Whether you’re a longtime fan of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel imagining of a dystopian world in which women are oppressed and strong-armed into child-bearing servitude, or if you’re watching Hulu’s original series bringing that dark vision to life, “The Handmaid’s Tale” presents a future to avoid. But even if our future doesn’t resemble this fictional tale — which has begun its season 3 run on Hulu, with new episodes every week — there are elements in our Biblical past that do.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in a post-United States country known as Gilead. After a civil war, fertility rates have severely declined. The ruling class, the commanders and their wives, forcibly impregnate handmaids, fertile women who have already had a child.
This premise is inspired by Biblical stories and text, particularly surrounding the matriarchs. Sarah was fertility-challenged, so she offered her husband, Abraham, her handmaid Hagar as a pilegesh (concubine) to birth children who would be credited to her. This happened again with Rachel, who gave husband Jacob her handmaid Bilhah; Leah followed suit, offering Zilpah. (Hammering home the Biblical inspiration, Hulu’s handmaids are trained and, between assignments, housed in a building known as the Rachel and Leah Center.)
Gilead’s version of this story is a sanctioned rape: during what is known as “the ceremony,” the wife restrains the handmaid on the marital bed; the commander reads Biblical text from Genesis 30 — from the story of matriarch Rachel — and then rapes the handmaid.
Babies are Gilead’s most precious currency, but the caste system does not give the handmaids any recognition for their contributions. Their babies are raised by the commanders’ wives. They are demeaned, stripped of their names and referred to as “of” the man of the house. June, the protagonist of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is called Offred after her commander Fred.
Atwood’s Gilead as depicted in the Hulu series is a messed-up place. In the Bible, Gilead, a hilly region east of the Jordan River that witnessed the covenant between the Biblical Abraham and his uncle, Laban the trickster, also has its share of disturbing stories.
For example, one of the Bible’s most fascinating and sketchy characters, Yiftach (Jephthe), is referred to as “a Gileadite,” rather than by a family name, indicating he may not have known who his father was. His mother, the Biblical text says, was a prostitute. Yiftach vowed that if he won a battle, he would sacrifice to God “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return,” which turned out to be his only child, his daughter. Naturally, he blamed this on her — “you have become my trouble” — and after granting her request for a mountain retreat with her friends to bemoan her virginity, he “did as he had vowed.”
Later in life, the Bible tells us, Yiftach died and was buried “in the cities of Gilead” — the use of the plural, commentators posit, means that Yiftach likely suffered from a skin disease that made his limbs fall off in different cities: Wherever a limb fell off, it was buried. This is the Biblical Gilead.
The language of “The Handmaid’s Tale” also hearkens back to Biblical times.
“Under his eye,” a standard greeting among handmaids in Hulu’s Gilead, indicates that God is always watching. But it also recalls the phrase ayin tachat ayin, “an eye for [literally, “under”] an eye,” a style of extremist punishment familiar to citizens of Gilead.
The fertility blessings of “Blessed be the fruit” and “May the Lord open” — recalling the idea of a peter rechem, a firstborn who “opens the womb” of its mother — are uttered constantly in Gilead in conversations with handmaids, reinforcing their roles as procreative bodies and nothing else.
It’s a relief that Gilead isn’t more deeply based on our Biblical tradition. But “The Handmaid’s Tale” does hold up a mirror, so we can see how easily our sacred text can be co-opted to justify oppression in a dystopian future. By imagining it, we can take the necessary steps to prevent it from happening.