Jerusalem”, priests, Levites, “the great and the small”. Then in front of all of those assembled, King Josiah read them the scroll which was found. He recommitted himself to God before his people, and caused them to re-covenant as well. It appears that he took Huldah’s revelation very seriously. His desire to know what to do was sincere and unwavering, given that he immediately and publicly rededicated himself and his people to greater obedience and more sincere worship.
While the biblical account does not draw attention to Huldah’s position as a prophetess, neither does it brook any questions on the matter. In the six verses where she speaks, she says “Thus saith the Lord” four times. As Theodore Burton points out in his General Conference address of this name, this is a phrase used exclusively by the mouthpiece of God when prophesying. This leaves little doubt about who Huldah was, and her calling. In our own faith tradition, we have the possibility of prophetesses. As Elder James E. Talmage wrote in the Articles of Faith: “No special ordination in the Priesthood is essential to man’s receiving the gift of prophecy . . . . The ministrations of the prophetesses Miriam and Deborah show that this gift may be possessed by women also.” While this may be true, today in LDS practice women’s prophetic gifts are limited by their stewardship to a woman’s own individual, family, or church responsibilities. In the LDS faith there are currently no women whose prophetic gifts are being officially recognized and consulted at a national or churchwide level in the way that Huldah was. King Josiah sent his delegation to her in order authenticate the found scroll, get her divine input, and decide his course of action based on her response. And he did all of this despite the existence of men who held the same office she did. Josiah essentially changed the nature of his government from a monarchy to a theocracy because of Huldah’s prophecy.
About four years ago I was sitting in a group of LDS women when the topic of women and the priesthood came up. I remember the most astounding comment to me was from a young mother who said “I just don’t think it would be a big deal.” I was bowled over. My ward and stake looked as though it might explode like a landmine at the mere thought of it. But the account of Huldah proves this woman right: here is a woman who has authority, and the most important men in the land and the church accept it and respect it. Her office and gender are not a concern. She magnifies her calling, they magnify theirs, and the whole faith community is edified and recommitted because of it. Huldah shows the Latter Day Saints of today what it could look like to have women in callings which have hitherto been held, since the Restoration, only by men. It is a wondrous world.
1. Though that may be in part because Huldah means “weasel” or “mole”. Even in the best of interpretations, she is thought of as ferreting out the truth. www.womeninthebible.com “Huldah.”
2. The delegation consisted of Hilkiah, the high priest, Shaphan, the head scribe, Shaphan’s son Ahikam, Abdon the son of Micah, and Asaiah one of Josiah’s servants.
3. Claude Marriottini. “Huldah the Prophetess” www.claudemariottini.com. September 2, 2013.
4. “Intro to Jeremiah” Zondervan NIV Study Bible. http://www.biblica.com. January 15, 2014.
5. See the thorough discussion of Huldah’s historical context in Camille Fronk Olson’s “Huldah” in Women of the Old Testament. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book. 2009, pp. 145-160.
6. Josephus Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews 10.4.2. www.gutenberg.org. January 4, 2009. Care should be taken with Josephus’s Antiquities. While comprehensive, they were written centuries later, and are not considered to be perfectly historically accurate.
7. Megillah 14b. Sefaria. http://www.sefaria.org
8. While the accounts of her in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles are relatively neutral, Huldah has had plenty of aspersions cast upon her story from extra-biblical sources. The Rabbinical tradition posits that she was a prophetess only to women, calls her out for referring to King Josiah as “the man” in 2 Kings 22:15, and sometimes claims that she was a false prophet because Josiah did not die under peaceful circumstances. See, for example the explanation in Blazenka Scheuer’s “Huldah: A Cunning Career Woman?” Prophecy and Prophets in Stories Vol 65. Utrecht, Netherlands. October 2013.
9. Theodore Burton,. “Thus Saith The Lord.” General Conference Address. October 1971.
10. James E Talmage. Articles of Faith. Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1899. Pp. 231-232.
11. Blazenka Scheuer “Huldah: A Cunning Career Woman?” Prophecy and Prophets in Stories Vol 65. Utrecht, Netherlands. October 2013. p.109.