Forty women: 36. Huldah

Prophets don’t just predict the future. In fact, prophets rarely predict the future. They aren’t fortune tellers.

Huldah was not a fortune teller, looking into a crystal ball to predict the future for the nation of Judah. Huldah was a prophet, speaking God’s word into a particular historical situation. Sometimes prophecies aren’t about the future at all, but merely God’s comment on the past or present. Where they are about the future, sometimes prophecies function as promises but sometimes they are warnings. Sometimes they are absolute: “This will happen” but sometimes they are conditional: “If you continue in your ways, this will happen.”

In Huldah’s day, Judah’s king, Josiah, sent to tell the high priest to use the tithes appropriately for the rebuilding of the temple. In that work, the high priest had rediscovered the book of the law, which had apparently lain lost and and forgotten for generations.

When the book was read out to the king, he tore his clothes in a sign of repentance, and told his advisors: “Go, enquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (2 Kings 22:13)

How do you enquire of the Lord? You ask a prophet. And in this case, you ask a female prophet. You ask Huldah.

Huldah listens. She hears the news that the book of the law has been found and the king’s reaction.

And then she speaks God’s word of both warning and promise. The warning is of God’s wrath and judgment on the people who have forsaken the Lord and worshipped other gods. The promise is for King Josiah, who because of his penitence, will escape that judgment. How? By being gathered to the Lord before the destruction comes.

His death will be his salvation.

Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.” (2 Kings 2:20)

Death is very near at the moment. It is real and it seems very frightening. But the word of God, spoken through the prophet Huldah, tells us that God’s unquenchable wrath is by far more frightening. Do not fear being gathered to your grave in peace by the Lord. Fear the destruction that God will bring on those who have turned away from him.

And let your fear move you to repentance, while it is not too late.

Forty women: 35. Jehosheba

The history of Athaliah made for pretty grim reading, but tied up in those same events was another woman. A very different woman. While Athaliah was busily murdering all of her grandchildren that she could lay her hands on, Jehosheba was quietly saving the life of one of them.

Jehosheba was the daughter of a king, and the sister of a king, which makes her the aunt to Athaliah’s grandchildren. She clearly knew what sort of woman her mother (or possibly stepmother) was and when she saw what was happening she acted, fast:

“But Jehosheba, the daughter of King Joram, sister of Ahaziah, took Joash the son of Ahaziah and stole him away from among the king’s sons who were being put to death, and she put him and his nurse in a bedroom. Thus they hid him from Athaliah, so that he was not put to death. And he remained with her for six years, hidden in the house of the Lord, while Athaliah reigned over the land.” (2 Kings 11:2-3)

The child was a year old. He was not, of course, the first baby boy who needed to be hidden in order to save his life, and nor would he be the last. But he was the one (in the Bible) who was hidden for the longest. He couldn’t stay in the palace for that long and expect to escape his grandmother’s notice. So Jehosheba arranges for him to be smuggled out to the one place even Athaliah could not go: to the temple.

Jehosheba, unlike the women who saved Moses’s life, knows that she is doing more than protecting a baby. She knows that Athaliah is not the rightful ruler of the kingdom of Judah. She knows that God has made promises to David’s descendants which should pass to her nephew. She knows that Jehoash is God’s anointed king. And so, even though she can’t save all the children, she saves the one who God will use to save his people.

Jehoash isn’t absolutely the best king that Judah ever has, but he’s better than most, and infinitely better than Athaliah. At seven years old, he takes the throne, and under the guidance of the high priest who has hidden and protected him since he was a baby, ‘he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.’ (2 Kings 12:2).

One day, another woman would hide a baby from a murderous ruler. And that baby would also be God’s anointed king. That woman would not be able to save all the children from death either, but she too would save the one whom God would use to save his people. And he too would do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.

Thank God for women like that.

Forty women: 34. Athaliah

Athaliah had royal blood running in her veins. Her grandfather had been king in Israel. Her son was king in Judah. She had been queen consort and a queen mother. And now, there is no king, left. Only children who could not possibly rule a country.

“Now when Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal family.” (2 Kings 11:1)

Why should she not be queen? She is the most experienced, the most qualified, the best suited.

Why should she not trample over those who stand in her way?

Her grandchildren, that is to say. Her own grandchildren, who you might think ought to be delighted in and played with and perhaps even a little spoiled by Athaliah.

Who instead are murdered by her.

For six years she clings onto power. It can’t have been easy. Any number of people must have had their eye on her throne. But I daresay she had something of a reputation for coldblooded ruthlessness, given how she’d risen to power.

Whatever her reputation, it did not inspire loyalty. When finally the moment came for the true king to take his place, all Athaliah’s shouts of ‘Treason’ and her histrionic ripping of her clothes did not inspire one person to stand up in her defence. Not one person tried to argue her case nor to protect her from being taken and executed.

Athaliah chose to live by the sword, and so Athaliah died by the sword.

“So all the people of the land rejoiced, and the city was quiet after Athaliah had been put to death with the sword at the king’s house.” (2 Kings 11:20)

It never needed to be that way. Her grandson was just a year old when his father died. He would have needed some trustworthy older person to rule as regent on his behalf. Athaliah could have been that person. She could had all the power she wanted. She could have had the strongest influence over Judah’s next ruler. But she was greedy. She wanted it all.

And then she lost it all.

Forty women: 33. Jezebel

I wonder what you’ve made of the 32 women we’ve looked at so far in this series. I wonder if you’ve been surprised by how complicated some of their stories are. How even those women held up as models of faith in the New Testament could be jealous, angry, sinners. How even some of those we might have assumed were on the outside of God’s covenant blessings – the foreigner or the prostitute, say – turn out to be key players in God’s covenant purposes.

It’s almost as if these women are people.

So what about this woman? What about Jezebel, whose very name, many thousands of years later, continues to be a term of derision for a certain kind of woman. Shameless. Sexually shameless. One who uses her sexuality to exert power and influence.

Well, she was shameless. And she did want power. And she was prepared to be ruthless in exercising it.

Jezebel made it her business to see that all the prophets of Yahweh were destroyed, while the prophets of the false gods were invited to eat at her table.

Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah, after his great demonstration of Yahweh’s power and superiority over all the false gods of Baal – gods that she had taught her husband to worship.

And when her husband was sulking because he could not have something he wanted, Jezebel was willing to get it for him by falsely accusing an innocent man, so that he was stoned to death.

Her influence extended not only to her husband, Ahab, king of Israel (the northern kingdom), but after him to her son, Joram, and even to their son-in-law, Jehoram, king of Judah (the southern kingdom), and to the next generation after them. It’s only when Jehu, a new leader of a new dynasty, is anointed, that the cycle is finally broken: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel.  And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord.  For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah. And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her.” (2 Kings 9:6-10).

Jezebel was wicked. There is no question about that. She was wicked, shameless, ruthless. She was promiscuous, manipulative, and bloodthirsty. She was idolatrous and faithless.

But she was not those things because she was a woman.

She was not those things because she was a woman who wore make up and tight-fitting clothes.

She was not those things because she had breasts and hips and was a sexual being.

Be very careful who you call a Jezebel. Be clear what you are calling down on her head. Because it’s not a fate to wish on someone lightly.

Forty women: 32. The widow of Zarephath

You reached the end of your tether some days ago. Now you’ve entered the final stages of grim acceptance. Not just for yourself. No, that would be too easy. You’ve had to come to terms with it for your boy as well.

Had his father lived, it would not have come to this. He would have found a way to keep you both fed, and housed, and warm. But it’s just you now, on your own. And it has not rained.

For years, it has not rained. Nothing has grown worth harvesting. You’ve been ekeing out your stores, hoping against hope for a miracle. And now, you’ve had to admit, you’re at the end. But if it’s the end, you’ll go out as well as you can possibly manage.

So you’re gathering sticks one last time, to make one last fire. You’ll take the last grains of flour and the last drop of oil, to make one last round of bread. And with that, you’ll take your son, and you’ll hold him tight in your arms, and sing him to sleep. And you’ll pray that he never wakes again. Because the miracle isn’t coming.

And then it comes. Only, to take hold of it, you have to let go of what you have.

He’s asking you to make that round of bread and give it to him. And then go and make more for yourself and your boy. Doesn’t he understand? There is no more. There’s barely enough for one portion. There isn’t enough to share.

But he carries on, “For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’

And she went and did as Elijah said.” (1 Kings 17:14-15)

What have you got to lose, after all?

What use holding on to that last handful of flour and drop of oil?

What use holding on to what you have, if it’s stopping you gaining far more than you’d ever imagined? A bottomless jar of flour, an endless flow of oil, a feast every day until the rains come.

Why wouldn’t you hand over the little that you have, in faith that the Lord, the God of Israel, will provide everything that you need?

Forty women: 31. The wise woman

Oh, Tamar, how long was the shadow of your rape.

She fled, you may remember, to seek shelter in the home of her brother Absalom. For two long years, Absalom did not forget what was done to his sister and when the moment came, he avenged her, ordering his men to kill Amnon. At which point Absalom himself fled.

David, father of all three, mourned the death of his son Amnon. But he also missed his son Absalom and longed to go to him in exile. We are not told how he felt about his daughter Tamar.

Not for the first time, David needs to be told a parable to help him understand his own situation. Joab, one of David’s advisors, sends for a wise woman and tells her what the king needs to hear. Wise women, and indeed wise men, would usually be the ones dispensing wisdom, they would be consulted on all matters of life and faith. Perhaps Joab chose this woman because he thought David might listen to her. Perhaps simply because he knew she would be confident enough to speak to the king.

The wise woman does as she is asked. She dresses as a grieving woman and pleads with David to hear her story and tell her what to do. One of her sons has killed the other, she tells him. The rest of her clan think the murdering brother should be put to death for what he has done – but she doesn’t want to lose both her sons.

David tells her that her remaining son will be pardoned. She will not lose him. And then she says what she’s really come to say, “Why then have you devised a thing like this against the people of God? When the king says this, does he not convict himself, for the king has not brought back his banished son? Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him.” (2 Samuel 14:13-14)

If her fictional son can be pardoned, why not David’s real one?

The wise woman, David realises, is speaking for his advisor. This may not be her own wisdom, but she has recognised the wisdom in what she was asked to do. And David recognises the wisdom in it too. He calls Absalom to return to the kingdom.

And for a time at least, there is something of a happy ending for this troubled family: “Three sons and a daughter were born to Absalom. His daughter’s name was Tamar, and she became a beautiful woman.” (2 Samuel 14:27)

Perhaps this third Tamar had a happier future than her namesakes. Let’s hope so.

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