What Does the Bible Say About Handmaids? Unpacking the Biblical Perspective on Servant Leadership

Have you ever wondered what the Bible says about handmaids? With the recent resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” many people are curious about the origins of the concept of handmaids. Although Atwood’s novel is a work of fiction, the idea of women serving as handmaids has biblical roots. In fact, references to handmaids are scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments.

In the Bible, a handmaid is a female servant who is usually responsible for domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning. Sometimes, however, handmaids were also used as surrogate mothers. For example, when Sarah was unable to bear children, she gave her handmaid, Hagar, to her husband Abraham so that he could have a child. This practice was common in ancient times, and it is still practiced in some cultures today.

Although the idea of handmaids may seem archaic to many modern readers, it is important to remember that the Bible was written in a different time and place. However, it is also important to recognize that the Bible teaches that all humans are made in the image of God, regardless of their status or role in society. As we explore the concept of handmaids further, we can learn valuable lessons about the dignity of human life and the importance of serving others with love and respect.

Biblical stories about handmaids

Handmaids are female servants/slaves who were often employed by wealthy families in ancient times. In the Bible, handmaids are mentioned in several stories and were regarded as an important part of society during those times. Here are some of the notable biblical stories that mention handmaids:

  • Sarah and Hagar: The story of Sarah and Hagar is perhaps the most well-known story in the Bible that features handmaids. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was unable to have children, so she gave her handmaid Hagar to her husband to sleep with, so that she could have a child through her. Hagar bore Abraham a son named Ishmael, but Sarah later gave birth to Isaac, and Hagar and her son were banished from the household.
  • Rachel and Bilhah: Another well-known story featuring handmaids is that of Rachel and Bilhah. Rachel, the wife of Jacob, was also unable to have children, so she gave her handmaid Bilhah to her husband to sleep with as well. Bilhah bore Jacob two sons, Dan and Naphtali.
  • Leah and Zilpah: Leah, the sister of Rachel, also gave her handmaid Zilpah to Jacob to sleep with, as she was also unable to have children. Zilpah bore Jacob two sons, Gad and Asher.
  • Ruth and Boaz: While not explicitly mentioned as a handmaid, Ruth is often mentioned in the Bible as a servant of Boaz. Ruth was a Moabite woman who became the wife of Boaz and later the ancestor of King David.

Handmaidens in Ancient Culture

Handmaidens, or female servants, were a common feature in ancient cultures around the world, including in the Bible. In some societies, they held prominent positions of power and influence, while in others they were treated as mere property with little value beyond their labor.

  • In ancient Egypt, handmaidens were often used as wet nurses for royal children, and also served as attendants for queens and princesses.
  • In ancient Greece, handmaidens were typically slaves who performed various domestic duties for their owners.
  • In ancient Rome, handmaidens were often used as personal attendants for wealthy women and were sometimes even trained in music and dance.

Throughout the Bible, handmaidens play a significant role in the lives of female biblical figures, including Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah. These women used their handmaidens as surrogates to have children and often relied on them for support and companionship.

One of the most famous examples of a handmaiden in the Bible is Hagar, who was Sarah’s handmaiden and the mother of Ishmael. Hagar’s story illustrates the complexities of power and relationships in ancient societies, as she was at once a servant and a surrogate mother to Sarah, yet also had her own status and autonomy as a mother and as a woman.

Handmaidens in the Bible Reference
Sarah’s handmaid Hagar Genesis 16:1-16
Rebekah’s handmaid Deborah Genesis 24:59
Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah Genesis 30:1-8
Hannah’s handmaid Peninnah 1 Samuel 1:1-28

Overall, the role of handmaidens in ancient cultures and in the Bible was complex and multifaceted. While they were often used as servants and laborers, they also had their own agency and autonomy, as well as the potential for power and influence in certain contexts.

Handmaidens in literature and arts

The role of handmaidens in literature and arts has been a popular subject for centuries. From Greek mythology to Shakespearean dramas, handmaidens play a significant role in the portrayal of various themes and ideas.

In literature, handmaidens are often portrayed as female servants who assist their masters or mistresses. They are usually depicted as obedient, subservient, and loyal characters who serve as a mediator between their masters and their world. In the ancient epic poem Odyssey by Homer, the handmaidens of Odysseus’ wife Penelope are portrayed as innocent and loyal companions who are always ready to obey their mistress’s commands.

In art, handmaidens are often portrayed as idealized feminine figures. They are depicted as beautiful, graceful, and elegant companions who are always ready to please their masters. In Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting “The Birth of Venus,” the handmaidens of the goddess Venus are portrayed as ethereal and graceful beings who embody the ideals of feminine beauty and grace.

Popular works featuring handmaidens

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: This dystopian novel follows the story of a handmaiden named Offred, who is forced to bear children for her master in a totalitarian society.
  • The Trojan Women by Euripides: This play follows the story of the handmaidens of the defeated Trojan queen Hecuba, who are taken as slaves by the Greeks.
  • Othello by William Shakespeare: In this tragedy, the handmaiden Emilia plays a significant role in exposing the villainous Iago’s plot against the hero Othello.

Handmaidens as symbols in literature and arts

Handmaidens are often used as symbols in literature and arts to represent certain ideas and themes.

For instance, they are often used to represent the idealized feminine figure, who is graceful, obedient, and subservient to her master. However, they can also represent the oppression and marginalization of women in patriarchal societies, where they are reduced to servants and objects of male desire.

Symbol Meaning
The handmaidens of the goddess Athena Represent wisdom, courage, and loyalty
The handmaidens in The Handmaid’s Tale Represent female oppression and marginalization in a dystopian society
The handmaidens of Lady Macbeth Represent Lady Macbeth’s ambition and manipulation of her husband

Overall, handmaidens have been a popular subject in literature and arts for centuries. They represent a range of ideas and themes, from the idealized feminine figure to the oppression and marginalization of women. By examining the role of handmaidens in various works of literature and arts, we can gain insights into the complexities of human experiences and the ideas that shape our society.

The role of handmaids in the Bible

In the Bible, handmaids were women who were acquired as slaves and were charged with the responsibility of providing children for their owners. These women were considered to be the property of their owners and were treated as such although some were treated better than others. The handmaid culture was widely practiced in ancient times, and the Bible makes several references to this practice.

  • The first reference to handmaids is in the story of Sarah and her handmaid, Hagar. Sarah was unable to conceive a child, and she offered her handmaid, Hagar, to her husband, Abraham, as a means of providing her with an heir.
  • The second reference to handmaids is in the story of Rachel and her handmaid, Bilhah. Rachel was also unable to conceive, and she offered her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob so that she could have children through her.
  • Another reference to handmaids is in the law given in Exodus 21:7-11. This law is about the rights of female slaves or handmaids and outlines guidelines for their treatment, including their right to be redeemed and protected.

Despite the fact that handmaids were considered as property, the Bible portrays them as individuals with emotions and desires. They were not just vessels for producing children, but they were also acknowledged as human beings with feelings and were used for other tasks such as assisting with household chores.

The role of handmaids in the Bible was an accepted practice in ancient times. However, their mistreatment and subjugation as property has been condemned and is incompatible with modern society’s moral and ethical standards.

Reference Verses
Genesis 16 Story of Sarah and Hagar
Genesis 30 Story of Rachel and Bilhah
Exodus 21:7-11 The law about the rights of female slaves or handmaids

Although the Bible speaks of handmaids, it is essential to note that the practice of owning slaves or treating humans as property is not condoned. Instead, the Bible teaches us to love and care for one another as equals, regardless of status or background.

How the concept of handmaids is interpreted in different religions

The concept of handmaids is a prevalent theme in many world religions. A handmaid is considered a female servant who is often assigned to carry out specific tasks or duties. This concept has been interpreted differently across various religions, and here are some interpretations from four different religions:

  • Christianity: In Christianity, handmaids are mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 16:1-5 and Luke 1:38) and are usually attributed to a servant or concubine of a wealthy or prominent individual. In some cases, handmaids were used to bear children for barren wives of wealthy men. The handmaid Hagar, for instance, was used by Sarah to bear a child for Abraham.
  • Judaism: In Judaism, handmaids are considered regular housemaids who are present to assist women in their daily chores or specific needs. They are not considered as slaves but rather as servants who are part of the household.
  • Islam: In Islamic traditions, handmaids are referred to as slave girls or women who are acquired through war or purchase. Handmaids in Islam have different roles that vary between the master’s wife, his concubine, or simply a female servant. While some believe that Islam abolished slavery, the concept of handmaids or female slaves still exists in some cultures.
  • Hinduism: In Hinduism, handmaids are usually referred to as dasi or devi and are common in rural areas. They are considered as obedient servants who assist women in their daily lives. However, the concept of handmaids is now obsolete in India due to legal and social changes.

The evaluation of handmaids in the Bible

The Bible provides mixed views on handmaids, and it is often a topic of debate among Christians. On one hand, handmaids are considered as useful servants in society who serve important purposes. On the other hand, they are viewed as oppressed members of society who have fewer rights compared to their masters.

For instance, Hagar, the handmaid of Sarah, was used by Sarah and Abraham to bear a child due to Sarah’s barrenness. Although Hagar’s role was crucial in creating the lineage of David and Jesus Christ, she was often treated harshly by Sarah, and her son, Ishmael, was rejected by Sarah and Abraham. In other verses, such as Leviticus 19:20-22, rules and regulations about handmaids are laid out, such as monetary compensation or the scrupling of one’s sin.

All in all, the interpretation of handmaids in the Bible is subjective and varies depending on the reader’s beliefs and values.

Religion Interpretation of Handmaids
Christianity Handmaids as servants to bear children or to carry out specific tasks for their masters
Judaism Handmaids as household servants
Islam Handmaids as slaves or women acquired through war or purchase
Hinduism Handmaids as obedient servants in rural areas

Nevertheless, controversies still exist surrounding the treatment of handmaids in certain regions and cultures, and it is essential to evaluate and consider each perception from different religions for a better understanding of its impact in society.

The impact of the Handmaid’s Tale on modern society’s perception of handmaids in the Bible.

Since the release of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 1985, the novel has become a cultural phenomenon and has had a significant impact on modern society’s perception of handmaids in the Bible. Atwood’s novel explores a dystopian society in which fertile women, known as handmaids, are forced to bear children for elite couples who are unable to conceive. The novel’s themes of oppression, control, and the subjugation of women have resonated with readers, sparking important social and political debates about gender, power, and the role of women in society.

  • One of the most striking aspects of the novel is the way in which it draws on biblical imagery and language to create its oppressive theocratic society. The use of biblical references and iconography has led many readers to question the role of handmaids in the Bible and the way in which religious texts have been used to justify the subjugation of women.
  • The novel’s popularity has also led to increased attention on the historical context of handmaids in the Bible. While the term “handmaid” is often used interchangeably with “slave,” the biblical conception of handmaids was more complex. In ancient Hebrew society, a handmaid was a female slave who was often taken captive during war or purchased as property. However, handmaids were also used as surrogate mothers for infertile wives or to produce offspring for men who were unable to have children with their wives.
  • Despite these historical nuances, the novel has sparked important conversations about the role of women in religious texts and the need to critically examine the ways in which religious language and imagery have been used to reinforce patriarchal power structures.

The following table summarizes some of the key differences between handmaids in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and handmaids in the Bible:

“The Handmaid’s Tale” The Bible
Handmaids are forced to bear children as part of a state-sanctioned breeding program. Handmaids were used as surrogates for infertile wives or to produce offspring for men who were unable to have children with their wives.
Handmaids are stripped of their identities and forced to assume new names based on their assigned commanders (e.g. Offred, Ofwarren, etc.). Handmaids were often given new names as a sign of their changed status, but these names were not necessarily based on their commanders.
Handmaids are forbidden from reading, writing, or engaging in any activities outside of their designated roles. While handmaids were likely subject to many restrictions, there is little information about their daily lives and activities in the Bible.

The impact of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on modern society’s perception of handmaids in the Bible has been significant and far-reaching. By drawing attention to the use of religious language and imagery to reinforce patriarchal power structures, Atwood’s novel has inspired important social and political debates about gender, power, and the role of women in society.

What Does the Bible Say About Handmaids: FAQs

1. What is a handmaid in the Bible?

In the Bible, a handmaid is a female servant who works for a family or is given as a gift to a man to bear him children.

2. Are handmaids considered slaves in the Bible?

Although handmaids were owned by their masters, they were not treated as slaves in the Bible. Instead, they were valued members of the household.

3. Who was the most famous handmaid mentioned in the Bible?

The most famous handmaid mentioned in the Bible is Hagar, who was given to Abraham by his wife Sarah to bear him a child.

4. What is the biblical purpose of a handmaid?

The biblical purpose of a handmaid was to bear children for a man who was unable to have children with his wife.

5. How were handmaids treated in the Bible?

Handmaids were treated with respect in the Bible and were often given the same privileges as other members of the household.

6. Is the concept of handmaids still relevant today?

While the practice of having handmaids is no longer common, the concept of using a surrogate or surrogate mother to have a child is still relevant today.

7. What can we learn from the Bible’s teachings on handmaids?

The Bible’s teachings on handmaids emphasize the importance of treating all people, regardless of their social status, with respect and dignity.

Closing Thoughts

Thank you for taking the time to learn about what the Bible says about handmaids. As you can see, the concept of handmaids has a rich history and continues to be relevant in some ways today. We hope you found this article informative and invite you to visit again in the future for more insights on biblical teachings.