Textual Religion and the Marginalization of Two Huldas by Dirk von der Horst
I am a Protestant in large part because I like to read. Even after grappling with feminist critiques of patriarchal religions, a spirituality rooted in the Word (capital “W”) is very deep-seated in me. One reason I think of my faith as biblical is that a scriptural religion engages me in my favorite activity. At the same time, there are real connections between exclusive dependence on written records and the erasure of women’s history, as well as various ways in which women have been excluded from literary production. The opposition between text and world often becomes a manifestation of the hierarchy of mind and body that many feminists have seen as damaging. It’s like the question of “why are there no great women composers?” The problem with this question is not only that it ignores great women composers such as Hildegard of Bingen, Barbara Strozzi, Louise Farrenc, or Thea Musgrave. As feminist musicologists Marcia Citron and Suzanne Cusick have shown, the question reinforces a hierarchy in which composers, those who create musical texts, have precedence over those who perform and listen. It also relegates places where women’s contribution has been essential to the production of music – educating children, for example – to irrelevance.
One story that gets at the tension between textual religion and women’s agency is the story of the finding of the scroll of Deuteronomy and its authentication by the prophet Huldah in 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34. Deuteronomy proscribed the worship of the Goddess Asherah, but was authenticated by a female prophet. While the tension between remembering women’s agency and the elimination of the Goddess is an important angle to consider, there’s one fact I want to put in the limelight: We do not have a Book of Huldah. There is no explicit prohibition against women prophesying in Deuteronomy, but we have no prophetic book that collects a woman’s prophecies. The scribes had no problem recording Joel’s hope that one day sons and daughters would prophesy, they had no problem with recording Micah’s honoring Miriam as an equal with Moses and Aaron – apparently they had a problem with writing down enough of Huldah’s prophecies to give her her own book.
Huldah’s contemporary Zephaniah illustrates a different aspect of the tension between Deuteronomy’s standardization of prophecy and actual practice. Deuteronomy 18:15 insists that prophets come from among native Israelites. However, there is a general consensus among biblical scholars that the designation “son of Cushi” in Zephaniah 1:1 refers to his Ethiopian ancestry. This is followed by a longer geneaology than is usual in a prophetic book, generally understood as a way for the redactor to downplay the embarrassing fact that a canonically recognized prophet was of foreign descent. We probably have a book that records prophecies by a black male prophet, but no book by a female prophet.
For some Christian and Jewish feminists, the prophetic mandate for social justice can be extended by analogy from its patriarchal context. For others, the patriarchal imagery of the prophets is too toxic to be reclaimed. Huldah, however, points to the possibility that the problem is not so much “prophetic religion” as “scribal religion.” If Huldah was not anomalous as a female prophet – and her authority is never in doubt – she may be testimony to an erased link between the prophets’ successful transmission of the dangerous memory of those oppressed by class hierarchy and imperial domination and a tradition of Israelite/Judean women’s spirituality – strands of ancient Israelite/Judean thought that are largely in opposition in the preserved prophetic texts.
There are few texts I wish I could read as badly as a collection of prophecies by Huldah; if I were primarily a biblical scholar, I would have my students write an imagined reconstruction of it. What I like to imagine is a text in which we would have a clear “before and after.” Would we see a shift in the nature of her prophecies before and after the implementation of Deuteronomic law? The points on which people have imagined Huldah have varied. In The Women’s Bible, Elizabeth Cady Stanton cited Huldah as evidence that women can excel in book learning. In Womanguides, Rosemary Ruether posited that the Deuteronomists needed a woman to validate their program of eliminating Goddess worship. This picture is ambivalent insofar as a woman sanctifies the intensification of patriarchy. A very different picture emerges from the biblical scholar Diana Edelman in her essay in A Feminist Companion to Samuel and Kings. Edelman postulates that Huldah was more likely a prophet of Asherah than Yahweh. In Edelman’s view, turning to Asherah at this moment would have been a way of not drawing Yahweh’s attention to the fact that the rules of the book had been neglected and would have meant that a divine intercessor would have softened the blow of divine punishment.
There’s another Hulda who has been cast into the shadows thanks to the dynamics of textual religion: Hulda Niebuhr, sister of the more famous theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr. She was an intellectual in her own right, who struggled against her father’s strictures against women’s education. It may be that H. Richard Niebuhr’s advocacy of women’s admission when he was president of Elmhurst College owes something to witnessing his sister’s struggles. Hulda went on to be a figure in Christian education – with a strong sense that knowledge needs to be adapted to the needs of all ages, rather than only being formulated as philosophical theology. Recently, I was at an AAR panel on Reinhold Niebuhr and feminism. The panelists discussed Valerie Saiving’s early critique of theology to set the terms for a dialogue between feminism and Reinhold Niebuhr. However, Hulda Niebuhr was only mentioned in passing by someone posing a question. In this forum, it was not Hulda Niebuhr’s sex that made her invisible, but the gendering of the genre in which she worked. Her primary achievements were in the oral environment of the classroom, not in written products. To close, I’ll let one of her students preserve her memory, as cited by Barbara Brown Zikmund (PDF):
“There was an atmosphere in the class that education was growth and must be related to experience (doing). There was high regard for each member of the class – often our projects would be evaluated by our peers. I do not recall anyone ever being humiliated in class. Also, we were encouraged to get out of the class what we put into it – nothing came from just being there. Consequently, we all learned from our outside reading, from doing our projects, and from each other. Creativity was encouraged, imagination was stimulated.”
Dirk von der Horst is a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union, where he is working on revising his dissertation as ‘Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference.’ He recently co-edited with Emily Leah Silverman and Whitney Bauman, ‘Voices of Feminist Liberation: Writings in Celebration of Rosemary Radford Ruether.’