Friday, December 08, 2017

A child is born 8: The Handmaids’ Tale

So Rachel gave Jacob her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son…Then Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son.

The rivalry between unloved but fertile Leah and much-loved but infertile Rachel came to a head when Rachel decided that, if she could not bear children for Jacob then her slave, Bilhah, could do so for her. Bilhah had two sons, Dan and Naphtali, but tellingly, it is Rachel who names them. They count as her children. Two generations earlier Abraham had fathered a child by his wife’s slave, Hagar. That ended in disaster, but nothing seems to have been learned by it, and Rachel is convinced that it will even the score between her and Leah. Leah believes she is now past child-bearing, and so, in retaliation, she gives her slave, Zilpah to Jacob. Zilpah also bears him two sons, Gad and Asher.

Bilhah and Zilpah have no power or voice at all. They say nothing. Their wishes are neither here nor there. This story, along with the story of Hagar, is the inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” about a near-future time in which the few remaining fertile women in the society she writes about must bear children for high ranking officials. Attwood’s novel is fiction, but this story reminds us that this practice was normal at the time the Bible was written. No particular comment is made about it. The only silver lining in the story for Bilhah and Zilpah is that their four boys are counted equally as descendants of Jacob, and each give their names to one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

·         If Bilhah and Zilpah could speak to us, what do you think they would say?
·         How do you think Rachel, Leah and Jacob  would respond if they were challenged about the way they treated their slaves?

·         40 million people live as slaves around the world today, and it is thought that there are 13,000 slaves in the UK today; working in homes as domestic slaves, in nail bars and car washes, on farms and in sweatshops. Rochester Diocese has signed up as a beacon diocese to help uncover slavery and confront it. Pray for this work. You can find out more here.

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