Five women in the Old Testament and six women in the New Testament are called prophetesses. But what is a prophetess, and, for that matter, what is a prophet? What role did Biblical prophetesses play? In general, what are the roles of women in God’s plan? Let’s look at what several Biblical scholars say on the topic, but most importantly, let’s dive into what the Bible says.
What is a prophetess in the Bible?
A prophet’s primary function was representing God to His people – like an ambassador relaying God’s Word. The prophet or prophetess was God’s mouthpiece. The Biblical prophets weren’t sharing their personal opinions but divine revelation given to them by God. For instance, Moses was a prophet, and God told him, “I will teach you what to say” (Exodus 4:12).
God also told Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him” (Deuteronomy 18:18).
Some of the messages God dictated to the prophets were things to do with the future, such as Daniel’s visions and the Apostle John’s visions in the Book of Revelation. Other messages were God’s command to do something, like rebuilding the temple (Haggai and Zechariah).
Most prophets in Old Testament were men, but there were five women prophetesses: four godly women and one false prophetess. The Old Testament speaks of false prophets who gave incorrect information to lead kings and other people astray. The Bible says the way to know if someone is a false prophet is if they prophesy something and it doesn’t come true (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).
John MacArthur notes that the Old Testament women prophetesses had a short-term ministry compared to men like Samuel or Moses, who prophesied over a span of years:
“Rarely did God speak to his people through women, and never did any woman have an ongoing prophetic ministry similar to that of Elijah, Isaiah, or any of the other key Old Testament prophets. In other words, there is nothing anywhere in Scripture to indicate that any women ever held a prophetic office. The idea that “prophetess” was a technical term for an official position or an ongoing ministry of direct revelation is simply nowhere to be found in Scripture.”[i]
The prophets mentioned in the New Testament usually had a divine word from God for a specific person or people in a particular place and time. For instance, in Acts 11:28, Agabus predicted a great famine. Later, he prophesied that Paul would be taken prisoner in Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-11). Acts 13 gives a list of prophets in the church at Antioch, and God used these prophets to set Paul and Barnabas apart as missionaries.
Who was the first prophetess in the Bible?
The Jewish Midrash says that Sarah (wife of Abraham) was the first prophetess due to her position as matriarch of the Jewish nation and because God told Abraham, “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her” (Genesis 21:12).
However, the first woman the Bible called a prophetess is Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron (Exodus 15:20).
God said to the nation of Israel: “Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).
Who are the women prophets in the Bible?
- Miriam was probably the quick-thinking older sister of Moses who offered to find a nurse for him when the Pharoah’s daughter rescued him from the Nile and reunited the baby Moses with his mother Jochebed (Exodus 2:1-10). However, the first time she’s mentioned by name and the only time she’s called a prophetess is in Exodus 15:20-21:
“Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea.”
The curious thing is that Miriam didn’t appear to prophesy anything – at least nothing that made it into Scripture. Even the song she sang came from the first two lines of Moses’ song. However, she obviously held a leadership position over the women of Israel as she led them out dancing and singing in praise to God. She would have been in her mid-80s by this time or older.
The next time Miriam is mentioned is in Numbers 12. Miriam and Aaron were critical of Moses’ Cushite wife, but they also asserted they were prophets as well as Moses: “Is it a fact that the LORD has spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:1-2)
God did not deny they were prophets, but He pointed out that Moses had a special place in prophetic leadership. God said He ordinarily spoke to prophets in dreams and visions, but in the case of Moses, He spoke “mouth to mouth,” not in enigmatic sayings. He said Moses saw the “form of God.” (Numbers 12:6-8)
God punished Miriam for questioning Moses’ authority by afflicting her with leprosy for seven days (Numbers 12:10-16).
- Deborah’s story is told in Judges 4 and 5. She was a prophetess, a wife, and a judge (Judges 4:4-5) – the only female judge named in Scripture. John MacArthur says about her:
“The Lord seemed to raise her up as a rebuke to the men of her generation who were paralyzed by fear. She saw herself not as a usurper of men, but as a woman who functioned in a maternal capacity, while men like Barak were being raised up to step into their proper roles of leadership (Judges 5:12). That’s why she referred to herself as “a mother in Israel” (v. 7 NKJV).[ii]
In Judges 4, Deborah called Barak and relayed God’s command: take 10,000 men and fight the Canaanites. Barak told her, “Only if you go with me.” Deborah said she would go with him into the battle, but he would lose his honor for the victory. So, she went to war with him, and they defeated the Canaanites. Judges 5 records the praise song of victory they sang together, which contains prophetic elements.
- Huldah: 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34 tell of Huldah, the prophetess, and her role in advising King Josiah and Hilkiah, the high priest. Josiah had ascended the throne of Judah as a child, following a succession of evil kings who practiced idol worship. As a teen, Josiah began following God, rid the land of idols, and ordered the temple to be cleansed and repaired. While repairing the temple, the Books of Moses were found, which no one had read for a very long time. Hilkiah sent the scribe Shaphan with the scrolls, which he read to the king.
King Josiah tore his robes when he heard the scriptures, realizing everyone had been living in disobedience for many years. He asked the high priest Hilkiah to inquire of the Lord how they could escape God’s wrath. So, Hilkiah went to Huldah, the prophetess and the wife of Shallum, and she gave him God’s word. She said that because Josiah had humbled himself before God and his heart was tender, he would not see the calamity God would bring on Judah. It would not happen until after his death. This prophecy came true when Nebuchadnezzar defeated Jerusalem shortly after Josiah’s death.
John Piper comments on the ministry of Deborah and Huldah:
“Perhaps it is no fluke that Deborah and Huldah did not put themselves forward but were sought out because of their wisdom and revelation (Judges 4:5; 2 Kings 22:14). . . the issue (in 1 Cor. 11:2016) is how a woman should prophesy, not whether she should. Are Deborah and Huldah examples of how to “prophesy” and “judge” in a way that affirms and honors the normal headship of men?”[iii]
- Wife of Isaiah: We don’t know much about this woman – just one sentence: “And I had relations with the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. The LORD said to me, ‘Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz.’” (Isaiah 8:3)
It’s unclear whether Isaiah called her a prophetess as a title for a prophet’s wife or if she was a prophetess in her own right.
- Anna: When the baby Jesus was 40 days old, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple to be dedicated. First, Simeon prophesied over him, and then a woman named Anna approached:
“There was also a prophetess named Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of thetribe of Asher, who was well along in years. She had been married for seven years, and then was a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying
Coming forward at that moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the Child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36-38)
Anna was an extraordinarily devout woman, living in the temple and constantly worshiping, praying, and fasting.
“She truly loved her God. She understood His heart and mind. She genuinely believed His Word. She was a wonderfully remarkable woman indeed—perhaps one of the most devout people we meet anywhere on the pages of Scripture. No one else comes to mind who fasted and prayed faithfully for more than sixty years!
. . . Finally, the answer to her prayers had come in flesh and blood. Suddenly Anna’s prophetic giftedness came boldly to the forefront . . . she continually spoke of Him to all who were looking for the Redeemer. This became her one message for the rest of her life.”[iv]
- Four virgin daughters of Philip: these four young women are also a bit of a mystery, with only one verse speaking about them:
“Leaving the next day, we went on to Caesarea and stayed at the home of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:8-9)
Acts 8 tells us about Philip’s remarkable evangelistic ministry in Samaria and with the Ethiopian eunuch. But the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about the ministry of these young prophetesses. We don’t know where they prophesied or to whom they prophesied. Since all four girls were unmarried, they were likely quite young, as most young women married in their teens in those days.
Interestingly, after Paul, Luke, and the rest of their group had stayed with Philip for a few days, the prophet Agabus showed up, having traveled there from Judea. He prophesied that Paul would be taken prisoner in Jerusalem. Paul was staying in a house with four prophetesses, yet God sent Agabus 75 miles from Judea with a prophecy. Perhaps the girls’ ministry was among the women of the church.
Paul went to Jerusalem anyway, despite Agabus’ prophecy. The prophecy was true – Paul was arrested. God wasn’t telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem but preparing him for what lay ahead.
False prophetesses in the Bible
- Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14) gets one verse, a prayer of Nehemiah’s: “O my God, remember Tobiah and Sanballat for what they have done, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the other prophets who tried to intimidate me.”
Nehemiah was the Jewish cupbearer to the Persian king, who had gone to Jerusalem to rebuild the crumbling wall. But some non-Jewish officials in the region were antagonistic to this and used every trick in the book to get the Jews to stop rebuilding the walls.
Nehemiah mentioned a man named Shemaiah, who tried to trick him with a false prophecy. Apparently, Noadiah had done the same thing.
- Jezebel (Revelation 2:20-24): God commended the church in Thyatira for their love, faith, deeds, and service; however, He chastised them for tolerating Jezebel, who called herself a prophetess. She was misleading Christians into sexual immorality and encouraging eating food sacrificed to idols. God said she was teaching the deep things of Satan.
God gave her time to repent of her immorality, but she was unwilling. God said He would punish Jezebel with sickness, that those who committed adultery with her would go through tribulation if they didn’t repent, and He would strike her children dead.
Some Biblical scholars consider Jezebel not a real person but a faction within the church, representing Queen Jezebel’s evil influence on her husband, King Ahab, and the nation of Israel.
Whether she was an actual woman in the New Testament church or a faction, God’s warning stands today. False prophets and prophetesses are a weapon used by Satan to infiltrate and pollute the church.
We can know someone who is a false prophet or prophetess has infiltrated the church if:
- They make a future prediction that doesn’t come true;
- They encourage Christians into immorality or disobedience of God’s revealed will;
- Their lifestyle is ungodly and worldly;
- They deny Jesus’ work or deity;
- They disrespect God-ordained authority.
Performing signs and wonders does not mean a person is God’s prophet. “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders that would deceive even the elect, if that were possible.” (Mark 13:22)
“Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
What are the common characteristics of prophets?
- Prophets are humble. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any man on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3)
- Prophets were often called at a very young age. Isaiah and Jeremiah were called before they were born (Isaiah 49:1, Jeremiah 1:5). John the Baptist recognized Jesus when they were both in their mothers’ wombs (Luke 1:41-45). Samuel was called as a small child (1 Samuel 3). Philip’s daughters were probably in their teens.
- Prophets often warn people regarding moral failure and judgment for disobedience. Nathan rebuked David for his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah (2 Samuel 12). Elijah had a showdown with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). Jonah warned Nineveh to repent of their wickedness, and they did. The Old Testament prophets warned Israel to maintain their covenant with God.
- They might predict the future, but not necessarily. Often, they speak a direct word of instruction from God to a specific person (Deborah and Barak) or to a church (the prophets at Antioch set apart Barnabas and Saul – Acts 13:1-3).
- They sometimes use object lessons to present God’s message. Agabus took Paul’s belt and bound his own hands and feet to prophesy Paul’s impending imprisonment (Acts 21:10-11). Ezekiel ate a scroll (Ezekiel 3), lay on his left side for 390 days and on his right side for 40 days (Ezekiel 4), and prophesied to dry bones that came to life (Ezekiel 37).
The roles of women in God’s plan
The Bible is clear that the primary role of women is as godly wives and mothers. Older Christian women have the responsibility to instruct younger women:
“They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands.” (Titus 2:3b-6)
Women also have roles in church ministry, evangelism, and missions. Paul commended several women with whom he ministered. He called Phoebe “a servant of the church” and “a helper of many, and of myself as well”(Romans 16:1-2). He called Prisca his fellow worker (Romans 16:3) and said Mary “worked hard for you (Romans 16:6). He called Persis “the beloved, who has worked hard in the Lord” (Romans 16:12). He said that Euodia and Syntyche shared his struggle in the cause of the Gospel (Philippians 4:2-3).
Women are not supposed to teach or exercise authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:12). However, in the New Testament church, women prayed and prophesied:
“Paul explains that ‘women should keep silent in the churches’ (1 Corinthians 14:33–34). However, it seems clear that the Apostle does not mean for women to be completely silent in every church setting or even in every worship service. For example, Paul apparently takes it for granted that at least some women will pray and prophesy in public (1 Corinthians 11:4–5), whatever that would have entailed in the first century context.”[v]
The Bible gives us several beautiful examples of prophetesses in the Bible. May we all be as bold and brave as Deborah in facing the adversary. May we share Anna’s extraordinary devotion to worshiping, praying, and fasting.
May we also be alert to false prophets who seek to infiltrate the church and lead the believers astray. Above all, may we be sensitive to the calling of God to serve Him in the church, according to the gifts and abilities with which He has endowed each of us.
[i] John McArthur, “Anna: The Prophetess from Asher,” Grace to You, December 21, 2022.https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B151202/anna-the-prophetess-from-asher
[ii] McArthur, “Anna: The Prophetess.”
[iii] John Piper, “Headship and Harmony,” Desiring God, May 1, 1984. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/headship-and-harmony
[v] “Women Speaking in Church: 1 Corinthians 14:33–35,” Ligonier Ministries, June 28, 2021. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/women-speaking-in-church