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I was surprised to see the book framed by Samuel 8.

The people came to Samuel and said: Place a King over us, to guide us.
And Samuel said to them, “This is what a King will do if he reigns over you: he’ll take your sons and make them run with his chariots and horses. He’ll dispose them however he wants; he’ll make them commanders of thousands or captains of fifties, he’ll send them to plow, to reap, to forge his weapons and his chariots. He’ll take your daughters to make perfume for him, or cook his food or do his baking. He’ll take your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves—oh he’ll take the very best of those and give them to his cronies. He’ll take much more….He’ll take one tenth of your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. On that day, believe me, you will cry out for relief from this King, the King you asked for, but the Lord will not answer you on that day.”

In the novel by Naomi Alderman, titled The Power, she creates an alternative future, where a few historians are discussing the research and evidence of a history before the Cataclysm. Sometime in the early 21st century, young women awakened a power of electricity that gave them, well, electrical power. The younger women showed the older women how to awaken this power, and soon the world is full of women who have a distinct physical advantage over men. It begins with women who are being abused and used by men and they finally have the power to fight back. And then there are women fighting with men, fighting with each other, helping other women, and everything in between. Alderman’s book follows the story of a few different characters as the world reacts and convulses over this radical change, this Cataclysm, to show how pernicious power can be, no matter who wields it.

The historians in the novel are puzzled by the evidence of a world where men could have been soldiers or in charge. Who could imagine that, they wondered? There’s so little evidence…just gaps in the historical record. To imagine a world that was patriarchal was illogical for them. Apparently, after the Cataclysm, women worked hard to erase the history of the world before women had all the power. According to the historian, Neil, “we don’t have original manuscripts dating back more than a thousand years. All the books we have from before the Cataclysm have been re-copied hundreds of times. That’s a lot of occasions for errors to be introduced. And not just errors. All of the copyists would have had their own agendas. For more than two thousand years, the only people re-copying were nuns in convents. I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to suggest that they picked works to copy that supported their viewpoint and just let the rest moulder into flakes of parchment.”

It is clear that Alderman is suggesting an alternative history, much like the dystopian style of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Alderman deliberately pointed out all the ways that women, when given power over men, acted just like men. She suggests that power is the problem, in the hands of women or in the hands of men. In particular, the historian, Naomi writes, “a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women –with babies to protect from harm –have had to become aggressive and violent. They few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.” Touché.

It was smart and thought-provoking to read, of course, but I was struck by the use of Samuel 8. Perhaps Alderman’s real message is that humans want someone in charge, even though they know it will not go well. And yet they still beg for a King (or Queen).

Naomi Alderman, The Power, (New York: Back Bay Books, 2016).

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Tom Boogaart says:

    To pick up on your concluding remark, Rebecca,, I am pondering, Why do they beg? People today around the world are seemingly once again begging for the authoritarian, charismatic, narcissistic leader. What do they get out of it? To me it helps to view power in all its forms as sacramental. The charismatic leader has power in his (mostly men) being and exudes power in speech and encounters. Gatherings become rituals in which people partake of that power and feel renewed. They become one with the leader and thereby become his hands and feet. Only later, cf. the Germans, do they realize they have been enslaved.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    We say they absolute power corrupts. I think that’s true, but the opposite is true as well. Absolute powerlessness corrupts.
    There’s some sort of lesson here about the role of power. I wonder if it’s something like power is a tool, neither good nor bad. It’s a tool we must use. Like any tool it depends on how you use it. There could be tools that are exceedingly dangerous so they should be limited or never used, but I don’t think power is one of them.
    A healthy Reformed theology would always be a bit skeptical of human beings and our ability to wield this tool well (maybe any tool).
    This book sounds interesting but setting aside power feels like foolishness, even as it’s rather risky.

  • Judith Baker says:

    After reading yesterday’s and today’s blog right in succession, it seems to me that Jen’s message to a couple entering marriage could speak to all of us in positions of relative power. The book cited today illustrates the fallacy that patriarchy is the one source of all power problems. Instead, recognizing that one has power over someone else is necessary before one can faithfully exercise that power, share that power, or relinquish it, as Jesus did. Each of those is an option. It requires wisdom and discernment to make that call.

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