January 18, 2020

Rape in the Bible: A handmaid’s tale

When biblical passages emerge in Hollywood products, they don’t usually provide a star turn for religion. More often than not, believers are portrayed as weird, kooky cultish types or dangerous fanatics. This trend cuts across religions: In Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the man who weathered God’s flood was a lunatic who nearly killed members of his own family. In the Showtime series “Homeland,” Islam and the Quran are promotional vehicles for terrorism. And let’s not forget Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” one of the most brutally literal and political depictions of a biblical event in Hollywood history, portraying Jews as a bloodthirsty mob.

When Hollywood takes on religion, religion doesn’t usually look good. 

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Margaret Atwood best-seller turned television series on Hulu, is no exception. The dystopian tale posits a future when United States democracy has capitulated to an authoritarian regime rooted in religious fanaticism. When the effects of environmental degradation cause a scourge of infertility, reproductively healthy women are enslaved as childbearing surrogates. In a form of state-sanctioned rape, women are nothing more than ovaries with legs whose sole purpose is to serve the “commanders” and their barren wives.

Where on earth did Atwood find precedent, let alone justification, for this mass oppression and rape? I hate to be the bearer of bad news: The Hebrew bible.

The passage cited in the book and the show is from Genesis, in which Jewish matriarch Rachel is suffering from barrenness and tells her husband, Jacob: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”

Torah readers know that this instance of offering up a maidservant as fertility surrogate is not the only one: Rachel’s sister Leah gives Jacob her handmaid, Zilpah, who births Gad and Asher, whom Leah claims as her own. Earlier, when an aging Sarah cannot conceive, she offers Hagar to Abraham, and she births Ishmael.

Atwood’s appropriation of this ancient, uh, practice of state-sanctioned rape is disturbing for many reasons, not least for forcing a confrontation with what Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg calls “the unconscious” parts of our text. Neither in the case of Rachel nor Sarah does the Torah refer to this practice as “rape,” even as it openly acknowledges rape elsewhere, as in the rape of Dinah, the prevailing story of rape in the Bible but not the only one.

In “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” edited by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, Rachel’s act is given spiritual embellishment through metaphor and symbolism. To move from barrenness to fertility, she must bridge an equivalent gap between herself and God; by “employing” Bilhah as her surrogate, she engages in “imitative magic,” acting like the deity herself, claiming the body of another in the hope God will fertilize her, too.   

It’s a lovely flourish of literature, but of course the reality is cruel.

“It’s a moral gray area, which many, many biblical texts are,” Rabbi Rachel Adler told me.

Adler is the David Ellenson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the HUC-JIR campus in Los Angeles and a renowned feminist theologian. She warned against biblical literalism.

“When I read the beginning of Genesis, I don’t protest a snake speaking Hebrew, a world created in six days or two archetypal humans in a garden,” she said. “The Torah is not a science book.”

As a Reform Jew, she favors a more historical, interpretive view.

“These are texts that come out of a society very different from our own,” she said, noting that slavery was common practice in the ancient world. “In our [society], slavery is an abomination. And using a woman to beget heirs outside of the marital relationship, and without the consent of the woman whose body is being used, is morally repulsive to us. The fact that people do certain things in biblical texts does not mean that we should do them, too.”

No wonder Hollywood is having so much fun with this. Bad religion makes for great storytelling. But is Atwood’s mirroring this practice an indictment of the Bible — or us?

“Atwood is pointing out ways that people who take a rigid, fundamentalist view of the Bible in our society can combine that with a kind of authoritarianism and fascism that reduces people, especially women, to a slave-like status, and justifies it in crude religious terms,” Adler said.

“If you want a symbol of subjugation,” she added wryly, “a woman is about the oldest, most ancient one you can find.”

But what about our vaunted Jewish matriarchs — Sarah, Rachel and Leah — who participated in this caste system of culturally sanctioned oppression?

“They’re part of a system,” Adler said. “And unless a woman understands that there’s a system, she’s an unconscious part of a system. In a system, everybody takes their place; unless they are conscious that it is a system and they seize the opportunity to resist.”

The same could be said of how we read the Bible, the Quran, even the U.S. Constitution: It’s on us to become more conscious of the texts we read and believe — and whether it’s bad policy or bad ritual, to resist.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.