What Does Gilead Mean In 'The Handmaid's Tale'? The Name Of The Series Setting Has Biblical Roots
Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is a chilling and timely adaptation of the bestselling dystopian novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. Both the TV series and book take place in a world where the United States has become the Republic of Gilead, so you might be wondering what does Gilead mean in The Handmaid's Tale? Several people and places in the Bible bear the name and the name Gilead means mountain or hill country, according to Bible Hub. This shouldn't be surprising, considering both the Republic of Gilead's connection to the Bible and the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis.
In The Handmaid's Tale's fourth episode, several characters repeat the following verse from Genesis (30:1-3).
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said unto Jacob, 'Give me children or else I die.' And she said, 'Behold my maid, Bilhah. Go in unto her and she shall bear upon my knees so that I might also have children by her.' And she gave him Bilhah, their Handmaid, to wife, and Jacob went unto her.
As you know, the Republic of Gilead takes this verse literally, attempting to circumvent the world's infertility crisis by having a class of Handmaids bear children for wealthy families. The name Gilead is mentioned in Genesis as the area south of the Jabbok river, according to Bible Hub, which is known today as the Zarqa river in Jordan.
And the name Gilead has a connection to Jacob as well: the name is first mentioned in Genesis (31:21-55), in which Jacob fled to "the hill country of Gilead" as he's pursued by Laban, who is his boss, uncle, and father-in-law, according to the International Bible Society. As the story goes, Jacob fell in love with Rachel, but Laban said he would need to work for him for seven years in order to marry her. At the end of Jacob's tenure, Laban tricks Jacob and has him marry his other daughter Leah instead. So Jacob works for seven more years, marries Rachel, works for six more years, and then runs away with Laban in pursuit. Naturally, Laban is upset and he tells Jacob in Genesis 31: “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war." Jacob tells him that he ran away in order to protect his wives and children, in fear that Laban would trick him again and take them away.
Sounds kind of like the Republic of Gilead, doesn't it? In The Handmaid's Tale's Gilead, women have limited rights and the Handmaids were taken away from the lives they once knew. The Handmaids' Gilead life has certain rules they must live by: they are assigned to families, they must participate in The Ceremony, and they must not travel alone, among others. In the second episode, the audience sees Handmaid Janine give birth to a child and the baby is handed off to the wife of the wealthy family she is serving. The following episode shows Offred confined to her room on the orders of Serena Joy. And, I'm sure there will be many other Gilead similarities as the rest of the series' episodes are released on Hulu, as the series takes it biblical comparisons seriously.