If you hadn’t seen or heard of The Handmaid’s Tale until the recent Emmy Awards, here’s what you need to know about the Hulu series that won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama. The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, is a dystopian view of a United States ruled by a cruel religious regime. As a church leader, you need to know that your people and your community are having their views of who God is and what the Bible says shaped by The Handmaid’s Tale.
What Fans Are Saying About The Handmaid’s Tale
“The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the finest dystopian novels ever written, and it is, inescapably and fundamentally, about women’s oppression under an ultra-conservative regime,” according to themuse.jezebel.co.
TV critics have hailed Atwood’s futuristic story “eerily timely” as a social commentary on a woman’s right to control her own body.
According to litcharts.com: “Gilead is a strictly hierarchical society, with a huge difference between the genders. As soon as the Gileadean revolutionaries take over after terrorism destroys the U.S. government, they fire all women from their jobs and drain their bank accounts. Soon Gileadean women find all liberties taken from them, from the right to choose their clothes to the right to read.”
The Handmaid’s Tale fans see in the show pointed critique of the political environment in the United States today. According to an article on slate.com: “There’s no doubt that The Handmaid’s Tale became the cultural phenomenon it was thanks to President Trump. The hierarchical dystopia of Gilead, in which fertile women—‘handmaids’—are forced to bear children for upper class couples, resonated with those horrified by the Trump administration’s attacks on civil liberties and the Republican party’s ongoing attempts to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood.”
Extremist Bible Interpretation in The Handmaid’s Tale
The premise of The Handmaid’s Tale is that environmental pollution has rendered most women infertile, and those who are still able to bear children are forced into sexual slavery as “handmaids” to powerful families. This is obviously based on an extremist interpretation of the biblical account of Rachel and Bilhah.
“Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or else I die!’ And Jacob’s anger was aroused against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ So she said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her.’ Then she gave him Bilhah her maid as wife, and Jacob went in to her.” (Genesis 30:1-4)
The characters in the movie actually read this Scripture in a ritual before the husband has intercourse with the handmaid—at the “knees” of the wife.
More Extremist Interpretations of Bible Verses in The Handmaid’s Tale
“And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.”(Matthew 18:9)
Janine’s eye is gouged out for her sin.
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’ So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.” (Numbers 15:35-36)
The handmaids stone to death a man accused of rape in one episode.
Other Religious Terminology in The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in theocratic Gilead with a government in which there is no separation between state and religion—and its official vocabulary incorporates the following religious terminology and biblical references.
Marthas – Domestic servants in reference to Martha who served Jesus in the New Testament.
Guardians of the Faith – the local police
Angels – soldiers of the regime
Commanders of the Faithful – the men who rule the regime
Loaves and Fishes, All Flesh, Milk and Honey – Biblical names for stores
Behemoth, Whirlwind, and Chariot – Biblical names of vehicles
The Eyes of God – Gilead’s secret police. In Gilead’s theocracy, the eye of God and of the state are assumed to be one and the same.
Is The Handmaid’s Tale Biblical?
Absolutely not! But this is one of those times in culture that the Bible is misrepresented and misappropriated, resulting in negative views of the church.
Even author Margaret Atwood acknowledges that her novel is not genuinely Christian so much as “purportedly Christian.”
“I don’t consider these people to be Christians because they do not have at the core of their behavior and ideologies what I, in my feeble Canadian way, would consider to be the core of Christianity,” Atwood told Layton Williams with Sojourners. “And that would be not only love your neighbors but love your enemies. That would also be ‘I was sick and you visited me not’ and such and such… But they don’t do that either. Neither do a lot of the people who fly under the Christian flag today. And that would include also concern for the environment, because you can’t love your neighbor or even your enemy, unless you love your neighbor’s oxygen, food and water. You can’t love your neighbor or your enemy if you’re presuming policies that are going to cause those people to die.”
You can be sure that people are going to be talking about The Handmaid’s Tale. What can you do to initiate conversations and help people know the grace and truth of God’s Word instead?