The Bible’s had a rough time of it these past forty years. In 1967 came Lynn White Jr.’s famous essay “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” denouncing God’s OK to Adam on planetary pillage in Genesis: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion…over all the earth…. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.”
Late ’60s feminists found much to deplore in the Bible too, starting with God’s tough talk to Eve in the Garden of Eden– “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
Nor did the Six-Day War help the Bible’s standing as God’s revealed truth and as Zionism’s anchor. As Israeli archaeologists fanned out across the newly conquered West Bank and the heart of biblical Judea, they searched for evidence of the historical homeland. The quest had its roots, as brilliantly excavated by Shlomo Sand in his recent The Invention of the Jewish People, in nineteenth-century Zionist historiography.
As Sand relates, the post-1967 digs “failed to find any traces of an important tenth-century kingdom, the presumed time of David and Solomon…. The inescapable and troublesome conclusion was that if there was a political entity in tenth-century Judaea, it was a small tribal kingdom, and that Jerusalem was a fortified stronghold.” Sand approvingly cites the view of certain biblical scholars that “the Bible is not a book, but a grand library that was written, revised and adapted in the course of three centuries, from the late sixth to the early second BCE.”
Degraded in its historical standing, the Old Testament meanwhile swelled in unpleasing outline as a prefiguring of and a mandate for Israel’s savage persecution of Palestinians. In 1969 Golda Meir famously declared, “There were no such thing as Palestinians…. They did not exist.” Four decades later the Israeli journalist Tom Segev is quoted on the dust jacket of Sand’s book as saying, “There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion, and the exile also never happened–hence there was no return.”
If a conclusive disrespecting of Genesis was required, wouldn’t you think R. Crumb was the man for the job? It would be as seditious as hiring Sade to write the history of the British royal family, a coup de grâce, the final revenge of the antinomian ’60s on decency and faith and the bloodthirsty Creator. The patriarchs of the second half of Genesis would be crushed beneath the vast breasts and bottoms, hairy thighs and savage élan of Eve and her daughters. Crumb encourages such hopes in the bit of his Book of Genesis Illustrated, published late last year, that I happened to read first: the notes in which he pays homage to Savina Teubal’s Sarah the Priestess (1984), which argued that Genesis is in part a sequence of clues about the suppression of a powerful matriarchal order in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In Genesis, Crumb writes, “the struggles and assertions of the female characters are all about this.”
But this is not an overt theme in Crumb’s Genesis. Why did Crumb really embark on this task? Maybe the clue is in three inviting words on the cover: “Nothing left out!” It would have been great to have had his frames for all fifty chapters of Genesis back in the ’50s, when we schoolboys had only our imaginations to work with, as Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and lie with him, or when Sara tells Abraham to go in unto Hagar. There was Onan too, now frame-frozen by Crumb amid coitus interruptus.
But the overall effect is more solemn than satirical. Reading the verses in Chapter 15 in which God, a testy old geezer with a very long beard, makes his covenant with Abraham–“To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates”–I wondered whether Crumb, a Catholic long ago, had converted to Zionism. He uses Robert Alter’s 1996 translation, and Alter has had a long association with Commentary. But as a Zionist conspiracy this doesn’t really hang together. In his interesting writings on Genesis, Alter prudently finesses questions of historical veracity by stressing the book’s literary unity, an approach that clearly bothers Commentary‘s former mothership, the American Jewish Committee, whose website has a somewhat uneasy page about Alter’s views of Genesis.
What does bounce from Crumb’s pages is that Genesis really is about Jews. In the dawn of mankind there were lots and lots of hairy Jews with big noses, herding sheep and often lying on top of or underneath Jewish women who may or may not have been matriarchs.
In the end, it seems to me, Genesis defeats Crumb. He never quite settles on which way to go–or what, as a dirty-minded satirist, to go up against. But paganism wins on another front. In 1975 Stewart Brand printed in the summer issue of his CoEvolution Quarterly Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock’s “The Gaia Hypothesis,” which advanced the notion that “living matter, the air, the oceans, the land surface” are “parts of a giant system” that exhibits “the behavior of a single organism, even a living creature.” Thirty-five years later, James Cameron gives us Avatar and the planet Pandora, which is Gaia brought to life in the most savage denunciation of imperial exploitation–clearly American–ever brought to screen. Now a huge hit, Avatar is the most expensive antiwar film ever made (at $200 million, about half the cost of a single F-22). “It is nature which today no longer exists anywhere,” a peppery German wrote in 1845. But Rousseau is having his revenge on Marx. The night I went to Avatar the audience cheered when Pandora, as a single Gaian organism, puts Earth’s predatory onslaught to flight and man’s war machines are crushed by natural forces. Against Genesis and the Judeo-Christian tradition, pagan mysticism is carrying the day, at least at the level of fantasy.