Maybe you think Huldah sounds like the latest Avengers villain, or a mysterious place in the Middle East which is probably subject to ceaseless violence but somehow undeserving of media attention. Chances are that you haven’t heard of Huldah as a significant Bible character because until recently I had somehow completely overlooked this Old Testament prophet who was very influential in the time of the King Josiah. Josiah, you may remember, became King at the age of eight, and has certainly been the subject of some Bible teaching I recall even for children. But Huldah I fear has been sidelined, not just because of the relative obscurity of the passages in 2 Chronicles and 2 Kings, but because she was a woman.
I knew about Queen Esther and the elderly prophet Anna who announced Jesus as the redemption of Israel, and have been talking more recently with friends about the example of Deborah who was one of the early Judges of Israel. Depending on someone’s church tradition they may be quite used to having women preaching, but I was reminded recently by one more conservative friend that there are still people who believe that women shouldn’t preach, lead or have any authority over men. I quite liked the meme I saw on Facebook really that stated that “Without women preachers, we would have no knowledge of the resurrection”. I’m not sure this is totally true, but I do like the reminder that the first people to see the resurrected Jesus and spread the word were Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, even though they weren’t believed.
I had the conversation with this conservative guy who seemed to think that women preachers were very much a second choice, only really acceptable when no men are available. I tried to be reasonable about it and asked what he thought about Deborah but he hadn’t heard of her so the conversation got a bit difficult. In truth I took it a bit personally as I had been due to be preaching that Sunday but it had been snowed off. But the night before I preached instead on Palm Sunday my scheduled Bible reading included 2 Chronicles 34 which covers the early life of King Josiah.
He began seeking God at a young age and got rid of many altars to idols as well as repairing the temple. When the priest Hilkiah discovered the Book of the Law, the secretary Shaphan took it to the King. Shaphan read it aloud and King Josiah was distraught at how far they had strayed from the Law. He ordered Hilkiah and Shaphan and three others to go and inquire of the Lord for him, to find out what the consequences would be and what they should do next, and all five men trooped out to speak to the prophet Huldah who is recorded as being the wife of Shallum whose grandfather was keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in the New Quarter of Jerusalem, which sounds quite trendy to me.
She speaks in a way that sounds unintimidated by the King, but with clear authority from God. She speaks of coming disaster on the people of Judah because of their disobedience, but she also knows that Josiah has had a responsive heart and humbled himself before God. She declares how God has heard him and would gather him to be buried in peace before the disaster happened. We go on to hear how Josiah continues to return to God’s ways, reinstalling the priests in the temple and celebrating the Passover in accordance with God’s directions as had not been done since the days of Samuel. Only after Josiah dies is Judah attacked by the kings of Egypt and Babylon, with all of them and Jerusalem eventually falling to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
The same account appears in 2 Kings 22, but otherwise the Bible doesn’t mention Huldah further. I guess the church fathers didn’t make much of her contribution as they were happy to go with the apparently straightforward direction from Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 that women should be silent in church. I did hear someone recently argue that the translation of silent should be ‘peaceable’, which gives a very different impression. I’m not sure that the rest of the passage bears this out, but I quite like how the new NIV verse 39 encourages both brothers and sisters to be eager to prophesy. Some have argued that prophesying is different to preaching, but the example of Huldah seems to have authority and direction as well as prophetic gifting.
The other passage from 1 Corinthians which seems particularly pertinent is a couple of chapters earlier, when Paul is encouraging the brothers and sisters to be aware that there are people with a wide range of gifts and that all are needed for the church body to be built up. While I have not received very much training in the area of preaching, I do feel it is an area which uses some of the gifts God has given me. I do get paid to teach others in my day job, in a way that would probably have been unheard of for a woman in Bible times. I would generally make the point that better education of women and more opportunities have meant that there are more fantastic women preaching than ever before. I was delighted to hear that the new Bishop of London is a woman and imagine that the Church of England would now struggle to function without women priests, as I heard a feature suggesting that robot priests might be a solution for some rural parishes, especially at busy times like Easter. (30 mins in). While I am impressed by the work of fellow academics at the University of Sheffield, the thought that some people might rather receive communion from a robot than a woman seems utterly preposterous.