There are 39 books in the Old Testament, divided into 4 or 5 categories, depending on who is doing the classification: Law/History, Wisdom, Poetry, and Prophets. Seventeen of the 39 books are known as the Prophets.
All 17 books of the Prophets are collections of the sermons and predictions of male prophets, Isaiah through Malachi, but there are also four women “with an authentic prophetic ministry” who are mentioned in the Old Testament–Miriam, Deborah, Isaiah’s wife, and Huldah.
This week we’ll take a look at Miriam and Deborah, and we’ll save Isaiah’s wife and Huldah for next week. (Some sources cite as many as 10 female prophets–perhaps they’ll show up in a later article.)
First, what is the job description of a prophet? In his book The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most significant Jewish scholars of the 20th century, writes that “the task of the prophet is to convey the word of God.” He continues:
“Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope…. In the presence of God he takes the part of the people. In the presence of the people he takes the part of God.”
Twentieth century Christian scholar Sandra Richter echoes Heschel’s definition of a prophet, adding that “in Israel’s world Yahweh is truly the king of the country, and the prophets are among several human officers who carry out his will.” (from Epic of Eden: Isaiah)
The scripture: Exodus 2:1-10; 15:20-21, Numbers 12:1-15
The story: In Exodus 2, Miriam is not mentioned by name when she watches her mother hide her baby brother Moses in a basket in the bulrushes of the Nile River. When she witnesses Pharoah’s daughter retrieve the basket from the river, thinking quickly, Miriam offers her own mother as a nursemaid. She saves Moses’ life.
The next time Miriam is mentioned in Exodus 15, just after Moses has led the Israelites through the Red Sea:
“Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider He has thrown into the sea.'”
Why is Miriam called a prophet in this passage? In the Apocrypha, specifically in the Jasher 68:1, we read:
“And it was at that time the spirit of God was upon Miriam the daughter of Amram the sister of Aaron, and she went forth and prophesied about the house, saying, ‘Behold a son will be born unto us from my father and mother this time, and he will save Israel from the hands of Egypt.'”
Miriam’s final appearance is in Numbers. She and her brother Aaron complain to God about the fact that Moses was getting all the credit: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?”
Needless to say, God gets mad and comes down in a pillar of cloud. When the cloud lifts, Miriam has been stricken with leprosy. Moses intervenes with God on her behalf, and God heals her after she is shut out of the camp for seven days.
Miriam makes her final appearance in Numbers 20:1. “In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.“
Her life and times: The first mention of dancing in the Bible is when Miriam danced with the Israelite women after they made it safely through the Red Sea. Although some denominations frown upon dancing, in Biblical times, dancing was a way to express happiness and joy.
Her legacy: Miriam played an instrumental role in the deliverance of God’s people. As a young girl, she saved the life of her brother Moses. As an adult, she encouraged the Israelites on their 40-year trek through the desert. Her song in Exodus 15 is the first psalm recorded in scripture.
The scripture: Judges 4-5
The story: We meet Deborah in Judges 4:4-5: “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 judgement.”
Deborah was also a military leader. In Israel’s endeavor to defeat the Canaanites, Deborah summoned the military commander Barak to lead the battle. He agreed to do it as long as Deborah accompanied him. Because of Barak’s refusal to go into battle without Deborah, she prophesied that he would win the battle, but the honor of the victory of the battle would go to her. She was right.
After their defeat of the Canaanites, Deborah and Barak celebrated by retelling the events of the battle in what has become known as “The Song of Deborah.” Judges 5 concludes with the verse, “And the land had rest for forty years.”
Her life and times: If you’re thinking of someone like Judge Judy, get that idea out of your mind. A Biblical prophet is something a little different.
After the death of Joshua, the Israelites abandoned the God who had led them through the desert for 40 years. God punished them by allowing their enemies to defeat them.
But, as always, when God punishes, He also restores. In Judges 2:16, God shows mercy to His people: “Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.”
Twelve judges were “raised up” during the time between the death of Joshua and the appointment of Saul as king. These Biblical judges presided over the affairs of the Israelites. God used these men and women to save the Israelites from their enemies and lead them back to Him.
Her legacy: Deborah is one of only a few female prophets, and she is the only female judge of Israel. In Judges 5:7, she simply describes herself as “a mother in Israel.” But Deborah was more than just a mother to her own children–she was a mother to all of the children of Israel.
As prophetesses, both Miriam and Deborah carried out the word of God. Next week, we’ll take a look at Isaiah’s wife and Huldah.
To read more about prophets by this author:
Pay Attention! (Joel)
We Need a New Plumb Line, (Amos)
Listen. Listen. Listen!(Isaiah)
Resources for this article:
Women of the Bible, by Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda, Zondervan publishers, 1999.
The Prophets, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hendrickson Publishers, 2021.
The Epic of Eden: Isaiah, by Sandra L. Richter, Seedbed Publishing, 2019.