'The Handmaid's Tale': Biblical References in a Non-Biblical Series
Not A Religious Series
The Handmaid's Tale is a popular series based on Margaret Atwood's book by the same name that was published in 1985. The series premiered on Hulu on April 26, 2017, and is now in its third season.
The term handmaid is used for a female servant who serves her mistress. A handmaid is a woman who helps out the wife in the household. The name of the book and the series is based on Genesis 16:1–16 and Genesis 21:8–21. Sarah had a handmaid named Hagar that was a gift to her from Pharaoh. When Sarah did not have children in her old age, she told Hagar to sleep with her husband Abraham to produce a child for them. Hagar did as she was told and had a son named Ishmael. Later, God opened Sarah's womb and she had her own child that was named Isaac.
Hagar was not the only handmaid identified in the book of Genesis. Zilpah was Leah's handmaid and Bilhah was Rachel's handmaid. In each of those cases, the wives allowed their handmaids to bear children for them.
References to Biblical Places
The setting of The Handmaid's Tale is a place in the future known as the Republic of Gilead that used to be the United States. Gilead is mentioned in the Bible as a place of testimony.in Genesis 31:25. It is a peaceful and fertile place in Palestine. Later in the Old Testament, the prophet describes Gilead as a city of evil men with sins of every kind (Hosea 6:8).
When the handmaids eat lunch, they listen to a recording of the Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:3-12. It is to remind them that they will be blessed when they are silent, poor, meek, merciful and mournful.
Places where the handmaids shop have biblical references.
- "Milk and Honey" is a reference to the description of Canaan, also known as the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey
- "All Flesh" is the name of a butcher shop based on Isaiah 40:5 about all humanity or all people.
- "Loaves and Fishes" is a biblical reference to Jesus feeding the multitude with only bread and fish, according to Matthew 15:32-39.
- "Lilies" is a clothing store based on Matthew 6:28.
Biblical Names of People
Lydia is the name of a woman in Acts 16 that is described as a seller of purple dye in the city of Thyatira. Lydia worshiped God and followed the teachings of Paul. Aunt Lydia is in charge of all the handmaids in the series.
Elizabeth in the Bible is the wife of Zechariah who had a baby in her old age. In the series, Aunt Elizabeth works closely with Aunt Lydia at the Red Center with the women having babies.
Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and were banished from there. Eden Spencer was a young girl in Season 2 who committed adultery with Guardian Isaac. They were punished by being drowned to death in a swimming pool because of their infidelity.
Isaac in the Bible was the long-awaited son of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac was a Guardian assigned to the Waterford house only in Season 2. He was drowned along with Eden for their sin according to the law in Gilead.
Luke in the series is the husband of June. Luke is one of the four gospel writers and the only physician and Gentile writer of the entire Bible.
Hannah is June and Luke's daughter who is now in the hands of Serena. In the Bible, Hannah prayed to have a male child and God answered her prayer.
Commander Joseph Lawrence is the head of the house where June is now assigned. Joseph in the Old Testament was the son whose brothers sold into slavery. Joseph in the New Testament is the husband of Mary and the earthly father of Jesus.
Mark Tuello began in Season 2. He is the mysterious stranger who Serena encountered in Canada. Mark, like Luke, is one of the four gospel writers. There are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the Bible. John is the only one missing in the series.
Commander Matthew Calhoun started in Season 3. Matthew is the third gospel writer mentioned in The Handmaid's Tale.
Dan was only in Season 2. He was Emily's boss at the university where she worked. In the Bible, Dan is one of the twelve sons of Jacob. That means a tribe is named after him.
Handmaid itself is a biblical reference and so are a lot of other titles in the series. They include the following.
- Commander of the Faithful are the top men who make up the ruling class with plenty of authority.
- Eyes of the Lord are the secret police all around Gilead who work undercover to catch people who violate the laws of the land.
- Angels of the Apocalypse are soldiers who fight to protect Gilead.
- Guardian of the Faith do routine policing and perform insignificant duties.
- Handmaids are servants of the commander's wives.
- Marthas are the older women who serve and take care of the houses in the Republic of Gilead. Their name is based on the story that Martha was the one who served Jesus when He visited her and Mary.
- Jezebels are women who are forced to become prostitutes and entertainers. Their name comes from evil Jezebel in 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament.
There are many biblical symbols and specific laws in The Handmaid's Tale. Several sayings from the Bible are recited throughout the series. Many of the times, they are out of context. Unless people know the Bible, they will probably not recognize the quote and surely they will not know it is out of context.
In Gilead, a set of biblical phrases are permitted in conversations.
- "Praise be."
- "Blessed is the fruit."
- "May the Lord open."