The new Hulu show “A Handmaid’s Tale,” based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same title, depicts a dystopian society in which women are taken from their families and enslaved as handmaids to address an infertility problem in the United States. While some may see the new society as premised on a “deliberate manipulation, not open-minded interpretation” of Genesis, as a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, I consider it a surprisingly accurate interpretation of the patriarchal narratives in the book of Genesis. In these stories, barrenness is a common motif (see, Gen 16-20; 25; 29-30), and handmaids (Hebrew, also translated as “slave-girl”) are used as birth surrogates.
The world depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is, to put it mildly, disturbing. Women are captured, indoctrinated, tortured, and enslaved to perform the job of surrogates. They are chosen as handmaids because they have previously given birth to live children, which has become very rare in the past years. They are also degraded for having participated in what is deemed immoral sexual behavior in their past lives–adultery, having children out of wedlock, lesbianism, and being rape victims.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” focuses primarily on the character of Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss. We are privy to her inner thoughts and attitude towards her new reality. She makes clear that she regards herself as a prisoner and does not perform the role of handmaid voluntarily. She articulates this explicitly to a Mexican delegation of diplomats in episode 6.
The press around this new production of “The Handmaid’s Tale” has focused on the problematic social and sexual values presented in the society of Gilead, especially in Trump’s America. The handmaids have become symbols of the suppression of female reproductive autonomy; recent protests have included women dressed as the handmaids described in the story. Many wonder if our contemporary world is headed in the direction of Atwood’s. Perhaps this, in part, accounts for the popularity of the show.
Audiences have been rightly troubled by this, still fictional, dystopian vision. Even the wives of the elite are denied legal rights; all women are forbidden from reading and writing, are forced to take on exclusively domestic roles, and are clearly subordinate. Women are controlled sexually; sex is a means of procreation, not pleasure. Elite wives must accept the handmaids into their households and participate in the monthly insemination ritual (see below). The handmaid is not to have any sexual partners of her own choosing and is even separated from any existing sexual partners. Also, in a particularly gruesome scene, Offred’s friend, Ofglen played by Alexis Bledel, a known lesbian, wakes up in a hospital room, where both she and the audience realize that she has undergone female genital mutilation, in order to remove the possibility of her attaining and seeking out sexual pleasure. Even the handmaids’ names are signs of their subordination. Each woman is renamed Of-the head of the household. Therefore, Offred, is “of Fred Waterford.”
Here’s the thing – this dystopian vision is not that far off from the world of Genesis! In fact, aspects of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are deliberately based on Genesis — Genesis gives legitimacy to the rituals and rule in Gilead. In Genesis, the handmaids are property of the mistress, sometimes given as wedding gifts by their fathers (e.g. Gen 29:24, 29); the mistress has the power to turn them over to her husband as a “cure” for her barrenness. The biblical text establishes a situation in which the sexual exploitation of the handmaids’ fertility is permitted, even encouraged and celebrated, as a strategy for nation building.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” describes how the biblical context could be implemented in a contemporary setting. In the show, each month on the day of peak ovulation, the handmaid lies between the legs of the commander’s wife and the commander has intercourse with her. This highly ritualized ceremony begins with the reading of Genesis 30, which describes Rachel’s anguish over her barrenness: “Give me children or I shall die” (v. 1); Rachel, in turn, offers her handmaid to Jacob. The ceremony seems quite civilized: the handmaid arrives on her own; the wife welcomes her husband into the room, knowing what will be done.
The world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is not a misguided, fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis, but a replication of it. We don’t notice at first because the difference is the perspective. “The Handmaid’s Tale” gives us clear visual and verbal clues that we as viewers are supposed to empathize with the handmaid and not with the infertile women and men. The men of Gilead celebrate the use of the handmaids, but few else do. Developing with subsequent episodes, we see the disillusionment of the commander’s wife, Serena Joy, the nonconformity of the seemingly faithful driver Nick, and of course, the clear detestation of Offred for this new way of life. The authors of the Bible did not share that perspective; infertility is a verdict delivered by God to the women, and handmaids were an effective cure.
In Genesis, we get the narrator’s point of view. We know little of the matriarch’s willingness to submit to the practice: Did she really want to share her husband sexually? Is she a product of her polygamous context? Or, is this “arrangement” the lesser of two evils when the alternative is childlessness? We know nothing of the reactions of the handmaids. It is realistic to assume many (all?) felt as Offred, held captive, regularly raped by their master, as walking wombs tasked with producing children that would never be considered their own; “The Handmaid’s Tale” is directly informed by the biblical scene. The handmaid’s child is literally born on the knees of the mistress, who takes possession of it immediately, and gives it a name (e.g. Gen 30:3-6 || ep. 2). In Genesis, we never hear from the handmaids; instead, we see their role in the narrative as contributing to the growth of the nation: Jacob, his four wives, and their collective twelve sons, who become the twelve tribes of Israel. This is clearly the way that the narrator/author sees them, but as modern readers we must consider these stories from a different perspective.
The interpretation in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is textually supported and forces us to look at the world of the patriarchs in a new light. Is this a similarly dystopian society, in which women are enslaved in order to bear children for the barren mistresses? The civility and seeming acceptance of this way of life makes us forget that the handmaids are raped for the sake of nation-building. (A similar intention is articulated in the rapes of the women of Shiloh in Judges 21). The view of the Genesis handmaids as sex slaves is likely shocking, but it highlights for us as modern readers the sexual values inherent in the text. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, women lack control over their own sexuality. A woman’s sexuality belongs to the men in her life, and rape is ever-present in the Bible. The handmaids have no power to refuse. Does their status as slaves make this “less rape”? Should we condone this behavior? Does this not fall into our modern definitions of rape–sex without consent?
The lack of consent present in the biblical story and our usual lack of acknowledgment of it highlight our participation in pervasive rape culture. We barely give a second thought to these women. We think of them as secondary wives of the patriarchs. We regularly read these stories as the male authors intended us to, as heroic nation building, and it may take a modern novel or TV show to pull us out of our daze, but watching becomes an exegetical experience. We need these kinds of seemingly radical readings to shock us into re-reading the familiar book of Genesis and see the story for what it is, a dystopian society.
Alison L. Joseph is a visiting assistant professor of Religion at Swarthmore College and the assistant managing editor of the Posen Library. Her work explores the contextual factors – historical and anthropological – that contribute to the composition of the Hebrew Bible. Her current research is on the Dinah story in Genesis 34, dealing with the role of gender in the prohibitions against intermarriage and the women’s sexual consent (or lack thereof). It addresses how in this story, and others, theological agendas are promoted through sexual violence. Her first book Portrait of the Kings: The Davidic Prototype in Deuteronomistic Poetics received the 2016 Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise. She earned her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in Near Eastern Studies.
Very insightful. Although, I might challenge the idea that nation building in this way is “celebrated” in the OT. Hagar is used to “nation build” and it is debacle. YHWH enters to save Hagar, the one used for procreation, from the dysfunctional situation (Gen. 16). Further your citations of Gen. 29:24, 29 where Laban gives Jacob the handmaid(s), is also problematic. Jacob’s family life (favoritism, Joseph victimized, etc.) is not the picture of what YHWH desires (or at least I’m not sure how you show that the practice of giving handmaids is approved by YHWH).
Thanks for a great perspective of some of the true depictions in Genesis.
I agree with your reading on the text, but I always read it that way and am a bit shocked that people are able to somehow read it positively! That’s the part I find puzzling. Interesting to think that Atwood’s story is so similar, I hadn’t made that connection! This is well worth unpicking as carefully as you have.