Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, famously claimed that there’s nothing in the book that didn’t happen somewhere, sometime in history. In fact, the primary childbearing custom in The Handmaid’s Tale stems from a book we're all familiar with: the Bible.
In the first episode of Hulu's downright terrifying adaptation of the dystopian novel, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and other women are inculcated into their new roles as Handmaids at the Rachel and Leah Center, a biblical reference that should give you a clue as to where this tale is heading. The Old Testament story of Rachel and her handmaid, Bilhah, is the basis of Gilead's strategy to combat its fertility crisis.
Back in the days of sanctioned polygamy, Rachel and Leah are sisters married to Jacob. Leah has no trouble having son after son, but her sister, Rachel — the woman whom Jacob loves — can’t get pregnant. Rachel convinces Jacob to impregnate her handmaid, Bilhah, so Rachel can have children “through” her. Bilhah gives birth to two sons, and Rachel names them both. Notably, Bilhah’s voice is never heard at any point in the Bible.
As Genesis 30:1-3 goes, “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” (King James Bible).
Clearly, the conceit of The Handmaid’s Tale bears a striking similarity to this Genesis story. After pollution and nuclear destruction render the vast majority of women infertile, the childbearing few become Handmaids for powerful families. During ovulation, the Handmaid sits in the lap of her mistress, and is raped by the family's patriarch. Like Bilhah in the Bible, the Handmaid is reduced to a childbearing vessel.
On the off chance a baby is conceived and born, the Handmaid immediately cedes all control of the infant to her mistress. After giving birth, the Handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer) struggles to give up her baby to another woman — understandably so. Though the mistress names Janine's baby Angela, just like Rachel names Bilhah's sons Dan and Naphtali, Janine calls her daughter Charlotte.
But the story of Rachel and Bilhah isn’t The Handmaid's Tale's only reference to the Bible, even if it’s the most overt. From “Handmaids” to “Angels,” this new society enforces a hierarchy using a distinct vocabulary, much of which derives from the Bible. For one, Gilead, the new name of America, is also a fertile, plentiful region in Palestine mentioned in the Bible. Marthas, who act as housekeepers, derive their name from the biblical figure Martha, Mary’s sister, who’s more interested in serving Jesus than listening to his teachings. Even Gilead’s gruesome aspects, like public executions, are cloaked in biblical allusion; they're called “Salvagings,” as if being beaten to death were act of of salvation
But, as Offred realizes, Gilead oppresses through deliberate manipulation, not open-minded interpretation, of the Bible. So, in episode 3, Offred uses her knowledge of the Bible to fuel a tiny, but charged, act of rebellion. While at the Rachel and Leah Center, the Aunts repeat the phrase, “Blessed are the meek,” to subdue the Handmaids’ defiant attitudes. Offred knows that’s not the entire prayer: The entire Matthew 5:5 verse goes, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.”
So, after an Aunt attempts to subdue her with the phrase, Offred says, "For they shall inherit the Earth." By completing the verse, Offred implies that one day the meek shall rise up, and society will be theirs. Offred reclaims the very text with which society has subjugated her.
The first series of The Handmaid's Tale is shown on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm.