As I write, streaming service Hulu has just released the first three episodes of the much-anticipated, critically acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
In this story, America has become a fundamentalist authoritarian state, Gilead.
The authoritarian state is established in response to the widespread national infertility of women, which is viewed as God’s judgment. In the desperation for offspring, Americans have yielded or had taken from them, all control over their lives. Women are forced into three classes—the wives, the handmaids (forced to bear children for the infertile wives), and the Marthas (charged with housekeeping and cooking). The justification that Gilead offers for the horrifying practice of using handmaids to produce babies for married men is drawn from Genesis 30, the story of Rachel and Leah.
As viewers watch the adaptation, they may believe the Bible condones this sexual violence. However, an honest reading of the biblical account reveals the exact opposite.
The Seeds of Dysfunction
To set the stage, Jacob has fled his family dysfunction due to parental favoritism, conflicts over the birthright inheritance, his own deception, and his brother’s murderous rage. The seeds of this family dysfunction stretch back at least as far as Abraham, a man who on two occasions engaged in deception and put his own wife at risk because of his fear and faithlessness.
Jacob flees his immediate family and runs to the extended family on his mother’s side—the family of his mother’s brother, Laban. Upon arriving, he falls in love with his cousin Rachel (yes, strange to our ears today, but keep in mind there were fewer people in that era, and culturally this was considered normal at the time) and agrees to work for his uncle for seven years in order to claim her hand in marriage. It appears to be a genuine love story. Genesis 29:20 reports, “So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (NIV).
However, the deceiver Jacob (whose name, meaning “he grasps the heel,” was an idiom referring to one who deceives) now is deceived. What goes around comes around, as the saying goes. Under the cover of darkness, Laban gives a probably veiled Leah (Rachel’s older sister) to Jacob, corrupting what would have been a beautiful bond of monogamy. This is not portrayed as something God guided Laban to do, but as an unjust action against Jacob (and Rachel and Leah). Jacob only realizes what has happened after he consummates the marriage … and he is distraught. Laban, justifying his actions as looking out for the firstborn before the secondborn, agrees to give Rachel to Jacob as his wife after a week honeymoon with Leah, provided he agrees to work another seven years for Laban.
After Jacob is finally able to marry the woman he truly loves, he is plagued with a new problem: Rachel is infertile but Leah is able to bear children. Drawing on cultural traditions, not on God’s command (and that is key here), Rachel forces her maid Bilhah to sleep with Jacob and produce babies that she will regard as her own. Bilhah becomes a surrogate mother but has no agency to say yes or no to this demand. This heightens the dysfunctional competition between Leah and Rachel, and Leah now gives Jacob her maid, Zilpah, in order to produce even more children and beat her sister at her own game. Leah knows she is not loved, so having children and being better than Rachel at this one thing is all she has.
It is a terribly sad story; Jacob letting himself be pulled back and forth, giving in to these demands that run so far afield from God’s original intent for sex and marriage. The women, without agency, grasping the small bits of control they do have. The maids having absolutely no say in what is done to their bodies. A dysfunctional family system set up by the deception of Laban yields horrifying results.
Dysfunction in a family almost always traces back generations. All of us, whether we like admitting it or not, are affected by the decisions of our ancestors, those both far and near to us in time. And Jacob was no exception. Not only was his grandfather, Abraham, someone who had been guilty of cowardice and deception (as was Jacob’s mother, Rebekah), but his grandparents also engaged in the kind of forced surrogacy that Rachel and Leah imposed on their maids.