W.W. Norton, the publisher of R. Crumb’s best-selling The Book of Genesis Illustrated, was certainly aware of the reputation of the underground cartoonist—best known as the creator of the classic 1960s icons “Keep on Truckin’” and “Fritz the Cat”—and capitalized on it with the book’s cover design. A balloon next to the title warns the reader, “Adult supervision is recommended for minors.” Appended on a set of scrolls comes this promise: “The First Book of the Bible Graphically Depicted! Nothing Left Out!” The contents bear out these warnings. Sexual activity is given visual form. No doubt for many religious readers these scenes are going to be the most memorable and hence problematic. Has the Bible become yet another inspiration for trendy soft porn?
To my surprise, this part of the book did not overly trouble me. Perhaps it is because I have become inured to the prurient after years of exposure to sexual activity in R- and even PG-rated movies. Or perhaps it is because the book of Genesis itself wanders in somewhat lewd directions and describes conjugal acts that are not the stuff of children’s literature. Consider that Lot’s two daughters intoxicate their father to bed him, or that Tamar dresses up as a common whore to entertain her father-in-law.
I would have preferred subtler images that require more of the imagination, as the Bible intended. Yet the way Crumb depicts the coital act does allow him to draw out important interpretive clues to the stories. In the case of Lot’s daughters, the raw act of intercourse gets emphasis because the point of the episode is not love but the biological necessity of sex for bearing a child. But in the case of Jacob, Crumb depicts the patriarch gazing fondly down at his beloved Rachel while he strokes her brow. In this case, our attention is drawn to these signs of tender affection; the fact that our couple is in bed recedes. One could do an interesting exegesis of Crumb’s visual commentary by simply comparing the different ways he portrays the marital act. This isn’t stuff for minors, but neither is all of Genesis. Properly prepared, religious readers may find this controversial part of the book more sensitive than they imagined.
Yet while some have called Crumb’s work a “scathing satire” on the Bible, I would disagree. Crumb writes of his deep respect for the subject matter and the book bears this out.
In the reviews to date, no one has paid much attention to the commentary Crumb provides at the close of the book. Yet Crumb’s prose is a significant addendum to his visual art. It gives witness to Crumb’s reverence for (but not belief in) his subject. The Bible is remarkable, he writes, due to its antiquity and tradition of continuous commentary over the centuries: “[It is] the oldest text in Western civilization. It’s no wonder that people believe [it] to be the word of God.”
But words of God they are not for Crumb. What, then, one might wonder, makes them so fascinating? For Crumb, the answer lies in their testimony to the traditions of the Great Mother Goddess.
Building on the dubious scholarship of Savina Teubal (Sarah the Priestess), Crumb argues that the great matriarchs of Israel are remnants of an age when matriarchy still held sway. As Sarah begins to pass the torch to her daughter-in-law Rebecca, however, the passion for the Mother Goddess begins to wane. The “fall” into patriarchy is at hand.
Though no biblical scholar of any stature subscribes to such a view, Crumb appears not to be bothered in the least by that, even after five years of painstaking research. One is reminded of the old adage of Chesterton’s: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.”
Perhaps the textual feature that impelled Crumb is the prominence of the barren-woman motif in Genesis (the beloved wives Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel are all barren). For Crumb, this is not accidental, because, if these women were priestesses of the Mother Goddess, “[they would not have been] permitted to have children until [their] time as priestess was fulfilled.” The grand turning point in the book of Genesis—the Fall narrative for Crumb, if you will—is when Jacob makes all his household give up their gods (Gen. 35).
Crumb depicts this scene in the most improbable way. In one frame, Rachel, Leah, and their maidservants appear before Jacob with angry and tearful faces. They place their fertility gods (figurines that are both shapely and naked) in a basket that a stern-looking Jacob holds in both hands. In the next frame, Jacob’s sons stand beside their father as he empties the basket into a hole dug into the ground. The biblical text does not single out the women as the ones who had to give up their idols; this depiction is solely the work of his imagination. The story has been dramatically reshaped by Crumb to fit the master narrative he has imposed. Happily, however, the central importance that Crumb accords to the influence of the cult of the Mother Goddess is not overtly manifest in most of his cartoon frames. One can bracket that idea and let the images speak for themselves.
One of the supreme advantages of any visual representation of the biblical story is that it forces the interpreter to resolve ambiguities in the biblical text. For example, in the generations leading up to the flood, we learn that there is an increasing propensity toward lawlessness. The Bible leaves to the reader’s imagination exactly what that entails. Crumb depicts the event in an elongated horizon frame (covering what normally would be three frames) that puts sole emphasis on murder. A group of thugs dressed as warriors is depicted leading a group of naked men and women with bound hands into a room. In the same scene two victims lie on the ground, stabbed and bludgeoned to death. A similar fate awaits the others.
In the New Republic, Robert Alter noted that the choice of murder comes at the cost of depicting other possible crimes, such as theft, rape, or economic exploitation. True enough. But one suspects that biblical clues pushed Crumb to understand the crimes in this fashion. This suspicion is confirmed in God’s speech to Noah and his sons after they have left the ark. Crumb devotes almost a page and a half to it, and in one frame shows us a frontal view of the family as God declares: “Whoever spills the blood of MAN, by man shall HIS blood be spilled for in the image of GOD he made mankind” (emphasis Crumb’s). Crumb’s choice to illustrate the crime that led to the flood as murder was not accidental; he wanted to make the remedy at the end of the flood (do not spill blood) fit the crime that occasioned it.
Crumb shows deep attention to the biblical text at many other points along the way. For example, he handles the various “begats” by listing the family members in a style that resembles a photo album of classmates or family. This is a beautiful way to depict a part of the Bible that many readers simply skip over because they are bored. But the family trees that are so basic to Genesis are anything but boring. They show us the relationships basic to the family God has elected to change the course of human history. For the Christian or the Jewish reader, this is a story about our ancestors.
The profound but troubling story of the sacrifice of Isaac has been treated by more Jewish and Christian artists than any other in the Bible. Why does God demand the sacrifice of the child Abraham and Sarah have so patiently awaited? This is a question that visual commentary is not well equipped to answer. But the visual artist is not rendered mute. Crumb makes a couple of points clear. First, Isaac is portrayed as old enough to know what awaits him. He could have resisted, but he doesn’t. Readers also would like to know what Abraham felt during this episode—a story point that the Bible does little to illuminate. Crumb makes Abraham appear grim and dour throughout the episode—even at the very end, when God reiterates the promise of greatness that will fall to Isaac and his sons. One suspects that Crumb’s Abraham continues to nurse a grudge against God for putting him through such a horrific test.
In the last scene of this episode, Isaac and Abraham are shown sitting on a donkey with Isaac in front guiding the animal homeward. This contrasts with the opening, where Abraham walks ahead of a donkey on which Isaac sits. This captures very nicely the idea that this ordeal has been something of a rite of passage. Whereas Isaac had to be led at the beginning of this ordeal, at the conclusion he has taken command. In the chapters that follow, Abraham’s role begins to decrease as Isaac makes his way to center stage. Crumb depicts this motif beautifully.
One of the more remarkable interpretive moves Crumb makes concerns the story of the abduction of Dinah. In the biblical account, Dinah (a daughter of Jacob by way of Leah) departs from her family to see what “the daughters of the land” are up to. While making her way through a Canaanite town, she is met by Shechem, the son of the prince of the land. Shechem whisks her away, lies with her, and then speaks tenderly with her. This violation of an Israelite woman by a Canaanite enrages Jacob’s sons and leads to a wholesale massacre of the town to extricate their sister.
Did Shechem force himself on Dinah? Many commentators believe so and have titled this episode “the rape of Dinah.” But the Hebrew original is ambiguous. It is possible that Dinah consented to Shechem’s amorous overtures and thus began a torrid romance—a view that Crumb adopts. Not only is the coital act not depicted as rape, but in the very next frame Shechem fondly holds Dinah’s head while she gazes longingly on his face. Later, when the brothers come to free her, she leaves the city in tears, mourning the loss of her lover. None of this would be obvious in the biblical text itself, but Crumb, the visual interpreter, has impressed within the story one possible solution to its ambiguities.
Crumb is no biblical scholar. Numerous sequences within the book of Genesis could have been beautifully dramatized by a well-chosen graphic depiction and were not. Maybe it is a sign of my own attraction to the visual form as a way of interpreting the Bible that I found myself mapping out alternative depictions of many of the scenes he illustrated.
But whatever this volume’s faults, its attempt to interpret the Bible cannot be counted a failure. I would not be surprised if some nonreligious readers found parts of the book inspiring. Even Crumb himself—an heir to all the deconstructive forces of the 1960s—confesses that “the Bible is jam-packed with powerful, profound stories.”
The power of the word of God is not to be underestimated. But, then again, if some of the reviews are any indication, it may be that some will take a perverse joy in seeing biblical men placed securely between the splayed legs of their female quarry.
Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.