The 7 Prophetesses of Israel

According to Jewish tradition in addition to the 48 prophets there were also 7 prophetesses. Fortunately, the Gemara tells us exactly who they were.

The Source

The Gemara in Megillah briefly mentions the tradition of 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses.

Gemara Megillah 14a

Our Rabbis taught: “Forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel, and they neither took away from nor added onto what is written in the Torah except for the reading of the Megillah.”

The Gemara never identifies the 48 prophets. My previous article about the 48 prophets takes a look at couple of the opinions of who to include in the list.

However, almost right away it tells us the name of the 7 prophetesses.

Gemara Megillah 14a

“Seven prophetesses.” Who were these? Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther.

Only 3 of these women is called a prophetess in the Biblical text. The Gemara then discusses how we know that each of these women was a prophetess.

There is much to say about each of these 7 women. However, in this article I will focus on how we know they were prophetesses and their prophecies.

Passover is coming soon! Click here to download a guide to simplify preparing for the festival. It's free. Passover Cleaning.

Sarah

Sarah, whose name originally was Sarai, was Abraham’s wife. She is first mentioned in the Torah when she marries Abraham (who was known as Abram at that time):

Genesis 11

29. And Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.

The wording of this verse is unclear and lends itself to several explanations.

One explanation is this verse teaches us that Haran was the father of Milcah and Iscah.

According to Jewish tradition, Iscah is another name for Sarah.

The root idea of the name Iscah is “look” or “see.” The Sages teach that Sarah was able to foresee or look into the future by divine inspiration.

Here is an incident where God tells Abraham to defer to Sarah’s insistence to exile Ishmael from the household:

Genesis Chapter 21

12. And God said to Abraham, Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your slave; in all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac shall your seed be called.

Sarah saw with divine inspiration that only Isaac should be Abraham’s heir. She became aware of this before Abraham did.

Miriam

The first time Miriam is mentioned by name in the Torah she is identified as a prophetess and, strangely, as only Aaron’s sister. This is how the Jewish women celebrated the splitting of the sea:

Exodus Chapter 15

20. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.
21. And Miriam answered them, Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea.

drums for Miriam
Miriam and the women danced. It is not cleared if they played on drums or tambourines.

Rashi explains her status as a prophetess and why only Aaron is mentioned:

Rashi Exodus Chapter 15

20 Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took When did she prophesy? When she was [known only as] “Aaron’s sister,” before Moses was born, she said, “My mother is destined to bear a son” [who will save Israel], as is found in Sotah 12b, 13a).

At the time she prophesied she only had one brother (Aaron) and her prophecy was about another the brother (Moses) who would soon be born.

I’ve written a more extensive article about Miriam which you can read here.

Deborah

The era of the Judges, from the time of Joshua to Samuel, lasted for about 390 years. Only one woman served in the capacity of a Judge:

Judges Chapter 4

4. And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, judged Israel at that time.
5. And she lived under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-El in Mount Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.

After the military victory over Sisera, Deborah and Barak sang a song praising God (Judges 5:1 – 31).

The Zohar speaks highly of Deborah and the content of her song:

Zohar, Vayikra 47:333

All these verses that Deborah said, all of them are about the secrets of the highest wisdom.

However, Deborah is also criticized for one verse in her song.

Gemara Pesachim 66b

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Whoever is boastful, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; and if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. …

If he is a prophet his prophecy departs from him is learned from Deborah, as it is written: “The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until I, Deborah, arose, I arose a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7) and it is written “Awake, awake, Deborah; awake, awake, utter a song” (Judges 5:12).

Deborah boasted about what she had done. As a result, prophecy was taken from her and and she had to be urged to awaken and say a song.

We can learn from this Gemara that the gift of prophecy is not permanent and requires a high level of person integrity to maintain.

Hannah

Hannah, the mother of Samuel, was barren. After God answered her pray and she gave birth, she gave thanks to God.

1 Samuel Chapter 2

1. And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoices in the Lord, my horn is exalted in the Lord; my mouth is enlarged over my enemies; because I rejoice in your salvation.

Here is how the Gemara understands what Hannah said:

Gemara Megillah 14a

Hannah [is a prophetess] – as it is written, “And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoices in the Lord, my horn is exalted in the Lord.”

She said, “my horn is exalted” and not “my cruse is exalted.” This implies the royalty of the house of David and Solomon, who were anointed with a horn, would be prolonged. But the royalty of of the house of Saul and Jehu, who were anointed with a cruse, would not be prolonged.

The Gemara understands that Hannah is speaking prophetically about the endurance of David’s kingship compared to that of other Jewish kings.

There is a small comment by Tosafot on this passage. They point out that Hannah’s entire prayer (1 Samuel 2:1 – 10) is prophetic. So why did the Gemara only mention one verse? Tosafot answers that for simplicity they chose to focus only on the first verse.

The Zohar speaks highly of Hannah:

Zohar, Vayikra 47:329

There were two women that were in the world and they said songs and praises to the Holy One, blessed be He, that no man in the world ever said. Who are they? Deborah and Hannah.

Abigail's Gift to David
Some of the gifts of food Abigail brought to David

Abigail

Before David became king he and his men had protected the shepherds of a wealthy man named Nabal. Later David sent some of his men to Nabal to ask for food for his men.

Nabal refused and acted like he had never heard of David. This refusal angered David. He set out with an armed force to take to take vengeance against Nabal.

Nabal’s wife Abigail heard what had happened. She put together a supply of food for David and set out to intercept him.

Here is what happened when they met:

1 Samuel Chapter 25

28. [Abigail said to David]: I beg you, forgive the trespass of your maidservant; for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house; because my lord fights the battles of the Lord, and evil has not been found in you all your days.
29. If men rise up to pursue you, and to seek your soul; the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord your God; and the souls of your enemies, he shall sling out, as from the hollow of a sling.
30. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord shall have done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and shall have appointed you ruler over Israel;
31. That this shall not be a cause of stumbling to you, nor offense of heart to my lord, that you have shed blood without cause, or that my lord has avenged himself; and the Lord shall deal well with my lord, and you shall remember your maidservant.
32. And David said to Abigail, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me;
33. And blessed is your discretion, and blessed are you, who have kept me this day from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with my own hand.

Two of Abigail’s statements contain elements of prophecy.

First, she said (verse 28), “for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house.” She is proclaiming that David will become king and will establish a royal dynasty.

Second, she stated (verse 31), “That this shall not be a cause of stumbling to you.”

The sages in the Gemara focus on the word “this.”

She is indicating to David that if he accepts her plea, then “this,” the killing of Nabal will not be a stumbling block for him. However, some other event in the future will be a stumbling block. And, in fact, later on the David did stumble with Batsheva.

Huldah

The prophetess Huldah was descended from Joshua and was a relative of Jeremiah. She lived during the reign of King Josiah.

During King Josiah’s reign the priests discovered a Torah scroll in the Temple. They read portions of the Torah before the king. He was distraught by the words of the Torah.

He asked them to seek guidance from God.

2 Kings Chapter 22

14. And Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah, went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; she lived in Jerusalem in the second quarter; and they talked with her.
15. And she said to them, Thus said the Lord God of Israel, Tell the man who sent you to me,
16. Thus said the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read …

Huldah revealed to them that the words of the Torah were true. However, she also revealed that the punishments foretold in the Torah would only come to pass after Josiah died.

The sages in the Gemara ask why King Josiah’s delegation went to Huldah rather than Jeremiah.

They answer that Jeremiah was not upset by them consulting Huldah. So they went to her because, in general, women are more tenderhearted. They were sure that she would pray for them and Jewish people.

crown for a queen in the Bible

Esther

I’ve already written a fuller biography of Queen Esther.

Queen Esther is only mentioned in the Book of Esther. She is never explicitly called a prophetess. The sages of the Gemara tell us that her status as a prophetess is hinted at in this verse:

Esther Chapter 5

1. And it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal dress, and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s palace; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal palace, opposite the gate of the house.

Here is how the verse is explained in the Gemara:

Megillah 14b

Esther [is a prophetess], as it is written, “And it came to pass on the third day, that Esther clothed herself in royalty.” (Esther 5:1) Surely it should say “royal apparel.” What this shows is that the holy spirit [Hebrew: ruach hakodesh] clothed her.

The experience of “ruach hakodesh” is enough for us to understand that she was a prophetess.

The book Seder Olam chapter 21, points to the verse Esther 9:29 as further proof of her status as a prophetess.

Esther Chapter 9

29. Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordechai the Jew, wrote with all authority, to confirm this second letter of Purim.

According to Seder Olam, only a prophetess had the ability to write a book that would later be included in the Jewish Bible. In other words, if she was not acknowledged to be a prophetess, the later sages would not have included her writings in the canon of the Bible.

Why So Few Prophetesses?

The Gemara quoted at the beginning of this article stated that there were 48 prophets but only 7 prophetesses for the Jewish people.

The same Gemara also says that there were many more prophets.

It turns out that a Midrash tells us a similar fact about the number of prophetesses.

Midrash Rabbah – Shir HaShirim 4:11:1

Rabbi Berechya said in the name of Rabbi Helbo: Just as six hundred thousand prophets arose for Israel, so too, six hundred thousand prophetesses arose for them.

It is clear that very few of them received prophetic messages that were recorded in the Bible. Only those messages that were needed for future generations were written and preserved in the Jewish Bible (Gemara Megillah 14a).

Further Reading

This article is part of a series on the subject of prophecy. A good place to start is with the article What is Prophecy – A Jewish Perspective.

At the end of that article you will find links to all of the other articles.


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.