Somewhere I recently read in a reputable source that the Bible forbids women to learn how to read and write. This is not true. Nowhere do I find that the Bible sets forth any such prohibition. While not necessarily an indication of literacy, the “woman of vigor” in Proverbs 31 is described as one who conducts her own business, enters into contracts, and enjoys the profits that she herself earns: “She picks out a field and acquires it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength; she exerts her arms with vigor. She enjoys the profit from her dealings; her lamp is never extinguished at night” (16-18). Anna, Tobit’s wife, was also employed: “At that time my wife Anna worked for hire at weaving cloth, doing the kind of work women do. When she delivered the material to her employers, they would pay her a wage” (Tobit 2:11-12).
Archaeological evidence shows that there were, indeed, educated women who played a prominent role in society. The Elephantine Papyri, which cover a period from about 500-400 BCE, reveal that women played a prominent role in that community. These documents reveal that women had the right to inherit, hold, and exchange property in their own names. A woman was also able to borrow money at interest. Then, in the 1960s, Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin led an expedition that uncovered a cache of papyrus scrolls, now known as the Bathata Archives, that included the personal documents of a Jewish woman of the early second century CE. These included a sale of property to a petition to the governor, a court summons, and a marriage contract
Furthermore, Jewish tradition informs us of a female sage, Beruriah, who lived in the second century CE. The Talmud records that she studied three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day, which was a very remarkable achievement (Pesachim 62b). Witty and outspoken, she dared to correct other rabbis, quoting Scripture to make her case (Eiruvin 53b): “R. Jose the Galilean was once on a journey when he met Beruriah. ‘By what road’, he asked her, ‘do we go to Lydda?’ — ‘Foolish Galilean,’ she replied: ‘did not the Sages say this: Engage not in much talk with women? You should have asked: By which to Lydda?’” That is, R. Jose could have used fewer words than he did.
In one famous story, Beruriah corrects her husband, R. Meir, and shows herself to be more compassionate of the two (Berakoth 10a).
There were once some highwaymen in the neighborhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruriah said to him: How do you make out [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Because it is written Let hatta’im [sins] cease? Is it written hot’im [sinners]? It is written hatta’im [sins]! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked men be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented.
Jewish society in ancient times was patriarchal and agrarian. But it was not ruled by the Taliban; gifted women had room to exercise their talents.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.