Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Book of Genesis: A Parent's Guide


In 2009, controversial artist and illustrator Robert Crumb – a man who has distinguished himself as an uncomfortably-subversive satirical commentator on traditional mainstream values – completed a four-year effort to produce an illustrated version of the Book of Genesis. The epic graphic novel attracted immediate controversy, for Crumb did not rewrite or leave out a single scene from the first book of the Bible. His complete faithfulness to the text resulted in a warning being printed on the cover: “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors.”

The Book of Genesis Illustrated was condemned by religious groups almost immediately, and ultimately what The Telegraph described as a “Biblical sex row” reared its ugly head:
A sexually explicit illustrated Book of Genesis by controversial artist Robert Crumb, which features Bible characters having intercourse, has been condemned by religious groups.

The book, which is released this month, carries the warning "adult supervision recommended for minors", and is described as "scandalous satire" by its publishers.

It includes graphic illustrations of Bible characters having sexual intercourse, and other scenes depicting naked men and women as well as "gratuitous" depictions of violence.

Crumb, the book's author, is most famous for his creation Fritz the Cat, a sexually graphic "underground" comic strip. It was turned into a film that became the first animation to receive an X rating.

He has said he does not believe that the Bible is the word of God. "I take it all for myth from start to finish, with probably some faint relation to historical reality." he said.

"They're great stories. But for people to take texts as something sacred, handed down from God... that's pretty backward, I think."

The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb has been criticised by leading religious groups such as the Christian Institute.

"It is turning the Bible into titillation," said Mike Judge, of the Christian Institute, a religious think-tank. "It seems wholly inappropriate for what is essentially God's rescue plan for mankind.

"If you are going to publish your own version of the Bible it must be done with a great deal of sensitivity. The Bible is a very important text to many many people and should be treated with the respect it deserves.

"Representing it in your own way is all very well and good but it must be remembered that it is a matter of people's faith, their religion.

"Faith is such an important part of people's lives that one must remember to tread very carefully."

Other leading religious figures have been more supportive of the work. "I didn't think it was satire," said the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Rev Nick Baines.

"He set out to say; 'this is important, fundamental myth' and it seems to me he's done a good job."

A spokeswoman for the Bible Society said she hadn't seen the book but that reviews had suggested that Crumb had "really engaged" with the Book of Genesis.

"It may surprise people but the bible does contain nudity, sex and violence. That's because it contains real stories about real people.

"If by reading the book people are encouraged to re-engage with the Bible then that can only be a good thing."

A spokesman for the Church of England said: "I haven't seen the book but I think trying to sell something by emphasising the sexual nature of some of the scenes doesn't seem to be a good way to pass on the message of the bible." [1].

What I find amazing and extremely ironic is the shock and offense with which Crumb’s work was received by certain religious people and groups who claim to know and revere the Bible as a divinely-inspired work. Why this reaction to an artist who merely reproduced through illustrated depictions, faithfully and without any omission, the entirety of a book from their guide to life?

The answer is simple on one level at least. Many of those Christians who identify with the conservative, right-wing persuasions and sensibilities do not fully know what is contained in their own Scriptures – the selfsame Scriptures they use to police and censor the creative output of others whose creations, whether literature, film, music, etc., even slightly disrupt their delicate worldview and challenges them to think beyond the box they have built around themselves and want to build around everyone else.

The warning label printed on Crumb’s graphic novel is certainly warranted. I applaud Crumb for confronting people with what needs to be said about the quality of a book that is revered by millions but read by very few. Crumb’s work has inspired me to write this overview of the content found in the Book of Genesis that justifies such a warning label, not just on Crumb’s graphic novel but on all Bibles. In fact, I am in favor of having the Bible classified as “indecent” by authorities, so that only those over the age of 18 could buy the book, which should be sealed in a wrapper with a statutory warning notice [2]. Of course, I do not endorse censorship or banning in any way, shape or form. My tastes being what they are, I would personally continue to read and enjoy the Bible.

Without further ado, let us dive into this overview of Genesis, which I strongly hope will be read by parents, religious or otherwise, who have not read the book and are concerned about what they expose their children to.

Noah's Nakedness - Genesis 9:18-27

Shortly after disembarking from the ark that saved him and his family from a global flood, Noah plants a vineyard. He becomes drunk from the wine he produces and passes out naked in his tent. His youngest son Ham comes into the tent, and upon finding his father passed out naked, approaches his two brothers Shem and Japheth outside to tell them. Shem and Japheth then take a garment and walk into their father's tent backwards to avoid seeing their naked father and cover him with the garment out of respect. When Noah awakes and finds himself naked and covered with a garment, he finds out what Ham had done and what he had failed to do. Ham had seen his nakedness, while the other two respectfully covered him. According to the story, Noah was a highly honorable man. He was so honorable, in fact, that God found him to be the only righteous man in the antediluvian world and destroyed everybody in the world except this naked drunk and his family. Because of this high standing Noah enjoys in the eyes of God, Noah decides to place a curse upon his son Ham, declaring that Ham and all of his descendants (the Canaanites) would be slaves to his brothers and their descendants forever.

The sheer insanity of the rationale behind Noah's curse is striking. Essentially, Noah puts the screws to Ham because he got drunk and was caught.

Lot's Incestuous Daughters - Genesis 19:30-38

This passage relates what happens to Lot and his two daughters after they escape the judgment that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Initially, the trio takes refuge in the city of Zoar. But Lot fears the city, and with his daughters he dwells in a cave in a mountain. The two virgin daughters, now isolated from society and thus from any possibility of a future mate, fear that teir father's seed will not be preserved. Their solution is to make their father drunk on wine and seduce him. One night, the older daughter sleeps with him in his drunken state. The next day, she reports that the plan was a success to her younger sister and encourages her to do the same. After causing their father to get drunk again, the younger daughter heeds the suggestion and sleeps with him. Both daughters become pregnant by their father.

This story is related with a very black-and-white straightforwardness. Lot's two daughters get him drunk and have sex with him, each conceiving a child as a result. But there are logistical problems I never hear addressed and which the otherwise straightforward text does not elaborate on. Lot's daughters manage to get their father drunk two nights in a row. In making sense of this story, how are we to believe that Lot did not learn a lesson the first night when the first daughter took advantage of him with the help of wine? We are told he allowed his daughters to get him drunk a second night! Another question that should be obvious is how Lot's daughters managed to procreate with their father while he was drunk to the point where he did not realize he was having sex with his daughters. If a person is drunk to that extent, he is not going to be very capable of performing sexually.

A more relevant question that should be asked about this story is whether there is not even the slightest trace of a creep-out factor for the ministers who believe the book that contains this story is the inerrant and perfect word of their God. And if, as many such ministers would say, the incestuous actions of Lot’s daughters were ultimately a part of God's plan for history, does that not make the story even creepier? Of course, this story and other equally obscene stories in the Bible sometimes are featured in the Sunday morning sermons of the Christians and the Saturday afternoon service of the Jews. But their rare willingness to illuminate such passages do not excuse the reason they often have for preaching from them. The fact remains that we are teaching our children these stories, and yet many of these people stridently wish that the secular community was not allowed to teach children real science in the classroom.

Like Father, Like Son - Genesis 20, 26

Many characters in the Bible were not very good at planning ahead, or in learning from their mistakes. In Genesis 20, Abraham journeys to the city of Gerar, where he pretends that his wife Sarah is his sister. Abraham had exercised this same deceptive routine in Chapter 12 of Genesis, when he and his wife sojourned in Egypt. His reasoning was thus: "Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, 'This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me, for thy sake; and my soul shall live, because of thee" (Genesis 12:12-13).

The two accounts of what transpired as a result of this lie are almost identical. In Gerar, Abraham allows Abimelech the king to sleep with Sarah in order to convincingly maintain his lie. Before Abimelech has a chance to sleep with Sarah, however, God appears to him in a dream. He reveals the truth to him concerning Sarah, and commands him to return her to Abraham if he wishes to avoid fatal divine judgment. Abimelech (who is inflicted by God with a sickness that will not be lifted unless Abraham intervenes with prayer on his behalf), heeds this warning and summons Abraham the next day to reprimand him for his deception. In addition to returning Abraham's wife to him, the fearful king gives them sheep, oxen and servants. Abraham then prays to God on behalf of Abimelech so that God will not put the king to death for the "crime" of believing Abraham's lie. This prayer also lifts the curse that was placed on Abimelech's wife and maidservants, who were not able to bear children while Sarah resided with them.

Interestingly enough, Abraham's son Isaac tries to use the exact same trick to the same person in Genesis 26 (or possibly Abimelech's son; the king in this story may have been the son with the same name). His motivation for lying is of course identical to his father's: "And the men of the place asked him of his wife: and he said, 'She is my sister': for he feared to say, 'She is my wife'; lest, said he, 'the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah,' because she was fair to look on" (26:7). In this particular case, Abimelech looks out his window and catches Isaac and Rebekah "sporting" in a romantic and intimate fashion. He summons Isaac and irately demands to know why he lied. He pointedly tells Isaac that this deception might easily have brought guilt upon him or his subjects, as Abraham's lie did. After reprimanding Issac, the king then charges all his people not to touch Isaac or his wife on pain of death.

Apparently, the Mosaic concept of "visiting the iniquity of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 20:5, 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9) has an equal application when it comes to the moronic deeds of the father.

Testicular Allegiance - Genesis 24:2-9

In this passage, Abraham beseeches his servant to place his hand under his thigh and swear an oath, which the servant does. This custom is repeated later in Genesis (47:29). The words "testimony" and "testify" both derive from the word testis, or testicles. This etymology is well established; the manner in which one swore allegiance and honesty in these ancient times was to place one's hand on the testicles of the person being sworn to. In the English translation, "thigh" is very closely related, both literally and physically, to the crotch region of the human body. This understanding is confirmed by passages such as Numbers 5:11-31, in which the word "thigh" is used in the context of a description of the procedure prescripted to be conducted on women to determine if they have been sexually faithful to their husband.

Because a man's genitals are his articles of procreation, they were considered highly sacred in biblical times. This explains why the swearing of a sacred and solemn oath would entail placing one's hand under another man's testicles, as in our modern-day custom of swearing on the Bible itself. This bizarre and obscene custom also sheds light on the harsh Mosaic pronouncement against women who touch the genital area of a man she is not married to, even if on accident. Deuteronomy 25:11-12 describes one example of a situation in which this may happen. The penalty for such a woman is to have her offending hand chopped off.

Jacob's Daughter Dinah - Genesis 34

In this story, we are introduced to a woman named Dinah, Jacob's daughter. While going out "to see the daughters of the land," she is raped by Shechem, the prince of the Hivites. After raping her, Shechem falls deeply in love with Dinah and asks his father Hamor to procure her as his wife. By way of crucial background, Dinah is Jewish and Shechem is a goy, which would render marriage between them an unlawful act on the part of the Jews. Hamor, accompanied by Shechem, goes to Dinah's father Jacob to speak with him as well as Dinah's infuriated brothers concerning the matter. Hamor proposes a peace treaty through marriage between Jacob's family and the Hivites: "The soul of my son Shechem longeth for your daughter: I pray you give her him to wife. And make ye marriages with us, and give your daughters unto us, and take our daughters unto you. And ye shall dwell with us, and the land shall be before you: dwell and trade you therein, and get you possessions therein" (34:8b-10).

The sons of Jacob, who have come in from the field, inform Hamor and Shechem that their sister cannot be given in marriage to one who is uncircumcised. But they agree to consent to Shechem's request only if he and his father convert and become circumcised. In fact, Jacob's sons demand that the Hivites as a whole must convert and be circumcised before any treaty is formed and before any daughters are married off between them. Evidently, Dinah was drop-dead gorgeous, because not only does Shechem agree to be circumcised, but his entire tribe also agrees to be circumcised. The entire Hivite tribe convert and are circumcised to compensate for one of their own raping a Jewish girl and to seal the peace treaty. In the light of what the circumcision process entailed, this is real dedication [3].

Three days later, "when they were sore" (v. 25) and possibly regretting their decision to convert and be circumcised, two of Jacob's sons come into their city bearing swords. They slaughter every male in the city, including Shechem and his father. After taking their sister Dinah out of Shechem's house, the rest of Jacob's sons show up and plunder the city. They take livestock and wealth, and take captive all the children and all the wives of the slain men. One wonders what Jacob's marauding sons planned to do with the women they stole and took captive. Seeing as they were treated as little more than objects of plunder along with the livestock and wealth, rape is certainly not to be put past them. Furthermore, this slaughter and raid was Jacob's sons' way of avenging the rape of their sister. Jacob's sons would be acting consistently with the general "eye for an eye" concept if their intention was to rape all these captured women, even though the scale is clearly disproportional. Then again, the price Shechem and his fellow Hivites pay for raping Dinah and then marrying her into the tribe is also extremely disproportional. As we discussed above, the punishment for the crime of rape was for the violator to pay fifty shekels of silver to his victim's father if she was not betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

Jacob is furious at his sons Simeon and Levi, the two who orchestrated the slaughter. He is understandably vexed at the possibility that they have ruined him. He had established a peace treaty with the Hivites and sealed it by having them circumcised, only to have his two sons murder every man in the city and plunder it. Jacob tells them, "Ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of the land, amongst the Canaanites, and the Perizzites: and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me, and I shall be destroyed, I and my house" (v. 30). His sons answer him bitterly with a short rhetorical question: "Should he deal with our sister, as with an harlot?" This is their sole justification for everything they did. This is also the end of the story; Genesis does not enter into any more detail about what took place after all this, and neither does it elaborate via commentary on the morality or lack thereof of the actions committed by Jacob's sons.

Prostitution Intrigue - Genesis 38

Here we are presented with the brief accounts of two brothers, Er and Onan, the sons of Judah and a Canaanite woman named Shuah. Verse 7 of this chapter tells us that Er was "wicked in the sight of the LORD," so the LORD killed him. The text does not expound on either why or how God killed him. But because he died, Onan was then required by law to marry his late brother's wife Tamar so that she can conceive a child. Onan is not comfortable about this arrangement at all, knowing that "the seed should not be his" (v. 9). Whenever he sleeps with Tamar, Onan spills his seed on the ground instead of depositing it inside her so that she would not conceive. This highly displeases God, so God kills Onan as well. To this day, the "Sin of Onan" has traditionally (and erroneously) been interpreted to be masturbation [4].

Judah had a third son named Shelah, but for some inexplicable reason that is never explained, Tamar does not avail herself of this third option after the years go by and the young Shelah comes of age. Instead, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and sits in a public place outside the town of Timnath. Her plan is to trick her father-in-law Judah (whose wife had since died) into sleeping with her so she could finally conceive a child. Her father-in-law comes into the town and sees her. Thinking she is a prostitute by trade, he approaches her and says, "Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee" (v. 16). Tamar asks him what he will pay her with, and because he has nothing of value on his person, he promises to pay her at a later time with a goat from his flock and leaves her with his seal. Apparently, if one held a position of prominence in this culture, giving a seller a personal identifying seal as a token that he will return with payment later in order to then retrieve the seal was one convenient way of making purchases. But in the case of buying sex from a prostitute, this does not seem like the wisest course of action.

Tamar and her father-in-law have sex that night, and she conceives a child by him. Three months after this child is born, Judah is still without his seal. The prostitute has disappeared, and the citizens of the town tell Judah's inquiring servant that no prostitutes make their business in the town. Judah then receives word that his daughter-in-law hd engaged in prostitution, and that she is with child as a result. Judah responds bluntly: "Bring her forth, and let her be burnt." Judah virulently objected to prostitution to this degree . . . despite the fact that he himself had slept with a prostitute [5]. When Tamar is brought before Judah, she reveals everything (including, by the way, that Judah was terrible at planning ahead). She produces Judah's signets to prove it was him she had slept with, and tells him she is pregnant with his child and future heir. Judah acknowledges these facts and spares her life.


NOTES

1. Ben Leach, “Biblical Sex Row Over Explicit Illustrated Book of Genesis,” The Telegraph 17 Oct. 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6358134/Biblical-sex-row-over-explicit-illustrated-Book-of-Genesis.html. (accessed 23 April 2011).

2. Nathan Dickey, “The Unholy Bible: A Case Study in Obscene and Perverse Literature,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 25 March 2011, http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2011/03/unholy-bible-case-study-in-obscene-and.html. (accessed 23 April 2011).

3. Experts on the circumcision custom as well as medical professionals say that the process is far more painful for an adult male than it is for an eight-day-old infant.

4. The religious injunctions against Onanism is a matter of much later interpretation of the story. The original issue at stake for the writer of this passage was not masturbation. The original issue was the obligation of a kinsman to continue his late brother's line of inheritance by begetting children with the widow. The offspring of this union were considered the dead man's heirs, not the heirs of their actual biological father. Onan was averse to this plan, so he discontinued ejaculating inside Tamar. The failure to meet this obligation was the real sin of Onan and the reason why God kills him. "Spilling the seed upon the ground" has not a thing to do with masturbation, which is never discussed in the Bible.

5. This aspect of the story actually has a number of real-life parallels today. One example that comes to mind is the gambling problem of William Bennett, who is widely considered the leading voice for the promotion of conservative morals. His best-known work, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993) praised the virtues of moderation and self-discipline. Both he and the organization he co-founded and headed at the time (Empower America, renamed in 2004 as FreedomWorks) opposed the extension of casino gambling in the states. Yet in 2003 it became publicly known that Bennett was addicted to high-stakes gambling and had reportedly lost millions in Las Vegas.

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