Did you catch this hidden theme in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?
If The Handmaid’s Tale offers any sign, Margaret Atwood has read more of her Bible than many Christians. Superficially, Atwood’s dystopian novel is littered with biblical names and phrases: Gilead, Mary and Martha, Jezebel, Milk and Honey, All Flesh, Loaves and Fishes, Lilies of the Field, the Eye of the Lord, Behemoth, and many more.
At a deeper level, Atwood grounds her plot in gender scripts that pervade Abrahamic scriptures. One story in particular brings the pieces together: a tale of two sisters named Rachel and Leah, who marry the same man (Genesis 29-31).
As the story begins, their husband-to-be, Jacob, falls in love with the young Rachel but gets tricked by their father (also his own uncle) Laban into marrying the elder Leah. Jacob isn’t thrilled when he discovers he has consummated his wedding night with the wrong sister because, as the writer puts it, “Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful of form and face.” Laban promises Jacob his second daughter in exchange for seven years of labor, and a second round of nuptials ensues. It’s a recipe for resentment, but Leah redeems herself in the most potent way possible for an Iron Age female born into the nomadic herding cultures of the ancient near-east: She pumps out four sons.
Rachel, though better loved, remains barren.
“Now!” Leah thinks, “Now my husband will become attached to me.” Rachel, bitter and jealous, is thinking the same thing. She demands of their husband, “Give me children, or else I die!” Because of her infertility, she offers him a proxy, Bilhah, her female slave or “handmaid.” Bilhah gets pregnant and produces a son, Rachel’s son by the rules governing their lives. After Bilhah bears a second baby—as you may have guessed, also a son—Rachel crows, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and I have indeed prevailed!”
But things aren’t over yet. Not to be outdone, Leah sends in her own handmaid, Zilpah, who also bears two sons. The competition continues until Jacob has 12 sons—a number that has magical significance probably tracing roots back to the 12 signs of the Zodiac—and one daughter. And they all live happily ever after. Or not.
So, let’s unpack some of the elements of this story, because they reflect broader biblical views on women and reproduction that will be familiar to anyone who has read Atwood’s novel or derivative media.
1. Men properly hold the highest positions of authority in society and the family. Laban and then Jacob are patriarchs, each ruling the kin unit that consists of his own household, including women, children, slaves and livestock. From Chapter 2 of Genesis onward, the Bible teaches that man was made in the image of God while woman was created to be his helper (Genesis 2:18). Conservative Christians call this idea male headship, and it is embedded throughout the Old Testament, and down through Christian history. The New Testament writer of 1 Corinthians spells it out: “The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). As in Islam, female head covering provides an outward marker of submission: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Corinthians 11:2-10). Violation of this hierarchy may be experienced as a threat to the whole social order.
2. Women are assets that belong to men. Laban gives his daughters to his nephew in exchange for Jacob’s labor as a shepherd. In like manner, women throughout the Bible are owned by their fathers until they are “given in marriage” (typically in exchange for goods or services or political alliance) to another man. The ownership status of women is visible in the Exodus chapter 20 version of the 10 Commandments, which says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).
3. Slavery, including sexual slavery, is morally acceptable, regulated and sometimes commanded. Through both stories and laws, the Bible provides a strong endorsement of slavery. One sign of King Solomon’s status is the 700 wives and 300 concubines (i.e., sex slaves) in his harem (1 Kings 11:3). In the Rachel and Leah tale, the handmaids are gifted to the daughters by Laban. In tales of conquest, young virgins are counted as war booty, and God’s commander provides explicit instructions on how to ritually purify a virgin war captive before “knowing” her. Rules for buying and selling slaves vary based on whether the person is a Hebrew or a foreigner, male or female. “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do” (Exodus 21:7).
4. The primary identity and value of women lies in their reproductive capacity. With few exceptions, named female characters in the Bible are individually identified because they are the mothers of famous sons. This includes, of course, the most famous woman of them all, Mary. One New Testament writer points to childbearing as the woman’s path to spiritual salvation, the way to redeem Eve’s original sin. “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (1 Timothy 2:14-15).
5. Sons are more valuable than daughters. Throughout the Bible, God rewards his chosen ones with male offspring, even, for example, when Lot’s daughters get their father drunk in order to have sex with him and generate heirs who will be the fathers of great nations (Genesis 19:32-38). In the Hebrew law, a woman is spiritually unclean for twice as long after giving birth to a girl baby as a boy (Leviticus 12:1-8). It goes without saying that God himself is depicted as male, as are his chosen patriarchs and prophets, as is his incarnation, Jesus, who—in the canonical gospels—chooses 12 male disciples.
6. When it comes to breeding, paternity is what matters. In the story of Jacob and his wives, we see that the writer is fairly indifferent to which woman produced a child, as long as Jacob was the father and the child a son. Similarly, in the New Testament gospels, Jesus is a God and the son of God despite the fact that his mother is fully human. By contrast, because paternity is so important in this cultural context, anything that might call into question the paternity of a woman’s offspring is harshly penalized. A raped woman, as damaged goods, can be sold to her rapist who is obliged to keep her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), and a woman who has reduced her value by having sex voluntarily can be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). If a married man suspects that his wife may be pregnant by someone else, he can take her to the priest who will give her a magical abortion potion that will work only if the pregnancy isn’t his (Numbers 5:11-31).
7. Infertility is a female issue. Since the role of women is childbearing, infertility is typically treated like a female issue in the Bible as it is in Atwood’s Republic of Gilead. Toward the end of Rachel and Leah’s story, God finally comforts Rachel by allowing her to bear a son from her own body, who will go on to be favored above his brothers by both his father and God himself (Genesis 29:31). This trope repeats itself, and infertile women throughout the Bible often, in the end, give birth to significant characters: the patriarchs Isaac, Esau and Jacob; the supernaturally strong warrior Samson; the prophet Samuel; and John the Baptist, who will baptize Jesus.
8. Female consent is not a thing. The texts gathered in the Christian Bible were written over the course of several centuries, and in them we find a cultural trajectory away from polygamy and outright sexual slavery. Nonetheless, the concept of human chattel is never explicitly eschewed, even in the New Testament, nor are older practices condemned. Slaves are advised to submit to their masters. Nowhere is there any indication that female consent is needed or even desired before sex. Consider even the pregnancy that produces Jesus. In a situation of extreme power imbalance, Mary is told that she will be impregnated by God and she responds with words that assent to her role as a handmaid. “Behold the bond-slave of the Lord: be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Behold The Handmaid’s Tale.