Monday, October 20, 2014

Genesis, Crumb, and Women

             The Book of Genesis is very different from the many other books of the Bible. It shows an often merciless God who asks his followers to do unspeakable things (God’s request of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is one example), and the characters that make up the many stories in Genesis do not always seem to have the best morals. The men often show disregard for the lives of the women around them, and they frequently show jealously followed by acts of violence and rage. Yet, despite having these disagreeable qualities, the male purpose in Genesis is very clear; they are called upon by God to fulfill his requests and to act as prophets. Noah builds the ark, Isaac and Abraham build nations by fathering many children, and in the end, it is the men who speak to God directly. The women in Genesis have similar unsavory qualities as the male figures; they are also sneaky, manipulative, and they often seem subservient and submissive. However, unlike the men, the purpose of the women in the Bible is less obvious. I believe R. Crumb draws the women of the Bible as being strong, powerful, figures to argue that the role of women in Genesis as being mothers and wives is a very important one, and that by occupying these roles, they are just as important (if not more important) than the males.
            Women in Crumb’s illustrated version of the Book of Genesis are all portrayed very similarly. While the Bible claims the women are usually very beautiful, Crumb draws their faces in an almost manly way. In the Book of Genesis, it can often be hard to discern between a male face and a female face. This could be Crumb’s way of illustrating the equality he sees between men and women in Genesis. Both men and women occupy important roles in God’s plan, and by making both sexes look similar, Crumb is addressing these equally important roles. However, throughout the Book of Genesis, Crumb sexualizes women in his drawings. When the women are not wearing clothes, their bodies are drawn as being full figured with large breasts. When the women are clothed, he often includes their cleavage or nipples showing through their dresses. One interpretation of this style of artwork could be the idea that he is simply drawing crude images to sexualize women in the stories; Crumb has said that he prefers more full-bodied women so perhaps he is drawing from his preferences. If this is the case, it seems counterproductive to the possible idea that he believes men and women share equal roles. However it is also possible that Crumb draws the women as he does to emphasize their fertility. Large breasts and wide hips are both signs of fertility and maternity, and both qualities are exhibited in the types of women Crumb draws. If the importance of the women of the Bible is the fact that they fulfill God’s plan through bearing children, it makes sense to draw them with figures that look as though they were built to do so. By emphasizing these specific motherly and womanly qualities, Crumb is highlighting the fact that in Genesis, being a mother is a very significant role.
            The import of this role can be seen in chapter 24 of the Book of Genesis, when Abraham asks his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. He is very specific about how to go about doing this when he says, “…you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanite in whose midst I dwell, but to my land and to my birthplace you shall go, and you shall take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:3). It is clear that where his wife comes from is very important. If a woman’s origin is important, it must mean that they themselves serve some sort of importance other than to just be a wife. In fact they can be seen as sort of prophets as well because, “…women in Genesis determine who receives the promise from the Israelite Deity. The designated heir is always male, yet the right mother is critical in that choice. The role of women as wives is significant, but their role as mothers is even more important” (Schneider). It is true that most of the prophets in the Bible are men, but these men would not exist if they had not been born by their mothers. God chooses each biblical female specifically to carry the male child who is to be the next prophet. It is evident that this selection is not simply random because God gives specific instructions to the male characters as to whom they shall take as wives.
            An alternate view of women in the Bible would be that they are submissive and serve no other purpose than to oblige their husbands. According to The Bible Now by Richard Elliot Friedman, “some people say that the Bible was enlightened for its time, a crucial step in an evolution (some would say a revolution) of women’s status. Others say that males composed the Bible, that it was the product of patriarchal society, that it was the justification of such patriarchal society, and that it has been one of the best-known contributors to maintaining an inferior status of women” (Friedman). I believe that Crumb would disagree with the idea that the portrayal of women in the Bible is a main contributor to the inferior status of women. I say this because by illustrating women as robust characters with womanly figures, he portrays them as being very strong because of the fact that their main purpose is to be mothers. Despite popular feminist belief today, Crumb argues that being a mother is one of the strongest qualities a woman can have, and fertility was given to her by God (and in some cases God grants a woman fertility even in old age or after years of not being able to conceive) as a way to carry out His plan.

Additionally, in Genesis, the man was created first and the woman was created to keep him company, but could the reason for creating women second mean something other than the fact that they should be regarded as “helpers”? Friedman says, “More relevant to the question of woman’s significance in the Bible is the fact that woman is created, according to the Hebrew, as an ‘e ¯zer ke ˘ nege ˘ dô. 23 Interpreters have long taken this phrase to mean a suitable helper, or a help appropriate for him… In that case, the meaning of ‘e ¯zer ke ˘ nege ˘ dô in Genesis is “a strength corresponding to him.” That is rather different from a helper” (Friedman). In a way, each male character married his specific wife (or wives) because God arranged it to be so. Each biblical pairing was made by God, not necessarily by the man; whom he chose to be his wife is predetermined by God, as is the wife’s ability or inability to conceive. In the end, I believe this makes the woman even more significant because she acts as a bigger part of God’s plan, as her ability to conceive affects whether or not there will even be future generations of prophets. 

Works Cited 
Crumb, R., and Robert Alter. The Book of Genesis. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2009.
Friedman, Richard Elliott, and Dolansky, Shawna. Bible Now. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 11 October 2014.
Copyright © 2011. Oxford University Press, USA. All rights reserved.
Schneider, Tammi J. Mothers of promise: women in the book of Genesis. Baker Academic, 2008. 


  1. Your intro is good. It generalizes some about Genesis, but that actually forms the background to your actual argument, so that’s fine in this case. I like your argument about the meaning of the figures of the women. Of course we shouldn’t discount that Crumb is also drawing what he likes to see. However, you have the start to a good argument here. There are many details that you could use to support your case, though, which you are missing. Example: Rachel’s theft of the household god (chapter 31), followed by how she tricks her father by pretending to have her period, which enables her to keep the household god hidden. Check out the way Crumb draws the idol! It really supports your argument, but you need to find and use more of that kind of visual detail - you generalize a little too freely, especially when you could easily get more specific.

    As you know, I’m a big believer in the importance of Tamar both in general and especially if you’re going to take a fertility-oriented para-feminist reading of Genesis - although honestly you could do a lot with the other women, too.

    “I say this because by illustrating women as robust characters with womanly figures, he portrays them as being very strong because of the fact that their main purpose is to be mothers. Despite popular feminist belief today, Crumb argues that being a mother is one of the strongest qualities a woman can have, and fertility was given to her by God” -- this is good. It’s not great, though. In a strong revision this would be an opportunity for you to respond to Crumb - do you agree with his take? Is it sexist or otherwise problematic in its own right? Second, I really do think you could do more with the details here - for instance, with the fertility struggle between Rachel and Leah and how Crumb portrays it. More specifics sure couldn’t hurt you!

    Your final paragraph is just ok; it would have been better if you had been clearer about how you’re using this material to help understand Crumb.

    Overall: It’s a very interesting line of thought, and I think you have an interesting reading - a rather pro-Crumb one, at that. But it’s short on the most compelling details - doing this interpretation through the best details rather than through relying on generalizations would help out tremendously.

  2. I think your analysis of Crumb and the portrayal of women in the bible is very in depth, and worth while reading. ( I think this could be a really cool topic for a revision.)
    I think you look at many different visual perspectives, and really delve into those ideas nicely. Additionally, I think you could look at or discuss even further why Crumb left the text the same, but portrayed women more equal to men. Why is it significant that although crumb is obviously defying many portrayals of women in the bible through his imagery, why he keeps the text the same.