Note: This post includes spoilers from The Handmaid’s Tale, season 2, episode 4 entitled “Other Women.”
I see the story of Hagar in a brand new light.
Imagine that Hagar, concubine of Abram, as a young woman forced to live with a family in a new society framework. Imagine that as they analyze her monthly cycle, she is required to have sexual relations with the man of the house. Imagine that she cannot say no to the process – that this is her life.
This is the life of handmaid Offred – June – in the story The Handmaid’s Tale. And this is essentially the story of Hagar.
What do we know about Hagar? Chapter 16 of Genesis tells us that she was a slave. She was Egyptian. She is accused by Sarai of contempt. She is abused by Sarai and runs away. Years later, after she gives birth to Ishmael, she is thrown out of the community with little resources and forced into the wilderness only with her child.
The mother of Ishmael was a handmaid. She was forced to conceive against her will.
June/Offred is Hagar. And Hagar is a handmaid. Like Hagar, June couldn’t say no. Like Hagar she was property, and one of her jobs was to serve as a surrogate – a working reproductive system – for a more-privileged couple. Like Hagar, she will undoubtedly be cast aside after she gives birth.
See the wilderness where Hagar is cast? The Colonies may appear different, but they are exile, nonetheless.
June is viewed by Serena Joy through a lens of jealousy. Sarai saw Hagar through a similar lens of envy, and Sarai expressed that jealousy by abusing Hagar. In Genesis 16, Sarai is told by her husband that she can do what she wants to with her slave Hagar. It states that Sarai “dealt harshly” with Hagar which resulted in Hagar running away. June also runs away… only to be captured again by the powers-that-be. While the Genesis 16 texts states that Hagar is convinced by God to go back, was that the way it really would happen? Would God instruct a slave to return to their abusive masters?
Do I believe Hagar wanted to “show contempt” with Sarai? No. Do I believe that she was wrongly accused. Probably. If she showed contempt it was because Hagar was given the opportunity to feel some power in a powerless situation. While it says that Sarai has the power, in all honesty, Abram has all of the power. The patriarchal systems during the time of Abram and Sarai allowed some women to have power over others. In all actuality, the system put into place by the men during the time fostered a environment where the women hated one another – just like in Gilead.
Sound familiar? Like Sarai, Serena Joy has power over the handmaid but is also a slave in the system. She is complicit and a pawn. June lives in an oppressive system which favors some women over others with handmaids being physically and emotionally abused by the other women – especially by the wives and Aunt Lydia.
Abram looks like the innocent soul in all of this. Frankly, after watching this show, I can no longer see how this makes Abram greater than Fred. Abram undoubtedly has sex with Hagar against her will – or at the very least without her free and willing consent. The patriarchy gives permission to the men to reign over the rest of the society as they peg women against women to achieve their goals.
Is it much different today? There are slaves in our world- ones that are forced to work and have sex in order to build society and some men’s egos. We see how slaves are rented to men for a night of sex. Very often, what appears to be prostitution is the story of women who are forced to be a part of physical intimacy against their will.
But there is another part of all of this. And with Mother’s Day coming up, I feel like it needs to be said: our system is built on women comparing themselves to other women. Having children is a vital piece of the patriarchal puzzle. How we look and with whom we are connected are other pieces.
For those of us who have not had children – and especially those who have truly wanted to give birth – it feel like a club that we are not a part of. It feels like we’ve been left out of something truly great. And I wonder if our society has allowed motherhood to be used as another “us vs. them” tool.
The us vs. them was felt by Sarai and Hagar. It’s seen every time Serena Joy experiences her devastation with her own unspoken infertility. It’s seen when June wants to return to her own life but can’t. And it’s experienced by many in our time.
“Women shall be saved through childbirth.” That’s what 1 Timothy 2 says. That’s how Hagar was undoubtedly able to have a decent life for many years. It’s also why people use words like “you don’t know what love is until you have a child.” But it’s a message that isn’t true. Women are valuable on their own – no matter if they are married, who they are married to, if they’ve had children, how they’ve became a mother, or whose child they are.
While motherhood is a calling by God to some women, we as a society need to stop placing it on all woman as a requirement for salvation here on earth or in heaven. We need to stop this toxic message of us versus them. We are women – all of us. Married, single, parent, childless – all of us are valuable children of God and made in God’s image.