Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is difficult to read. The Hulu-original series based on the novel is even more disturbing.
And I think all adult American Christians need to watch it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is about the country of Gilead, formerly known as the United States, in the very near future. Pollution caused a rise in infertility in the U.S., and extreme fundamentalist Christians propagated that it was God’s punishment for women gaining too many rights — you know, like owning property, being literate, and wearing pants.
They replace democracy with a regime in which women are no longer allowed to go to school or have a job, gay men and lesbian women are murdered, and Gilead’s horrific version of Christianity becomes the state religion. The main part of the story, however, is this:
Some women serve as handmaids for Gilead’s leaders — called Commanders — and their infertile wives. (Infertility is never a man’s fault in Gilead). During “the Ceremony” once a month, the Commander rapes the handmaid while his wife holds her down. Just before “The Ceremony,” the whole household gathers to hear the Commander read Genesis 30:1-5 (from the KJV):
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her. And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son.Genesis 30:1-5 (KJV)
Of course, the Bible has been used throughout history to justify a lot of horrible acts, usually with a verse or passage taken out of its literary and historical context. The persecution of the Jews, the genocide of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans all received passionate biblical justification from some religious leaders.
No matter who you are, The Handmaid’s Tale is gut-wrenching to read or watch. But no one should find it more heartbreaking — or compelling — than its Christian audience.
At least a few times every episode I want to scream at the screen, “That’s not what that means!” That goes for pretty much every biblical reference and Christianese turn of phrase that the characters use. But I want to tear my hair out whenever they discuss or depict “The Ceremony.”
“The Ceremony” uses the text about the birth of Jacob’s sons (and his oft-forgotten daughter) to justify the role of handmaids as “walking wombs,” just like Bilhah and Zilpah. The excerpt they read, however, is such a tiny glimpse into the story. The full text (Genesis 29:31-30:24) is much longer, much more complex, and communicates a very different message than Gilead would like.
Just like we wouldn’t imagine the Son of God to be born in a manger, we wouldn’t imagine that the birth of the 12 tribes of Israel would be filled with polygeny, jealousy, and strife. Throughout the narrative, Rachel and Leah are competing for Jacob’s and God’s favor, all while Jacob appears to do and say nothing to mediate tensions. Bilhah and Zilpah — two women who we know and hear nothing about except their names — are compelled to bear children who Rachel and Leah claim as their own.
The story is not joyful or peaceful. It’s definitely not an example of marital bliss or familial unity. It mirrors the struggle between Isaac and Ishmael and between Jacob and Esau, and it foreshadows the struggle between the 12 tribes of Israel.
Ultimately, the passage is not a model for our behavior. It’s about how God responds to hatred, ugliness, and evil with love, beauty, and righteousness. It’s about how God can redeem bad choices and bad circumstances, even in the midst of chaos and strife. It’s about how God loves us and cares for our needs despite the ways we hurt ourselves and others.
In other words, Bilhah and Zilpah are handmaids despite God’s will, not because of it.
If Gilead had the self-awareness to read Genesis 29-30 for what it is and not what they wanted it to be, “The Ceremony” would never exist, which means Gilead wouldn’t either. But the thing is, Gilead isn’t actually concerned with the will of God. Gilead is concerned with the will of Gilead.
What passages do we read that way as American Christians?
The Handmaid’s Tale compels us to ask that question, which is why I think all American Christians need to watch it. It begs us to look in the mirror and ask where we are hurting ourselves and others in the name of God’s will, when in reality, we have “God’s will” all wrong.
There’s another reason I think all American Christians should watch The Handmaid’s Tale: The show — and Genesis 29-30 — remind us of the hope we have in God’s promises. Just like our hope doesn’t rest in our spouses or our children, our hope also does not rest in the political power of Christianity or in the cultural influence of the church.
Our hope is in God and God alone.
So if we only interpret The Handmaid’s Tale as an attack on the church, we miss out on what it can teach us. And mirrors — well, they teach us a lot. Go watch it and see.