Of all the things I wanted for Christmas, Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb was the one book I really hoped to receive. My son Alex came through and got it for me. I have never read a graphic novel before and was not sure what to expect. Would I like it or feel funny reading a picture book? Turns out, I had no trouble at all and rather enjoyed myself.
What I did not like about the book was Crumb’s drawings of women. All the women in the book were ugly. I mean UGLY! Most looked like men in drag; men who had hard lives! I am not sure what that was about or why he did this, but there I said it, and now I feel better for it.
It is hard to review a book of drawings. It would be unfair to link Crumb with the story as he did not add to it nor did he leave anything out. Crumb says he copied the words from the King James’ version as well as Robert Alter’s recent translation The Five Books of Moses. This is not a satire or revamping of Genesis; as far as I can tell this is Genesis word for word. Except for the ugly women (seriously what is up with that??) the drawings are simple but masterfully done. You can see the forms of each muscle on the men as well as lines and wrinkles. You would swear Crumb had live models to draw from, though in an NPR interview he said he looked at a lot of pictures of Middle Eastern men in order to get it right. There is not a lot to the background of these pictures, but then again I do not think there was a lot of background where the story takes place. I found the lack of background fitting for the book as these people lived harsh simple lives and Crumb seems to understand this very well.
What I found most fascinating about this book was the experience of reading Genesis as a picture book. I do not know if it was because I was forced to read a little slower and take the time to look at the pictures or if the pictures made the book of Genesis easier to follow, but I found myself really getting into the lives and stories of each character. I felt for Rachel and Leah. Both married to Jacob yet wanting to be his only wife.
I wish I had a Rabbi to turn to because the book it turns out is full of contradictions and odd story lines. I will offer some to you dear readers and ask you to comment on them:
Chapter Six says “And it came to pass as men began to multiply over the face of the earth and daughters were born to them, that Divine Beings saw that the daughters of man were comely and they took them -selves wives however they pleased”. The accompanying picture shows a very Nordic looking man carrying off a horrified woman). Now I had to look this up because I had never heard of Divine Beings taking women to do as they pleased! I thought G-d was the only divine being, or is this a reference to angels? To be far the King James’ version says sons of G-d yet the Hebrew Bible says Divine Beings. Are we to assume it was okay for the angels to forcibly take women? How is this behavior okay for them? What kind of beings does G-d hang around with?
The next part talks about the children of the woman and Divine Beings as “heroes of old, the men of renown”. Again I had never heard of this. Why are these heroes mentioned but not written about? What did they do to be men of renown? Apparently at some point in time they died out because the next chapter deals with Noah and the flood. If Noah and his family are the only good people left on earth, what happened to the heroes? When did the Divine Beings stop stealing women? Or did they drown too?
Chapter 11 deals with the nations rebuilding after the flood. Many men got together and decided to build a tower whose top would reach heaven. This displease G-d for some reason and instead of tearing it down or telling them to stop, he over-reacts and confounds their language so that the men cannot understand each other. Now I understand why this story would be written, it may have been a response to the question of why there are different languages but it makes G-d seem like a paranoid old man. You know the type that yells “get off my lawn”. It also reminds me of an even older African tale that tells of the first man who wants to be close to G-d so he climbs to heaven. G-d is scared of this man (because he killed an animal) so he climbs up higher away from man. Again G-d comes across as a little paranoid. Now here is where the contradiction comes in; earlier in Chapter 11 it talks about how the sons of Noah scattered forming new ‘tongues”. Sounds like they already formed new languages. So if this is the case, how did G-d confound them? Took away their ability to be bilingual? These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night, I kid you not.
Lastly Chapter 12 has Abraham and his wife Sara stopping at various cities on their way to Canaan. At each stop Abraham has Sarah pretend to be his sister so that the local King will not kill Abraham in order to get to Sarah (looking at Crumbs drawings I cannot imagine this to be so). So what happens to poor Sara? The King, thinking she is Abraham’s sister takes her anyway! God has to come down and take her back each time this happens. Poor Sara is raped by severallocal Kings while Abraham keeps getting gifts! Why couldn’t G-d put some kind of curse or spell over Sara so she would not be taken over and over again. If G-d wanted Abraham to be in Canaan so badly why didn’t he just teleport his family there, surely this cannot be asking too much. G-d can do anything, right? The whole chapter finds Abraham doing what G-d asks in return for a son. G-d has Abraham doing many things before he finally holds up his end of the bargain; again this really makes G-d look bad.
I finished the book wondering what kind of G-d Christians and Jewish people worship. At best he lacks good “parenting” skills and at worse he seems like a very mean and spiteful guy. At times it seems as if he forgets that man was his idea in the first place; and that maybe he should have thought this creation deal a little more thoroughly.
Over all I would recommend this book if you are fan of Crumbs or if you would like to experience Genesis in a new way. Too bad Crumb is not doing anymore books of the Bible, it would be interesting to read John as a graphic novel; as it would be an interesting take on the Jesus story.