Monday, October 13, 2014

Research on Crumb's Genesis Matriarchs

I am very intrigued by the role of women in both the Biblical text of Genesis and Crumb’s depiction of it. Crumb claims he treated his graphic novel of Genesis as a straight illustration job. However, expressing Genesis in pictures rather than words means that some interpretation is inevitable. The text of the Bible is generally considered a patriarchal document, as it seems to focus mainly on the stories and accomplishments of men. Crumb seems to visually augment the role of women in many instances throughout the book. Examples of this occur in the beginning of Chapter 30. This section focuses primarily on Leah and Rachel and their attempts to manipulate Jacob. They are the focal point of almost all the panels and Jacob takes on an almost minor role. It is in this chapter that viewers witness their control over Jacob’s lineage, an extremely important aspect of ancient life. Crumb emphasizes that it is an account of the women exerting their power by making them the centerpiece of the comic panels, while Jacob is off to the side or only half-pictured.
A particularly evident example of this is in Chapter 12 when Abraham asks Sarai to pretend she is his sister. The text makes no mention of Sarai’s reaction to this request, causing readers to initially believe this is another case of only paying attention to the actions of men, as the text of Genesis often does.  Crumb, however, fleshes out Sarai’s character by inserting several different reactions. By giving her a confused and questioning thought bubble, he interprets that Abraham’s words are not what she expected to hear. He then draws her shedding tear, expressing that her husband’s plan saddens her. Including these reactions also implies that he felt her opinion and emotions were important to understand the situation.
               I decided to research the role and power of women in the time of Genesis in order to see whether the authoritative way in which Crumb depicted these women is supported by historical evidence. The Biblical account may only relay stories from a patriarchal viewpoint, signifying that women possibly had more power in that time than the text of Genesis expresses. I first addressed the New Catholic Encyclopedia. This source had an article which discussed the role of women in Biblical times. The applicable information from this source can be summarized by the following statement, “Because of the patriarchal nature and androcentric structure of ancient society, the roles the woman played in the family were secondary to corresponding roles played by the man.” The Encyclopedia did qualify this sentiment with evidence that women were accepted into prophet and sage roles, indicating they maintained a considerable level of respect and responsibility within communities.
               I looked deeper into this role of women as spiritual leaders of sort and found an article that questioned the idea of an overwhelming patriarchy in the time of Genesis. In “Genesis Matriarchs Engage Feminism,” Davidson addresses what close reading and literary study of the book have revealed about the role of women in this time period. She first discusses the inconsistency of Abraham asking Sarai instead of commanding her to act as his sister if they resided in a patriarchal society. Indeed, the behavior of everyone involved in the account seems to suggest that Sarai is regarded with respect and admiration. The pharaoh is interested in her, in spite of her advanced age. She is returned safely to her husband after their deceit is found out, and the pharaoh is eager to appease any of their requests. Davidson pieces together these actions to suggest that Sarai is a priestess or prophet of some sort.
               Davidson closely analyzes Hagar’s story as well to determine that she was not considered an object or possession of her patriarchal superiors. Instead, she is one of a few people who receive a covenant directly from the “Angel of the Lord.” This distinguishes her among all people as someone who God saw as extremely important. No evidence exists to suggest that Hagar was a spiritual leader, implying that respect and reverence were not reserved only for women of priestess status. Including this aspect into an essay could provide a counterargument to anyone who would name Sarah a “special case.”
               The next compelling evidence for the existence of a matriarchal aspect in Genesis is an examination of Rebekah’s life. Davidson discusses how the narrator of Genesis seems more interested in the life and lineage of Rebekah than in her husband’s. This is a subtle show of favoritism, but is consistent across the account of their lives. She goes “to inquire of the Lord,” an action reserved to prophets of this time period, and is granted an oracle who gives her God’s message regarding her son.  She is also said to be upset at her son’s choice to marry Hittite women, indicating her interest in her “covenant line.”
These insights provide evidence that there was a matriarchal aspect to life in the Genesis time period. This significantly affects how this book should be read, with the understanding that there is more substance to the female characters than the wording initially expresses. This research supports Crumb’s illustrative focus on the female characters as a strong and accurate interpretation. From these sources, I can construct an essay that synthesizes Crumb’s visual choices concerning women with the matriarchal viewpoint of the women in Genesis.

Works Cited

Catholic University of America. Women in the Bible. 14 Vol. Detroit: The Gale Group Inc, 2003.

Davidson, Jo Ann. "Genesis Matriarchs Engage Feminism." Andrews University Seminary              Studies 40.2 (2002): 169-78. Andrews University Press. Web.


  1. Good research. I like how you implemented it and focused your arguments around it. But there are a few questions I personally felt were a little unexplored. Perhaps they would be good topics to expand upon. You mention how Crumb depicts women as front and center, and in class we briefly went over how he draws them as stronger looking and more robust. But why did he do it? Was it just him being historically accurate, or was he actively trying to give women power that most people might not think to do? How about how he also drew them in a quite sexualized manner? Does this necessarily clash with the argument of power, or can it somehow help it? Also, just a minor nitpicking about the text itself. In the story of Adam and Eve, Adam gets punished for listening to his wife, where later on, God outright orders listening to the wife. And then how does Crumb tackle these questions, and then how does the research tackle them?

  2. I like the introduction, although maybe it could have been trimmed slightly. "Visual augmentation" is a great way of summarizing how Crumb's interpretation works. Your discussion of Sarah is good & compact, although a revision I'd like to see her encounters with both kings also detailed - we get a surprising amount of detail here, but the time all is said and done.

    I thought your research was compelling. One oddity is that you don't deal with your transition between the encyclopedia and the explicitly feminist source - one of the obvious issues which you could be grappling is whether the encyclopedia itself has a patriarchal worldview.

    "From these sources, I can construct an essay that synthesizes Crumb’s visual choices concerning women with the matriarchal viewpoint of the women in Genesis." -- I agree that you can do this. I would have liked to know whether you want to, though. In other words, do you buy into the argument? Do you think it is, at least in the abstract, a legitimate and productive line of thought? One possibility here (as an aside) is that you could participate in a feminist rehabilitation of Crumb's work - or, alternatively, you could develop a more strictly biblical focus, where Crumb is only another person making an argument beside you.

    Excellent questions from Rebecca. The Adam & Eve question seems like it has particular attention to lead in productive directions.

    This was, overall, excellent work. Your ideas are good, your research is good, and the potential for future work is clear.