The Midrash of R. Crumb: Part 2, Angry Old Man

When you illustrate the book of Genesis the first choice, I'd guess, is how you choose to draw God. Will God be a voice in the sky? Or should God look like a person? And what kind of person?

Perhaps not surprisingly, in The Book of Genesis Illustrated Crumb goes with Michelangelo, choosing to illustrate God as an old man with white flowing hair and beard. This is, I'd guess, the way most people picture God: the Old Man in the Sky.

Interestingly, Crumb hints at how his image of God was influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by his own father. From David Hajdu's book review in The New York Times:
Early in his progress on “The Book of Genesis,” Crumb was asked by Robert Hughes of Time magazine if he was drawing God to look like Mr. Natural (the burlesque cartoon shaman whom he has long employed to poke fun at pop spirituality). Crumb replied: “He has a white beard, but he actually ended up looking more like my father. He has a very masculine face.” Both paternity and masculinity are matters of dubious value to Crumb, a wonderfully unlikely candidate to breathe new life into the founding narrative of masculine privilege and paternal authority in the Judeo-Christian world.

Crumb’s God appears, alongside the opening words of Genesis, spinning substance from a void that resembles a cosmic basketball in his enormous, hairy, veiny hands. He is a profoundly — almost grotesquely — human-looking deity, very much the sort of being in whose image vulgar humankind could realistically come forth. His nose has the elongation of age (and an implied proto-Jewishness), and it is dotted with deep pores. His brow is furrowed in a permanent scowl, unchanged throughout the book. (In one of the chapters about Noah, Crumb has God scowling even as he pets a goat.) He wears a long white robe and, over it, a longer white robe of billowing, gentle tresses that flow from his scalp and his face to what would presumably be his feet.
I don't know what kind of relationship Crumb had with his father, but if his depiction of God is any indication I think they had some issues. Crumb's God isn't very lovable. As mentioned by Hajdu, Crumb's God has an angry scowl permanently affixed to his face. Even here, when God looks at his finished creation and sees that "it was very good", he looks upset:

So what is Crumb up to? Is his God just an Oedipal projection? Some unfinished business with his dad? Or something else?

I think Hajdu is right in pointing out that Crumb has some strong feelings about "masculine privilege and paternal authority in the Judeo-Christian world." A hint of Crumb's feelings about The Old Angry Man in the Sky comes from his brief introduction to the book. In speaking about his feelings regarding the divine inspiration of the bible, Crumb states that he finds the bible to be an "inspired work," but solely from a literary standpoint. For Crumb, the bible is a fully human product. More, Crumb believes that the bible was used as a form of social and political control, a book written by men to keep men firmly on top. Crumb writes:
Many scholars, examining closely the tersely worded chapters of Genesis, perceive in them earlier and lost meanings and intentions, things that had been altered by the increasingly entrenched priests, and the triumph of patriarchy over an ancient and ever more dimly remembered matriarchy.
In short, it seems that Crumb's depiction of God may have familial (Crumb's own relationship with his father) and political (a critique of patriarchy) origins. And the two are often related to each other. Issues with fathers, male privilege and God can create a combustible mix. Legitimately so, as the Judeo-Christian world is solidly patriarchal. Consequently, Crumb's illustration of God is anything but "straightforward" as he claims. The God in Crumb's book is unattractive and a grumpy bully. He is oppressive patriarchal power personified. You aren't supposed to like this God.


  1. It's sad that this unlikeable "grumpy bully" is how God is so often perceived; it's perhaps even sadder that many Christians approve of and (especially men) identify with this unsympathetic, patriarchal figure. My husband is an atheist because he stereotypes Christians as authoritarian, imperious, punitive and sadistic people who obsess about sex, project all their sexual problems onto others, and ring their hands in glee at the thought that "sinners" are going to catch it eventually. He's had a few bad/bizarre experiences with people like this, and now I can't get him to talk about religion without him going off on that George Carlin routine " ...religion has actually convinced people that there's an INVISIBLE MAN...LIVING IN THE SKY...who watches every thing you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten special things that he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry for ever and ever 'til the end of time...but he loves you." I need to find a church that can put the canonicity of the OT in context. I hope I'm not being controversial here, but I don't believe that the OT was divinely inspired, at least certainly not in the sense that interpretation = revelation.

  2. In looking at those pictures of 'God', I don't think I would have seen a mean old man in the sky if you hadn't told me to. I think that in the seconds before I read the accompanying text, I saw something between Charlton Heston as Moses and Richard Harris as Dumbledore. In as much as I would ascribe an image to God, that's probably about what I'd pick.

    The thing is, it doesn't strike me as particularly paternal, or even masculine. It's an image that I can conjure very easily as the male counterpart to the crone, which is not an image I would consider as particularly maternal or feminine. Both images would strike me as being wizened, representative of age and knowledge more than anything else. There's something of a twisted old tree in the image (like Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas, or Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, or Merlin emerging from the trees in Camelot)

    For what it's worth, the figure also reminds me of Cronos/Saturn. In astrology, Saturn represents limitations, which can be read along a spectrum from protective to oppressive, from disciplined to dictatorial. Beginning astrologers are encouraged to think of Saturn as a 'father figure' in the chart, setting boundaries and establishing rules and punishing rule-breaking.