The Handmaid and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg

Read: 24 February, 2014

Berg re-imagines the story of Jesus’s birth from the perspective of his parents – following them from the moment they met until Joseph’s death.

I picked up the book because I’ve enjoyed similar attempts to re-tell such a well-known story in the past, such as Lamb, or Testament. I find it an interesting exercise with a lot of potential. Handmaid, however, is absolutely terrible.

Firstly, there’s the writing quality. Some reviews describe Berg’s writing as “poetic,” by which I assume they mean “full of purple prose and stilted faux-historical dialogue.” If that’s the case, then yes, it’s very “poetic.”

The plot of the book shows that while Berg has probably picked up her Bible a few times, she’s done very little research besides. For example, when the angel comes to Joseph, it tells him that Mary’s son will be fulfilling the prophecy of Emmanuel, born of a virgin (p.97), except that there’s no such prophecy. The whole thing is based on a wonky translation in Greek – which Joseph had no reason to be familiar with in the first place – and a bibliomantic search to shoe-horn “prophecies” into a text after the fact. It’s one of Matthew’s most well known errors, and Berg should have known that. At the very least, she might have just skipped over it and avoided looking the fool.

She also follow’s Luke’s narrative and sends the family to Bethlehem for a census. This makes no sense in the gospel account anyway, since a census strives to document a population’s current positions, not their positions at birth. The premise is absurd. Then Berg makes it all the more absurd by having Joseph and Mary go all the way to Bethlehem for the supposed census, give birth, and then immediately leave for the circumcision in Jerusalem, without the census ever actually taking place.

This also means that Joseph puts a woman who has literally just given birth – mere hours earlier – onto a donkey’s back for an 8km walk. And when they finally arrive at their destination, Mary is “sore from the ride” (p.126). Not from giving birth, but from riding a donkey.

I don’t know if Berg has children of her own, but if she does, she clearly hasn’t let that experience temper her theology. Jesus is, of course, a calm newborn who “cried rarely: only to show his want for food” (p.132). That’s pretty typical for a newborn, first of all. But also, crying is a baby’s last resort when it’s hungry. I dislike it when books so blindly promote this idea of crying as a feeding cue because babies left to starve until they have to resort to crying are often too upset by that point to be able to actually nurse. Many women who wish to breastfeed and don’t know any better give up because their babies just won’t stop crying long enough to nurse – all because of this media image of only taking crying as a hunger cue. As a feminist, it really bugged me that Berg so casually and uncritically furthers that image.

Then there’s Joseph. Despite multiple angelic visitations, and all sorts of strangers – including the Magi – pointing out that Jesus is the messiah (something which has had disturbingly little impact in the fortunes or lives of his family), he still firmly believes that Jesus’s father was a Roman soldier. Further, he forced a woman so close to her due date to accompany him on a long journey – knowing that it would be painful for her and potentially disastrous if she went into labour – because he didn’t trust her enough to leave her alone at home (p.130). This is abusive behaviour, by the way. Then, with a newborn in tow – a mere few hours old! – he forces his family on even more journeys for no reason other than to avoid his personal discomfort that a few shepherds stopped by to see a new baby. Surely, Joseph must have known how precarious newborn lives are, how easily and how quickly they can die. His selfishness is absolutely astounding.

The whole book is trash, a little piece of theological masturbation for people who, I guess, really don’t want literature to challenge them. Thankfully, the book is blessedly short and the font very large, so it’s quickly over with.

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