Textual Religion and the Marginalization of Two Huldas by Dirk von der Horst

DirkI 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.’

13 thoughts on “Textual Religion and the Marginalization of Two Huldas by Dirk von der Horst”

  1. Being a pastor who is a woman, I find hope and courage in biblical characters such as Huldah. As a woman who also is of the Word, these rare evidences of women’s authority help me lay hold of that heritage. Thank you for excellent piece about her and for introducing me to Hulda Niebuhr.


  2. Enjoyed your essay.

    Though I am a writer, unlike you I do not revere the word or the Word. For me, the body and nature are my primary teachers. Of course all of our experiences are mediated through language, but stilll, I prefer to see a bird or a waterfall as much as possible without adding the lens of Wordworth or Homer or any other writer. I prefer to try to see the swallow, not the literary interpretation of it. That is why I prefer earth-based spirituality.

    As for Hulda, if she worshipped Asherah, do you think this is simply an odd fact, or a route ro reintroducing the veneration of trees and nature back into Protestantism, Cathoicicm, or Judaism?

    But perhaps after all, Hulda was supportive of the Deuteronomists’ attempts to compare Goddess worship unfavorably to Yahweh worship. If so, she has many “daughters” in the present day, so this should come as no surprise to anyone! Nor should the fact that she was not “remembered” even though she may have been a loyal daughter of the patriarchy.



    1. It’s true the possibilities for what Huldah was up to are really wide. Edelman posits that the one prophecy we have of hers is actually put in her mouth by someone in the school of Jeremiah, so we might not even have as much as we thought. There’s a nice essay in Prophets, Patriarchs, and Other Villians that reads her from a Pagan perspective. I couldn’t really figure out how to get the perspective to fit with the flow of my writing, though.

      So, it’s a bunch of if… then. But we can play with the possibilities. Regardless of what Huldah’s position was, we know about Asherah, and I don’t see a reason not to reintroduce Her into worship/devotion. At the same time, as I get more into H. Richard Niebuhr, I’m becoming more appreciative of possibilities in his idea of radical monotheism – I was pleased to find this quote of his from 1935: “To make a god of the self, or of the class, or of the nation, or of the phallus, or of mankind, is to organize life around one of these centers and to draw it away from its true center; hence, in a unified world, it is to wage war against God.” How much religion has made a god of the phallus! So, in any re-appropriation of Asherah, I’d want to make sure that One/Many tension,and the various ways that plays out doesn’t get lost.


  3. The issue of invisibility is the most difficult one when looking at ancient texts. There are always questons around what the words meant and how they should be translated. But when only certain people’s words are getting preserved at all, there’s no way we can really get the whole picture.

    I sometimes bemoan the fact that every inane thought can be tweeted, emailed, and preserved forever on the internet, but if someone thousands of years in the future tries to make sense of our culture, they’ll have a lot more to go on.


  4. I’m with you, Carol, regarding the word (or Word) and–begging your pardon, Dirk–I’m a reader, too, but that hasn’t made me a “Protestant” in the same way it has you.

    I remember a professor in a class on oriental philosophy during my long-ago undergraduate days who laughed at having to use words from books to make his point: his great hero was Lao-Tzu, who, he said, was in his later life the great enemy of libraries. Words, especially words in books, he continued, cluttered the way to the real Tao, which could not be named.

    This is increasingly my take on the question of words, especially sanctified words, which freeze concepts and time, deny change, and block out the natural world, which I, like Carol, prefer to the congealed pieties, arguments and endless apologetics of “doctrine.” I enjoy books about ornithology, but I’d never trade one book for one live bird.

    I suspect that the (scriptural) Huldah—if she was more than a literary or propagandistic device–might have been, to use Carol’s phrase, one of those “loyal daughter[s] of the patriarchy” whom one continues to meet and whose operation I see in my own past. Exorcising her ghost–and the dead hand of words–may be one of the chief intellectual tasks of a feminist approach to religion.


    1. No need to beg my pardon – we all have different routes.

      And yes, imagining women’s resistance in ancient Judah will need to go beyond Huldah. I just don’t want her to get lost in the shuffle.


  5. Should have mentioned this in the article, but the biography of Hulda Niebuhr is _A Mysterious Mantle: The Biography of Hulda Niebuhr_ by Elizabeth Caldwell.


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