R. Crumb Illustrates Genesis: A Faithful, Idiosyncratic Illustration of All 50 Chapters

It is wide­ly accept­ed among schol­ars that the first few books of the Bible—including, of course, Gen­e­sis, with its cre­ation myths and flood story—are a patch­work of sev­er­al dif­fer­ent sources, pieced togeth­er by so-called redac­tors. This “doc­u­men­tary hypoth­e­sis” iden­ti­fies the lit­er­ary char­ac­ter­is­tics of each source, and attempts to recon­struct their dif­fer­ent the­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­texts. Pri­mar­i­ly refined by Ger­man schol­ars in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the the­o­ry is very per­sua­sive, but can also seem pret­ty schemat­ic and dry, rob­bing the orig­i­nal texts of much of their live­li­ness, rhetor­i­cal pow­er, and ancient strange­ness.

Anoth­er Ger­man schol­ar, Her­mann Gunkel, approached Gen­e­sis a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly. “Every­one knows”—write the edi­tors of a schol­ar­ly col­lec­tion on the foun­da­tion­al Bib­li­cal text—Gunkel’s “mot­to”: “Gen­e­sis ist eine Samm­lung von Sagen”—“Genesis is a col­lec­tion of pop­u­lar tales.” Rather than read­ing the var­i­ous sto­ries con­tained with­in as his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives or the­o­log­i­cal trea­tis­es, Gunkel saw them as redact­ed leg­ends, myths, and folk tales—as ancient lit­er­a­ture. “Leg­ends are not lies,” he writes in The Leg­ends of Gen­e­sis, “on the con­trary, they are a par­tic­u­lar form of poet­ry.”

Such was the approach of car­toon­ist and illus­tra­tor Robert Crumb, who took on illus­trat­ing the entire book of Gen­e­sis, “a text so great and so strange,” he says, “that it lends itself read­i­ly to graph­ic depic­tions.” In the short video above, Crumb describes the cre­ation nar­ra­tive in the ancient Hebrew book as “an arche­typ­al sto­ry of our cul­ture, such a strong sto­ry with all kinds of metaphor­i­cal mean­ing.” He also talks about his gen­uine respect and admi­ra­tion for the sto­ries of Gen­e­sis and their ori­gins. “You study ancient Mesopotami­an writ­ings,” says Crumb, “and there’s all of these ref­er­ences in the old­est Sumer­ian leg­ends about the tree of knowl­edge” and oth­er ele­ments that appear in Gen­e­sis, mixed up and redact­ed: “That’s how folk leg­ends and all that shit evolve over cen­turies.”

The Bib­li­cal book first struck Crumb as “some­thing to sat­i­rize,” and his ini­tial approach leans on the irrev­er­ent, scat­o­log­i­cal tropes we know so well in his work. But he instead decid­ed to pro­duce a faith­ful visu­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the text just as it is, illus­trat­ing each chap­ter, all 50, word for word. The result, writes Col­in Smith at Sequart, is “idio­syn­crat­ic, ten­der-heart­ed and ulti­mate­ly inspir­ing.” It is also a crit­i­cal visu­al com­men­tary on the text’s cen­tral char­ac­ter: Crumb’s God “is reg­u­lar­ly, if not exclu­sive­ly, por­trayed as an unam­bigu­ous­ly self-obsessed and blood­thirsty despot, ter­ri­fy­ing in his demands, ter­ri­fy­ing in his bru­tal­i­ty.” Arguably, these traits emerge from the sto­ries unaid­ed, yet when we’re told, for exam­ple, that “The Lord regret­ted hav­ing made man on Earth and it griev­ed him in his heart,” Crumb “shows us noth­ing of regret and grief, but rather a furi­ous old dic­ta­tor appar­ent­ly tot­ter­ing on the edge of mad­ness.”

“It’s not the evil of men that Crumb’s con­cerned with,” writes Smith, “so much as the psy­chol­o­gy of a crea­ture who’d slaugh­ter an entire world.” In that inter­pre­ta­tion, he echoes crit­ics of the Bible’s the­ol­o­gy since the Enlight­en­ment, from Voltaire to Christo­pher Hitchens. But he doesn’t shy away from graph­ic depic­tions of human bru­tal­i­ty, either. Crumb’s move away from satire and deci­sion to “do it straight,” as he told NPR, came from his sense that the sweep­ing, vio­lent mythol­o­gy and “soap opera” rela­tion­ships already lend them­selves “to lurid illustration”—his forté. Orig­i­nal­ly intend­ing to do just the first cou­ple chap­ters “as a com­ic sto­ry,” he soon found he had a mar­ket for all 50 and “stu­pid­ly said, ‘okay, I’ll do it.’” The work—undertaken over four years—proved so exhaust­ing, he says he “earned every pen­ny.”

Does Crumb him­self iden­ti­fy with the reli­gious tra­di­tions in Gen­e­sis? Raised a Catholic, he left the church at 16: “I have my own lit­tle spir­i­tu­al quest,” Crumb says, “but I don’t asso­ciate it with any par­tic­u­lar tra­di­tion­al reli­gion. I think that the tra­di­tion­al West­ern reli­gions all are very prob­lem­at­ic in my view.” That said, like many non­re­li­gious peo­ple who read and respect reli­gious texts, he knows the Bible well—better, it turned out, than his edi­tor, a self-described expert. “I just illus­trate it as it’s writ­ten,” said Crumb, “and the con­tra­dic­tions stand.”

When I first illus­trat­ed that part, the cre­ation, where there’s basi­cal­ly two dif­fer­ent cre­ation sto­ries that do con­tra­dict each oth­er, and I sent it to the edi­tor at Nor­ton, the pub­lish­er, who told me he was a Bible schol­ar. And he read it, and he said wait a minute, this does­n’t make sense. This con­tra­dicts itself. Can we rewrite this so it makes sense? And I said that’s the way it’s writ­ten. He said, that’s the way it’s writ­ten? I said, yeah, you’re a Bible schol­ar. Check it out. 

Crumb invites us all to “check it out”—this col­lec­tion of arche­typ­al leg­ends that inform so much of our pol­i­tics and cul­ture, whether the bizarre and cost­ly cre­ation of a fun­da­men­tal­ist “Ark Park” (“dinosaurs and all”), or the Bib­li­cal epics of Cecil B. DeMille or Dar­ren Aronof­sky, or the poet­ry of John Mil­ton, or the inter­pre­tive illus­tra­tions of William Blake. Whether we think of it as his­to­ry or myth or some patch­work quilt of both, we should read Gen­e­sis. R. Crum­b’s illus­trat­ed ver­sion is as good—or better—a way to do so as any oth­er. See more of his illus­tra­tions at The Guardian and pur­chase his illus­trat­ed Gen­e­sis here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Short His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca, Accord­ing to the Irrev­er­ent Com­ic Satirist Robert Crumb

R. Crumb’s Vibrant, Over-the-Top Album Cov­ers (1968–2004)

R. Crumb Describes How He Dropped LSD in the 60s & Instant­ly Dis­cov­ered His Artis­tic Style

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Ted Mills says:

    I’ve had this book for ages and it’s just a beau­ti­ful work of art. There’s a lot of weird­ness that Crumb re-dis­cov­ers that has been hid­den after cen­turies of Bible School sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. This plus Chester Brown’s reli­gious books are ide­al read­ing, no mat­ter where you are on the reli­gious spec­trum. (Unless you’re humor­less and offend­ed at every­thing.)

  • Kevin Hilbiber says:

    i love it. there was no form and dark­ness was over the waters.

    water is total­ly a form. the con­tra­dic­tions sand, as Mr. Crumb duly notes.

  • Douglas Ledet says:

    Re-read the pas­sage. Ask the Holy Spir­it for guid­ance. Here is what the pas­sage does­n’t say, ‘Before God could cre­ate the heav­ens and the earth, God cre­at­ed the “waters“ ‘, but implies it.

  • Colin Wills says:

    Just asked the Holy Spir­it for guid­ance. There’s a thun­der­storm over the house right now. I sup­pose it’s busy imply­ing some­thing.

  • Larrys says:

    Thor­ough­ly enjoyed your arti­cle. I keep his Book of Gen­e­sis on my desk. To me, the bril­liance of it is, as you said, the over­lay of illus­tra­tion on the words.

  • Dr. GS Hurd says:

    This is one of my favorite rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Gen­e­sis.

  • ray black says:

    All in all, would­n’t Cain have beat abel down with one of His agri­cul­tur­al tools, like a hoe, or an axe, or a machete? Why just a rock?

  • Beth blasucci says:

    Because he did­n’t want to place his hands on the mur­der weapons once he mur­dered his broth­er. Thoughts?

  • Paul-Michael says:

    It looks like a car­toon of Thor. Only mean­er.

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