The Midrash of R. Crumb: Part 3, Oddity and Irritation

You can forget, at times, just how strange the Old Testament can be. After years of Sunday School the text gets edited, tamed, cropped, sanitized, smoothed, and moralized. But when you illustrate every line of Genesis, as Crumb does in his The Book of Genesis Illustrated, well, some of the shock and strangeness of the text is bound to be recovered.

One of the things I like about midrash is how it goes looking for these oddities in the text. Rather than avoiding the strangeness midrash turns the peculiarities of the text into locations of positive theological reflection. Walter Brueggemann says that "the work of midrash is to focus on the ill-fitting element" within a text, perhaps even an element that "might be an embarrassment to the main claim of the text." By focusing on the "irregularity or misfit" midrash can create fresh readings by "exposing the oddity that destabilizes and questions the main flow of the text."

So midrash, as a strategy, looks for the "surface irregularities" and "friction" within a text. Why? To keep the text, and the God it describes, from being reduced to a system, an intellectual artifact. A goal of the text is to "resist" and "irritate" the modern mind. The text doesn't want to be tamed. It actively pushes back. The oddity of the text is like its immune system, its way of fighting off our diseased need turn the text into a syllogism and PowerPoint presentation.

Given all this, one of the ways Crumb's Genesis functions as a form of midrash is how, by illustrating every scene, Crumb uncovers some of the "surface irregularities" of the text. One of my favorites examples of this in Crumb's book is the shock of seeing the snake in the Garden of Eden.

You'll recall that, having tempted Adam and Eve into sin, the snake is cursed by God:

So the LORD God said to the serpent,
"Because you have done this,
Cursed are you above all the livestock
and all the wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life."
Here is Crumb's illustration of this scene:You can see how Crumb's illustration, like midrash, pulls out the odd detail. Specifically, if the snake's curse is to crawl on its belly then it stands to reason that the snake initially had limbs. Further, we also know that the snake talks to Eve (a very odd thing indeed). Given these odd details Crumb draws the snake as a bipedal, humanoid looking creature. Kind of like the Sleestak in Land of the Lost.

Crumb's imagining of the snake is strange, but that's kind of the point. The whole story is kind of strange. Which is one of the nice things about Crumb's work: his ability to recover the strangeness, to help activate the immune system of the text as it irritates and resists the modern mind.

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