There has been a lot of talk lately about gender equality and whether women have real voices in the church vis a vis the all male priesthood. Of course, the standard position of church leaders is that women are equally valued and that their perspectives are given full and appropriate consideration given the divinely ordained channels of revelation to the regularly constituted authorities. But somehow this rhetoric that “women are equally valued and listened to” has not been able to allay the growing perception and opinion of many that women are unequal to men at both institutional and theological levels in signifiant ways.
So because of my interest in the Old Testament, I thought of another way of testing the church’s rhetoric about the place of women in the church. If the church claims that it values the voices and contributions of women on a par with men, how well does the church listen to the few voices of women that are already found in scripture and enjoy the authoritative seal of belonging to the standard works? Are THEY given full and appropriate consideration in our scriptural and doctrinal discussions? Admittedly, there are not many women figures in scripture and their roles are generally not as substantial as other male characters. But how we deal with these women and to what degree we remember their actions and contributions to scriptural history may tell us something about the place of women in our collective ecclesiastical consciousness.
A great example to consider is the prophetess Huldah. Do our Sunday School and church educational lessons do much remembering and memorializing of this key biblical figure? I recently watched the high quality film produced for church education in 2011 about Josiah and the Book of the Law and to my amazement the presentation of the story completely skips over the episode of Josiah’s consultation with Huldah. Most all of the major pieces of II Kings 22-23 are present, including Josiah’s childhood, the discovery of the scroll by Hilkiah, its delivery by Shaphan the scribe to the king, the idolatrous practices of the people of Judah under previous kings, Josiah’s repentance and institution of reform, and his death at Megiddo by the hands of Pharaoh Necho. But Huldah is nowhere to be found.
Why is this? What motivated completely removing Huldah the prophetess from the LDS redacted narrative of Josiah’s reforms? She is, after all, a critically important figure in the account and has more speech than any other character aside from Josiah in II Kings 22-23. When Josiah realizes that the people have gone astray after other gods and not followed the laws of the new found scroll of Torah, he instructs his servants to seek an oracle from Yahweh so that perhaps Yahweh’s anger would be averted. These servants then go to visit Huldah and she delivers a lengthy oracle that confirms the validity of the scroll of Torah, underscores Yahweh’s displeasure with the people, and promises Josiah that he will be blessed to die before Yahweh’s wrath breaks out in full (22:15-20).
One of the interesting things about Huldah’s oracle is how much it emphasizes that she is a direct representative of Yahweh. Uniquely, the prophetic introduction formula is repeated three times (“thus says the Lord,” vv. 15, 16, 18) and she speaks in first person as though the identification between her and the deity was seamless. In the broader Deuteronomistic narrative, Huldah is about as authoritative as it gets.
Could it be that for LDS authorities there is something uncomfortable about this powerful prophetic female figure? Do they want to avoid raising thoughts in the minds of young people about the relationship between women and prophecy, thoughts that would perhaps lead to questions about the legitimacy of the status quo in the church, where we almost automatically distinguish between prophets and women in our discourse and church structure?