The Handmaid’s Tale: From Genesis to Gilead
Stories help define the human experience. From our earliest days myths, legends, and parables have been used to teach children and adults about the world and our place within it. Some myths fade away, but others persist and change, resonating within our modern era in fresh, new ways, and continuing to aid in expanding our collective understanding even more.
The biblical story of Hagar, the handmaid of Sarah, is one of our oldest stories, considered foundational for three faiths. Theologians and religious scholars have analyzed this story, like many other scriptural stories, to find deeper meaning about their faiths, and in some cases, to justify horrific practices throughout history, including our modern era. Hagar’s tale has also been revisited within painting, sculpture, poetry, plays, and literature, most notably by Margaret Atwood in her landmark 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted into a critically acclaimed television series in 2017.
This essay will examine a few different interpretations of Hagar’s tale. The first will be a literal interpretation of her tale, revisiting the Book of Genesis to take the story as it is, and to place it within the context of the ancient world. The second will consider an allegorical interpretation of Hagar’s tale from Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish theologian from Alexandria around the time of Jesus. Christian and Islamic interpretations will follow, to see how Hagar’s story influences both religions. And finally, an examination of The Handmaid’s Tale as a literary interpretation of Hagar’s story, which brings the much-needed missing perspective of the handmaid herself, along with how Gilead uses a literal interpretation of Hagar’s story to justify their modern dystopia built around patriarchy and sexual slavery.
The Book of Genesis: Literal Interpretations
The story of Hagar occurs in five parts within the Book of Genesis. In the first act, Sarai (who would later become Sarah) declares herself barren and suggests that Abram (who would later become Abraham) should take her handmaid Hagar to conceive a child. (New American Bible, Genesis 16:1–4) Once pregnant, Hagar begins to look upon Sarai “with disdain”. (Gen. 16:4). Sarai complains to Abram about Hagar’s behavior, and receives the authority from Abram to beat Hagar, until Hagar runs away into the wilderness. (Gen. 16:4–6) The Lord’s messenger visits Hagar in the wilderness, ordering her to return to Sarai and submit herself to abuses with the consolation that Hagar with have numerous descendants through her son, whom she should name Ishmael. Hagar complies. (Genesis 16:7–16) Later, Sarah gives birth to Isaac and demands Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, so Isaac would not have to share his inheritance. (Genesis 21:1–14) After Abraham abandons Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, the Lord’s messenger comes to Hagar and Ishmael to comfort them both and to reiterate the promise her son would also make a great nation. (Genesis 21:15–21)
Some context of the ancient world is required. Slavery, concubines, and polygamy were a normal part of most societies, including Abraham’s family. Our modern notions of human dignity and equality were only reserved for the men of the ruling classes in most ancient societies. Everyone else worked as a servant or a slave or lived as a nomad. Sarah would have been right to be upset with Hagar treating her as an equal, and Hagar would have been expected to submit to Sarah’s treatment, which is why even God chastises Hagar to return and be grateful for the gift of many descendants.
Hagar isn’t the only handmaid pressed into service within Genesis. Isaac’s son, Jacob, finds himself in a similar situation with his sister wives Leah and Rachel, along with their handmaids Zilpah and Bilhah respectively. After their marriage, Leah conceives and births four sons for Jacob. (Genesis 29:31–35) Rachel becomes jealous of Leah, and finding herself barren, says, “Here is my maidservant Bilhah. Have intercourse with her, and let her give birth on my knees, so that I too may have offspring, at least through her.” (Genesis 30:3) Bilhah provides two sons for Rachel, then Leah gives her handmaid Zilpah, who provides two more sons. (Genesis 30:4–13) And once again, both Leah and Rachel are made fertile after handing over their handmaids, with Leah birthing two more sons and one daughter, and Rachel giving birth to Joseph. (Genesis 30:14–24)
How should we interpret Hagar’s story? And what can be meant by a literal interpretation? Hagar’s tale can be taken completely literally, a tale of God moving Sarah to offer her handmaid for the sake of Abraham’s patriarchal line, and a necessary step for the foundation of Israel. The implications of that interpretation affected not only Jacob two generations later, but also used to justify many patriarchal and misogynistic laws and societies throughout history. It is not difficult to draw conclusions such as God condoning slavery and sexual servitude for holy men through arranged or forced marriages, or that women should be obedient to their husbands and endure abuse from their masters.
None of those concerns even begins to address the more technical questions, such as which story, which version, which translation, and perhaps more importantly, which underlying philosophies are driving our literal interpretations. All these factors make the idea of finding a single, universal literal interpretation of this story implausible, not just in finding an authoritative copy of the story, but in removing the social and theological contexts which inevitably inform every interpretation. Torah scholars and atheists will literally interpret Hagar’s story differently, which makes creating laws and societies based upon literal interpretations equally implausible.
Philo and Allegorical Interpretation
Somewhere between 20 and 10 BCE, a young boy was born into a noble Jewish family in the well-known city of Alexandria in Egypt, a major center of commerce, culture, and education within the Roman Empire. Alexandria, of course, was home to the famous library that contained much of the western ancient world’s knowledge, declining gradually over centuries from politics, neglect, and yes, a few fires. Alexandria was considered a city of knowledge and learning filled with the great intellectuals of the age, and it is into that context that Philo Judaeus received a thorough education in Roman, Hellenistic, Egyptian, and Jewish culture, along with extensive study in natural philosophy and Jewish scriptures. Very few details exist about his actual life, but his treatises are a testament to his uniquely cosmopolitan education. (Seymour-Smith, 86)
Philo is known for two major contributions in history. The first was an important delegation led to the infamous Roman emperor Gaius Caligula to prevent the desecration of the Second Temple during the sadistic second half of Caligula’s reign. (Seymour-Smith, 86) This delegation’s efforts, and its key arguments, are documented in On the Embassy to Gaius. The second was a new kind of theological process, documented primarily in three books entitled Allegorical Interpretation, which interprets religious scriptures allegorically to reveal truths about ourselves and the world. (Seymour-Smith, 87) While the method is first introduced in Allegorical Interpretation, Philo uses the method throughout his treatises walking through each major passage and story within the Torah.
Allegorical interpretation is Philo’s attempt to synthesize Jewish theology with Greek natural philosophy. He uses standard rational and rhetorical methods, heavily influenced by Plato and Aristotle, with a theological and teleological outlook, i.e., everything has a purpose in God’s Creation. Early Christian theologians would adopt these methods for their own theological works and would attempt a similar synthesis during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (Seymour-Smith, 86–87) Philo also uses techniques like etymology, to discern from or apply meanings to the names of people, places, and locations, and numerology, to find symbolic meaning in the numbers used repetitively within scripture, like the seven days of creation, forty days of the flood, and a fascination with the numbers ten and one hundred. These numerological methods were likely influenced by a mixture of Pythagorean number philosophy and contemporaneous Jewish mystical traditions, which would later evolve and formalize into the Kabbalistic system.
Philo specifically examines the story of Hagar within two works. On Mating with the Preliminary Studies examine not just the conception and birth of Ishmael, but also the children born to Zilpah and Bilhah, as well as other examples of divine and human conception within the Torah. On Flight and Finding uses Hagar’s flight from and return to Sarah to consider the reasons for fleeing from and returning to God throughout the Torah. Philo’s comprehensive education allowed him to draw connections between scripture and the rest of the world, in an almost free associative manner, full of small asides and longer tangents with each treatise. These two treatises are no exception.
Thankfully, Philo concisely points out the allegorical nature of this tale in a clear manner:
“Now, we must take out of the present discussion those conjunctions and connections of body with body which have pleasure for their end. For this is the connection of the mind with virtue, which is desirous to have children by her, and which, if it cannot do so at once, is at all events taught to espouse her handmaid, namely, intermediate instruction.” (Philo, On Mating with the Preliminary Studies, 305)
Rather than take this story literally and dealing with the messiness of sexual intercourse, Philo considers the story from Abraham’s point of view, as a man seeking virtue. Sarah represents the virtue of God, which Abraham representing the mind is not yet ready to receive. Therefore, to prepare for virtue, Abraham must conceive a child with Hagar, who represents “an emigration” to intermediate instruction in virtue. (Philo, On Mating with the Preliminary Studies, 305) This intermediate instruction, perhaps one of the stranger euphemisms for sexual intercourse, produces Ishmael, which Philo interprets to mean “the hearing of God” (Philo, On Flight and Finding, 339) Once Abraham is able to hear God, then he becomes ready to receive virtue, in this case the changing of his name from Abram to Abraham (and Sarai to Sarah), and Sarah’s later conception of Isaac, who would later give birth to Jacob, later named Israel, which Philo interprets as “seeing God”. (Philo, On Flight and Finding, 339).
Even Sarah’s chastisement of Hagar is interpreted as virtue chastising instruction:
“When, therefore, you hear that Hagar was afflicted by Sarah, you must not suppose that any of those things befell her, which arise from rivalry and quarrels among women; for the question is not here about woman, but about minds; the one being practised in the branches of elementary instruction, and the other being devoted to the labours of virtue.” (Philo, On Mating with the Preliminary Studies, 320).
Philo also finds allegorical meaning within the story of Leah and Rachel, suggesting that Leah and Rachel represent respectively the rational and irrational parts of our soul, with Zilpah and Bilhah representing speaking and swallowing. Using a series of etymological arguments, Philo concludes that Jacob should speak (Zilpah) with the rational part of himself (Leah) and should swallow (Bilhah) the irrational parts of himself (Rachel) when walking the path of virtue. (Philo, On Mating with the Preliminary Studies, 306)
Modern theologians and biblical scholars use allegorical interpretation to brush past the moral difficulties of social institutions within ancient times. A scriptural story that justifies placing women into sexual servitude doesn’t resonate very well, but a tale that praises Hagar’s obedience and Abraham’s journey towards virtue does. Allegorical interpretation brings a higher context view of Hagar’s story in a way that lower context literal interpretations never can, and it opens the door to reconsider these stories from different points of view.
Christian and Islamic Interpretations
Two major religions would arise after Philo’s time: Christianity and Islam. Christianity would grow from its humble beginnings with the birth and death of Jesus around Philo’s time into a sanctioned religion within the Roman Empire three hundred years later, viewing itself as the fulfilment of the messianic promises made to the Hebrews. Islam would arise just over five hundred years after Philo’s time, when the prophet Muhammad was born and the Koran was revealed to him, tying back specifically through Ishmael and Hagar to Abraham, or Ibrahim. Hagar’s story becomes pivotal to why Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are considered the Abrahamic religions.
Each religion interprets Hagar’s story differently. Christianity, while believing in a literal interpretation of Hagar’s story, chooses to focus more directly on the allegorical interpretations of Hagar’s story, specifically the teleological nature of the event (required by God for Creation) and praising the obedience of Hagar to God. The most direct example of this interpretation is found in the New Testament when Mary declares herself “the handmaid of the lord” when meekly accepting the immaculate conception of Christ. (Luke 1:38) Paul later invokes Hagar’s story for his own allegorical interpretation, interpreting Hagar as a slave woman representing the old covenant of Mt Sinai, and Sarah as a virtuous mother representing the new covenant of Christ. Hagar and Ishmael now transform into a symbol for the Jewish people and choosing Isaac over Ishmael becomes choosing the new covenant over the old. (Galatians 4:21–31)
Islam has taken a much different approach over the centuries to Hagar’s story. The story of Abraham is retold within the Koran, but very little is said directly about Hagar, as the stories of Abraham were largely translated orally prior to Muhammad. Much of what has been come to be known about Hagar is drawn through inference and later research, to better fit with the history and the theology of Islam. Hagar is thus elevated from handmaiden to Sarah into a full wife of Abraham and the daughter of an Egyptian king, making her a much more suitable ancestor for Muhammad. Abraham is ordered by God to abandon Hagar and Ishmael in wilderness, not to preserve Isaac’s inheritance, but to fulfill the prophecy for the coming of Muhammad. The location where Abraham leaves Hagar and Ishmael becomes the future site of Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, and the journey to this location will form one basis for the hajj, the yearly pilgrimage which forms one of the five pillars of Islamic faith. (“Hagar in Islam”)
Christianity, being bound as a continuation of Judaism, finds itself compelled to adopt a literal and allegorical approach to Hagar’s story. Her status as handmaid must be taken as is and her role in history has been pre-determined, reduced to a metaphor for the old covenant. Since Islam has little foundational text concerning Hagar directly, her story has been interpreted and re-interpreted over the centuries, a freedom which no literal interpretation could ever have, and elevating her into a status like Mary within Christianity.
All three interpretations (Jewish, Christian, Islamic) demonstrate how influential our earliest stories can be on our cultures, but also how our cultures can also influence our interpretations of these same oral traditions. That the account in Genesis may have been written down prior to the account in the Koran does not necessarily make it any more authoritative or true. We are once again confronted with the difficulty of picking a “correct” interpretation, but we can see that each interpretation says more about the religion and its tenets than any truth about the story itself.
Artistic and Literary Interpretations
Foundational stories tend to expand beyond their narrow theological or historical boundaries into other parts of our social and cultural experience. Many Jewish and Christian artists have depicted Hagar’s life in paintings and sculptures over the years. Biblical references worked their way more and more into literature with the advent of the printing press. Regardless of medium, Hagar’s initial depictions also reflected the philosophies and beliefs of the artists and authors who composed them.
Early European depictions of Hagar mostly followed the Christian imagery applied to Hagar, as either an obedient servant of God, a symbol of outcasts, or representing people of the old covenant. Shakespeare mentions Hagar in The Merchant of Venice, making her one of the earliest biblical references in print. Few depictions, literal or allegorical, really depicted Hagar in a sympathetic light.
Female and African American voices changed that trend after both groups were slowly given a voice within society and the artworld. Female artists began questioning and reconsidering Hagar as a symbol of a victim of patriarchy and the gender roles enforced by that ideology. African American artists saw their history as slaves reflected in the story of Hagar and the other handmaids, forced into servitude to produce children for their masters.
These artistic and literary interpretations further expand the influence of Hagar’s story and open a new category of interpretations. While literal interpretations are concerned with facts and knowledge, and allegorical interpretations are concerned with meanings and beliefs, these new artistic and literary interpretations are largely concerned with the cultures that influenced the original stories. Female and African American perspectives on Hagar’s story become the means to challenge gender roles and slavery as institutions within ancient and contemporaneous society.
The Republic of Gilead
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps the most popular literary interpretation of Hagar’s story in print today. Atwood’s tale is primarily a first-person narrative told from the perspective of June, a fertile woman pressed into sexual servitude after a mysterious plague drops Caucasian birth rates sharply throughout the United States. A small, but connected and wealthy group of religious zealots succeed in a plot to overthrow the United States government and create the Republic of Gilead, based largely on a teleological, literal interpretation of the stories of Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah. Since the Old Testament is filled with slavery, concubines, and sexual servitude, the new government sorts women into Marthas, Jezebels, and Handmaids respectively to fulfill their roles. The Republic of Gilead becomes a fictionalized version of many modern theocracies and isolated religious communities, a critique on all types of communities built around literal interpretations of scriptures to justify and enforce heinous acts and institutions.
Perhaps the most important aspect of recent literary interpretations of Hagar’s story is the centering of the handmaid’s voice. June’s first-person narrative brings the much-needed handmaid perspective to Hagar’s story, rather than merely as a tool to fulfill the destiny of Abraham or the Commander. Our eyes are opened to the social and religious influences that regulate Hagar’s behavior and thoughts as June goes through her allowed activities. Hagar’s story is no longer something happening to another person, but something happening to us as the reader through June.
No more so is this apparent than during the Ceremony, where the handmaids are lying back between the legs of the infertile wives of Gilead, to attempt literally translating Rachel’s words to Jacob concerning Bilhah. (Genesis 30:3) Atwood shows that there is a lot more going on than “[Abraham] had intercourse with [Hagar], and she became pregnant.” (Genesis 16:4), especially as June describes the ceremony in lurid detail:
“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he is doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I didn’t sign up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” (Atwood, 121)
Atwood makes it difficult, or at the very least uncomfortable, to find moral meaning in a story which uses sexual servitude and forced pregnancies as one of its components. We cannot simply wave away what happens to Hagar, Bilhah, Zilpah, or June as “intermediate instruction”. (Philo, 305) Religious scholars throughout history, like Philo, could do so previously because their societies and their philosophies had misogyny and patriarchy built-in, relegating women to child-bearing property in all but a few marginal cases. We cannot, in our modern day, allow such euphemistic treatment of rape and sexual servitude to be used, especially to somehow become a parable about obedience or victim-blaming.
Even though Atwood is clearly referencing all religious theocracies with her novel, the Islamic interpretation of Hagar’s story as a woman enduring abandonment with her child at God’s command cannot be used in the same way as the Judeo-Christian version of story. The abandonment of Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness is terrible, but the Judeo-Christian version of the story is also further complicated by the sexual slavery of Hagar. We can see June’s observation about women not having a lot of choice in both versions of Hagar’s story, and within many societies today, but one choice would be clearly “preferable” to the other.
Atwood also takes aim at those same scholars who attempt to use allegorical interpretation or specious rationale about “preferable versions” to sidestep morally complicated stories. She closes The Handmaid’s Tale with an epilogue set in the distant future, during the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies. (Atwood, 379) The reader learns from Professor James Darcy Pieixoto on how he puts together June’s story from scraps of paper she had sequestered and used to write her tale (Atwood, 381), then goes on to discuss how they named the book.
“The superscription ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was appended to it by Professor Wade, partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer; but those of you who know Professor Wade informally, as I do, will understand when I say that I am sure all puns were intended, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, in that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats. (Laughter, applause)” (Atwood, 381)
Yes, the tale of one woman’s sexual servitude, forced pregnancy, and child separation is cause for sexual innuendo by Professor Pieixoto, a deft swipe at patriarchy inherent in religious institutions, academia, and the larger society. Low context literal interpretations, high context allegorical interpretations, and revised or competing interpretations of Hagar’s story can still draw similarly bad, misogynistic conclusions when failing to consider all perspectives, especially the roles of women and slaves. Literary interpretations can add these missing perspectives. In doing so, they grant the power to change our approach to ancient stories and to find contemporaneous meaning within them.
The Meaning of Interpretation
So, what do all of these different interpretations mean for Hagar’s story, and the stories of the other handmaids? And is there a “correct” interpretation of Hagar’s story?
The first conclusion is that some stories can be literally interpreted in dramatically different ways. Hagar’s tale could be literally interpreted as historical fact and be used to justify actions or positions within society, as echoed later in the stories of Bilhah and Zilpah and fictionalized by June. Hagar’s tale can also be allegorically interpreted or revised to find deeper meaning: in the case of Philo, a metaphor for Abraham’s journey towards virtue; in the case of Paul, as a metaphor of slavery to the old covenant; and in the case of Islamic scholars, a revered wife to Ibrahim enduring abandonment as part of God’s plan for the prophet Muhammad.
Because Hagar’s story can be interpreted in so many ways, it follows that making decisions about modern societies based on literal or allegorical interpretations of her story, or any other ancient story, is fraught with problems. The Republic of Gilead may be an extreme fictionalized example of a literal interpretation of modern theocracies, but it is also an allegorical interpretation of politicians making decisions within nominally free democracies based upon those same narrow interpretations, especially laws targeting women’s and transgender rights based upon very incomplete conceptions of sex and gender.
However, allegorical interpretation does open these stories to additional perspectives. Theology is largely built around allegorical interpretation, for better or worse, and allegorical interpretation creates and defines the relationship between stories and their meanings. Artistic and literary interpretation take this expansion one step further, allowing the same stories to reflect ancient or contemporaneous culture back to the audience by including new perspectives, such as female and African American perspectives in Hagar’s story.
How one interprets these stories often says a lot more about themselves and their culture than about the story itself, which means there is no “correct” interpretation of Hagar’s story, nor are there any set number of correct interpretations, despite the claims which religious scholars and theologians for millennia. But with each new interpretation of Hagar’s story, we begin to better understand the human experience, including our many flaws, through the frame of our most ancient stories.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York, Ballantine Books, 1989.
“Hagar” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 January 2022. Web. 22 Jan 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagar
“Hagar in Islam” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 December 2021. Web. 22 Jan 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagar_in_Islam
Philo. The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged. Translated by C.D. Yonge, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
Seymour-Smith, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written: The History of Thought from Ancient Times to Today. Secaucus, Carol Publishing Group, 1998.
The New American Bible: Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1991.