Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel

Article excerpt

Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel. By Wilda C. Gafney. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008, x + 222 pp., $22.00 paper.

Gafhey's study is motivated by the continued marginalization of women by "some Jewish and Christian religious communities [that] still restrict the role of women in proclamation, leadership, and presence in the pulpit on what they call biblical and traditional grounds" and seeks to "challenge the existing body of scholarship on Israelite prophecy" (p. 1). In the introduction, she discusses definitions of biblical prophets and surveys recent studies on the role of women in prophecy and ancient Israelite religious institutions.

In chapter 1, terms used for biblical prophets are examined. Gafney eschews the typical focus on oracular prophecy (p. 25) and intentionally omits a "technical definition of prophecy" (p. 26), but nonetheless concludes that "[t]he proclamation of the divine word is the dominant component of prophetic activity" (p. 41). Chapter 2 is a survey of women prophets in Mari, Emar, and Nineveh.

Chapter 3 is a discussion of identified women prophets in the Hebrew Bible Miriam (Exod 15:20), Deborah (Judg 4:4), Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14), the anonymous woman prophet in Isa 8:2, and No'adiah (Neh 6:14) - and three passages mentioning women as or among prophetic groups: Ezek 13:17-23; Joel 3:1-2; and 1 Chr 25:1-8. Gafney concludes that women prophets functioned during all periods of Israelite history based on references to them in all three Hebrew canon portions (p. 115-16). Also, "the majority" of the female prophets functioned within some sort of guild or community (p. 116); Deborah and Huldah are the notable exceptions. In chapter 4, Gafney examines the musical/funerary guild and the scribal guild as related to female prophetic guilds and finds there a reevaluation of scholarly assumptions about Israelite society: "The term patriarchy is an inadequate description of Israelite society, as it cannot account for the guilds under consideration" (p. 130).

Chapter 5 surveys rabbinic and (briefly) Christian trajectories on women prophets. Gafney shows how the rabbis reshaped the list of biblical women prophets, including some not identified as such in the Bible (e.g. Sarah, Hannah, Abigail, and Esther) and demeaning others (e.g. Deborah and Huldah) based on their "gender stereotypes" (p. 132). In chapter 6, based on her preceding analysis, Gafney proposes several hitherto unrecognized women prophets or prophetic groups in the Hebrew Bible: the matriarch Rebekah (Gen 25:21-23); the "women warriors" (Exod 38:8); the unnamed mother of King Lemuel (Proverbs 31); the mourners guild (Jer 9:16-21); and numerous women prophets "obscured" by Biblical Hebrew's default masculine gender marking for mixed-gender groups. …