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. Challenging the generally accepted patriarchal understanding, Crumb’s fleshing out of female characters is representative of a more feminist interpretation of the Genesis time period.
In the context of this argument, the feminist perspective can be defined as one that grants the female characters a measure of equality with men. Equality pertains to respect and the authority to make decisions. This diversion from the traditional interpretation of the book has implications for the underlying significance of the stories. The redefining of the women’s influence and roles can reshape what messages the stories convey. This major restructuring of the sacred text of Genesis could also call into question the practices and perspectives of religions that use the book as a guide. As Crumb’s refocusing of the text reveals, reevaluating the females of Genesis results in a different understanding of the text and holds vast implications for modern religion.
The Biblical account reveals stories from a primarily patriarchal viewpoint, signifying that women possibly had more power in that time than the text of Genesis expresses. Sources that examine this book and the time period from which it originates can also be construed as patriarchal. The New Catholic Encyclopedia says of women’s roles in biblical times that due to “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.
The inclusion of women in these revered roles, however, calls into question 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. The argument that women were secondary citizens does not hold up when examining many of the stories in Genesis.
First and foremost, there is 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 both accounts seems to suggest that Sarai is regarded with respect and admiration. Both the pharaoh and Abimelech are 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 and king are eager to appease any of their requests. These actions seem to suggest that Sarai is a priestess or prophet of some sort, rather than her husband’s possession.
This sequence of events in Genesis is also an indicator of the direction Crumb takes with his visual choices. 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 tears, expressing that her husband’s plan saddens her. Including these reactions implies that he felt her opinion and emotions were important to understand the situation.
Another example of Sarai’s value is the scene in which she dies. The text states that Abraham truly mourns his wife. The subsequent story details his going to great trouble to find a burial site for her. He pays a large amount of silver in order to obtain the ideal location to bury Sarai. This story does not portray a man attempting to bury someone he considered his property and child-bearer. Rather it is the account of a man saying goodbye to his partner in life. The depression and desperation felt by Abraham in these scenes is enhanced by Crumb’s depiction. Viewers witness Abraham wailing over his wife’s body and then having a deadened and desperate expression as he looks for an appropriate grave. Crumb’s illustrations bring home the extent to which Abraham and those around him valued Sarai. Sarai’s impact on Abraham is an indicator of the influence of women in general that is often misinterpreted in Genesis.
The next compelling evidence for the existence of a matriarchal aspect in Genesis is an examination of Rebekah’s life. She is also asked by the men in her life about whether she wants to pursue a certain course of action. When asked if she will leave her family to marry Isaac, her brother immediately defers the question to her. In fact, Rebekah is very much the protagonist of Chapters 24 through 26 as 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 actions together support a societal model in which Rebekah was an important and contributing member.
Crumb models his illustration with this mindset, placing Rebekah at the forefront throughout these chapters. She is portrayed as a beautiful, confident woman who is in charge of her life. In Chapter 26, Crumb portrays Rebekah as happy, often laughing and playing with her husband. These illustration choices seem to suggest that Isaac and Rebekah are partners in their union. The depictions later in the book even seem to suggest that Rebekah is the dominant force in their relationship. One particularly telling panel is at the end of chapter 26, in which Rebekah is pulling the hair of Esau’s wife aggressively while Isaac sits in a defeated posture in the background. Isaac almost appears to be curled up in the fetal position, passively listening to his wife’s display of anger. Depictions such as these align Crumb’s work in Genesis with the idea that there is more to these Biblical stories regarding women.
Dissenters of this viewpoint may argue that Rebekah and Sarai represent special cases, atypical in the time period. Hagar’s story provides evidence that this is not true. She is an example of a woman not considered an object or possession by 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. Abraham also affords her a measure of regard in his dealings with her. 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. Examining Hagar’s story provides evidence to invalidate the counterargument that respect for women was confined to priestesses like Sarai.
Crumb’s depictions of women support the matriarchal viewpoint of the women in Genesis and, therefore, a reevaluation of foundational beliefs founded in the book. The authoritative way in which he depicted them is supported by evidence within the very text, as well as secular sources. Crumb understands that there is more substance to the female characters than the wording of Genesis initially expresses as there was a matriarchal aspect to life in the Genesis time period. Bringing these often neglected characters to light reveals inconsistency with a purely patriarchal viewpoint. Crumb’s illustrative focus on the female characters represents a strong and accurate interpretation of the book and has the capacity to alter its message to readers.
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.