§ The verse states: “And the king removed his ring from his hand” (Esther 3:10). Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: The removal of Ahasuerus’s ring for the sealing of Haman’s decree was more effective than the forty-eight prophets and the seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people. As, they were all unable to return the Jewish people to the right way, but the removal of Ahasuerus’s ring returned them to the right way, since it brought them to repentance.
Christians do not generally read the Talmud. I think we have some distrust of it as an extra-biblical source of teaching on the Old Testament, but we need to understand why the Talmud matters and what it can teach us about our relationship with scripture.
The Rabbis of the Talmud had older sources available to them that no longer exist. They were closer to events in scripture in time, and closer to it in language, location, and culture than we. I seek the oldest available Jewish understanding of scripture because I am a foreigner to it in so many ways, but they were not.
The Talmud states – without giving reference – that there were seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people. Rashi, widely recognized as the greatest Talmud scholar, gives their names: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. Each is a prototype of inspired womanhood.
Sarah was the half-sister of Abraham, and his wife. She was born Yiscah, which means observant, or “seer.” Abram called her Sarai, meaning “my princess” or possibly, “my superior.” This showed the high esteem he had for her station and abilities. He led the men of his household, but she led the women. When it came to a decision on what to do with her maid Haggai, Abram gave her full authority.
They had no children until the Lord added the letter “h” to their names. “Heh” in Hebrew is the letter of breath, a type of the breath of life, or Holy Spirit. When Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah, they received the Holy Spirit, which gave them a new life and identity. It healed Sarah’s barrenness.
Sarah is remembered for her beauty. Even kings desired to have her for a queen. God promised Abraham a land, but to Sarah he gave a holy lineage that would bring Christ to the earth.
Miriam means “troubled.” It is the same name as “Mary” in English. Jewish tradition says her father was a leader of his generation in captivity, and her mother was a busy midwife. Determined not to have more children for Pharaoh to slay, her parents separated. Miriam divined that they were to have a child who would lead their people out of captivity, and so she convinced them to re-marry.
She was instrumental in the plan to save baby Moses by watching from a distance until the Princess of Egypt took him in. She brought her mother to the Princess to act as a wet nurse for Moses. Was it dumb luck or circumstance? No, it was prophesy that inspired this bold plan.
Miriam was a strong leader, and on one occasion opposed her brother Moses. The Lord spoke to her directly, rebuking her, but she repented. When they came across the Red Sea on dry ground, Miriam rose up with her tambourine and worshipped, singing and dancing as she prophesied, leading the entire nation into worship of the Lord. She is remembered as the prophetess of praise.
Deborah judged Israel from beneath a date tree in Ephraim, so as to be out in the open, so that she would not be alone with the men who came for judgements from the Lord. The original is ambiguous. She was either the wife of a man named Lappidoth (flame), or was called “woman of flames” because she made wicks for the lamps in the Tabernacle of the Lord. Deborah means “honey bee,” but some Talmudists call her the Wasp of Israel.
She summoned Barak to raise an army of 10,000 men and take them to Mt. Tabor to fight against Sisera, the general of a Canaanite king who kept them in bondage. Barak said he would not go unless she went with him. She agreed to go, but also prophesied that the glory for his victory would be given to a woman.
I think the reason this story is here is to show us what the Lord can do when men do not rise to the occasion of leadership. Were there no men in Israel as strong as Deborah? Clearly not.
Barak’s army routed Sisera and his 900 chariots. A chariot is not very fast when your opponent is on a mountain. Chariots work better on level ground. Sisera fled on foot and came to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. She told him to come inside and she would hide him from Barak’s men.
He asked for water for he was very thirsty. She gave him milk with curds, a heavy meal that makes most people sleepy, and hid him under a blanket. After he fell to sleep, she took a tent peg and hammer, and drove it through his temples into the earth. She got the credit for defeating Sisera instead of Barak.
Deborah also celebrated Israel’s victory with a song, in which she praises the men of Ephraim who came to battle, and belittles all the tribes who would not help them. She is remembered for her strength and leadership.
Hannah means “grace” or “favor.” The story begins when Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, takes his family on a pilgrimage to Shiloh, the site of the Tabernacle. Elkanah is also married to another woman, Peninah. The childless Hannah silently suffers humiliation from her more fortunate rival, who has mothered several children.
Hannah enters the holy place, silently offering heartfelt prayers for a child. Eli, the high priest, unaccustomed to such heartfelt, silent prayers, thought that she was drunk.
“How long will you be drunk? Sober up!” Eli reprimands Hannah.
Hannah responds: “No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor spirits, but have poured out my soul before God.”
She is called a prophetess for several reasons. Tradition says her husband Elkanah was a prophet, and we know that Samuel her son was a prophet. She spoke directly with God, and not through the priest or her husband, and God answered her directly. She also corrected the high priest, and he accepted it. Hanna is remembered for her personal relationship with God, and for her faithfulness. She kept her vow to give her firstborn son to the Lord.
Abigail means “father’s joy.” She was the wife of Nabal, a name that means “foolish.” 1 Samuel 25:2-3 describes her as beautiful and wise, but Nabal was rich and evil-hearted. David was in need of food for his men, but he also protected the local farms and ranches from raiding bands of enemies, so when Nabal was sheering his sheep, David asked him for a donation of food.
Nabal called David a runaway slave and refused to offer David’s men anything. David told his men to get their weapons ready. They were going to have Nabal’s food anyway.
Fortunately, some of Nabal’s shepherds came to Abigail and told her what was happening. They gave a good report about David protecting them, and said he was on his way to kill them.
Abigail took 200 loaves of bread, two wine skins, five dressed sheep, five baskets of roasted barley, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and loaded them onto donkeys. She sent them to David without telling Nabal.
She rode out to David, dismounted, and fell on her face before him. He was not yet king, so she prophesied what he would become by doing this. Her humble speech stopped David from taking vengeance, and her gifts provided the food his army needed.
When Nabal heard what had happened, he became like a stone, and died 10 days later. David felt some responsibility for this, and married Abigail. Abigail is remembered for her wisdom and humility. In Jewish tradition, she also prophesied to David.
Huldah (which means “rat” or “mole”) is easily lost in the chaos of the time in which she lived. The Huldah Gates in the south wall of the temple mount were named after her, so she was far better known as a prophetess than we remember today.
Manasseh was the worst of Judah’s evil kings, and as the nation tried to put itself back together again after he died, Hulda was the person Hilkiah the Priest knew could get a word from the Lord. Today a mole means a spy within an organization. Manasseh killed all the faithful priests and prophets of the Lord, so it is not that surprising that the only one left in Jerusalem with the gift of prophesy was a woman.
She was the wife of Shallum, the son of Tikvah, the son of Harlas, Keeper of the royal wardrobe, so she was distantly connected to some of the royal servants. Manasseh’s successor Amon was soon killed by his own servants in a conspiracy, so his son Josiah became king at eight years of age.
He was a good king. When he was about 36, he sent his scribe to Hilkiah with instructions for repairing the old temple, and Hilkiah told him he had found the book of the law in it. Imagine what it would be like for every copy of the Bible to be destroyed, and for the people not to have it for a generation. When the king had the book read to him, he tore his clothes because of the judgements in it for unfaithfulness. He sent Hilkiah to ask of the Lord about it.
Hulda gave two prophesies, one for the high priest, and the other for the repentant king. She predicted calamity and destruction on the priest for having forsaken the Lord and his law. She told the king the Lord saw him tear his clothes and saw his tears and heard him weep. He would be gathered to his fathers in peace and not live to see the destruction that was coming.
Hulda is remembered for her encouragement of King Josiah to repair the temple, and for her defense of the Book of the Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
She is a prophetess, because she is the only woman to write a book of the Bible, the very words of God to us. She was born Hadassah, which means “bride” or “star.” Esther was the foreign name for “star” she became known by. When the queen of King Ahasuerus snubbed him by not appearing as commanded because he was drunk, the Princes encouraged him to dump her and get a new queen.
This was a time of great pomp and ceremony, so the preparations were very elaborate. They gathered up the most beautiful virgins in all the prefects and brought them to Shushan to be put through a 12-month regimen of baths in perfumes, application of beauty products, and training in etiquette, so the king could select a new queen from among them. Each girl had to spend a full night alone with the king. It was as it sounds. She would never see him again unless he delighted in her and called for her by name. Esther won the contest.
Esther had been raised by her Uncle, Mordecai. He learned about a plot by Haman the Agagite to convince the king to have all Jews put to death in all the world. She risked her life to go in to the king without being called, to plead for mercy for her people. In this, she was a type of Jesus, who went meekly to his death to save all who would believe on him.
Esther is remembered every year at the Feast of Purim, for helping her Uncle Mordecai uncover the plot and plead for help from the king. Every year the story is retold in a very dramatic way, so that everyone cheers when the storyteller says “Mordicai,” and everyone boos and hisses when the storyteller says “Haman.” They make cookies with three corners to represent eating Haman’s hat. This was probably the way Melodrama theater got started.
One more thing. Haman the Agagite, was a descendant of Agag, the Canaanite king that Saul defeated but refused to slay as the Lord ordered. Instead, he took him alive as a trophy. Haman carried a grudge against Jews that was far older than himself, so that Saul’s pride almost cost them everything. Esther is still prophesying, as her book shows the ongoing hatred of antichrist for the people of Israel.