Biblical Women: The Prophetess

There is one woman in the Bible who is consistently ignored.  That is perhaps not unexpected, since her name is not given.  Her presence can be first detected by the exegetically keen-sighted in Isaiah 7.  On the eve of an expected invasion of Judah by a northern coalition of Israel and Syria, the prophet Isaiah went to visit his king, Ahaz, who was nervously inspecting the city’s defenses by the conduit of the upper pool.  Isaiah was told by God to go to him to offer divine encouragement, urging him to trust in Yahweh for help and not to political solutions.  God told him to take along his son, Shear-jashub.  The name means “a remnant will return”, and presumably the boy was brought along for the value of his name:  no matter what happened to Judah, a remnant would return and the people would survive. This was the detective’s first clue that the prophet Isaiah was not celibate, but that he had a wife.

As it turned out, King Ahaz preferred to trust to a political solution (namely, the help of Assyria) rather than trusting Yahweh.  Isaiah knew this would prove disastrous, and that the Assyrians would over-run them.  In the next chapter, God tells Isaiah to take a large tablet and some witnesses who could vouch for the date he wrote on the tablet, and then write upon it “Maher-shalal-hash-baz”—“swift plunder, speedy prey”. Isaiah then “approached the prophetess and she conceived and gave birth to a son. Then Yahweh said, ‘Name him ‘Maher-shalal-hash-baz’, for before the boy knows how to cry out ‘my father’ or ‘my mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (Isaiah 8:3-4).  The point of the witnesses, of course, was to verify that this prophetic name was indeed given before the Assyrian incursion, and not after.  The boy’s name and the timing of it would vindicate Isaiah’s prophetic foresight and authority.

The prophetess, Isaiah’s wife, remains without a name in the Biblical account. There is no extant record of any of her words; apparently she was called “the prophetess” solely because she was married to a prophet.  Because she is nameless and voiceless in the Biblical texts, it is easy to regard her as a cypher, someone with no real life, importance, or function apart from providing children with unusual names for her famous husband.  Even the Church’s Synaxarion which records the lives of saints does not give her a name, despite the Synaxarion’s occasional enthusiasm for filling in details not mentioned in the usual histories.

The story of her life remained unchronicled—including the shattering trauma she must have experienced when her husband was martyred under the even less appreciative king Manasseh:  tradition suggests that he was killed by being sawn in half (compare Hebrews 11:37).  The tears of the prophetess, if dried, also remained unrecorded.  She haunts the prophetic pages like a ghost, a shadow, a woman without a story and without a name.

In thinking of Isaiah’s wife it is hard not to think of the multitude of clergy wives as well.  In a way they also stand in the shadows and share with their husbands the kenotic loss of name:  the priest has a name, but often in a parish the name is dropped and he is simply called, “Father”.  (I remember one time being at a clergy gathering when a phone call came into the office for one of the clergy attending it.  A person from the office entered the room where all the clergy were and called, “Father?”  Every head in the room turned to her in response.). In the same way, the clergy wife also tends to lose her name.  She is simply called, “Matushka” or “Presbytera” or “Khouria”.  Like her husband, her identity has been subsumed in service to the Church.  But unlike her husband, she can get lost in the crowd, overlooked and under-appreciated.

Despite this degree of personal anonymity, it is important to remember that the clergy wife remains a person of her own, a woman with personality, gifts, calling, and intelligence not less than her more visible and prominent husband.  All sensible clergy are sensible of this and know it only too well.  If the priest is able to bear a heavy burden in the parish, that is only because of the strength she provides.  If he is able to soar, she is the wind beneath his wings.

The prophetess who loved Isaiah, bore his children, lived through terrible times and watched while her husband was martyred, has long since vanished into history.  She has left behind no legacy and no name.  But God knows her name.  On the Last Day she, along with all those women known only as “Matushka” or “Presbytera”, will have their well-earned reward.  Even now it shines and waits in the Kingdom of God.




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