The stories in the Old Testament are just horrific. They are not appropriate for children,” an acquaintance of mine said one day at an indoor play place in our hometown. I spend many afternoons here, conversing with fellow parents while our kids run off excess energy.
My new friend sits across from me at a table while her daughter plays with mine. On the table sits the book that prompted her comment: The Book of Genesis Illustrated by underground cartoonist R. Crumb. It depicts the Bible’s opening act, warts and all—no strategically placed fig leaves here. “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors,” the outside jacket reads.
While Crumb is not a Christian—and I cannot recommend Genesis Illustrated to believers without serious cautions and caveats about its content—his book remains true to the biblical text. In fact, the very passages that a mother might identify as “horrifying” stand out all the more because of the way Crumb has drawn them.
“Yeah, the Old Testament isn’t exactly the stuff of bedtime stories, is it?” I reply, laughing. I understand completely. Genesis is plenty unseemly all by itself, with its accounts of murder, rape, incest, and mass destruction.
My daughter owns a children’s Bible that seems to support my suspicion that the Old Testament would terrify a toddler. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah appears exactly nowhere in this 50-page board book. In Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated, however, the Sodom and Gomorrah story crackles with fire and fury.
“I see beauty amidst the barbarism in the Old Testament,” I want to tell my acquaintance. But what do I mean? I say nothing, because I fear I will fumble that theological football the moment I open my mouth.
When I think of the shocking stories in Scripture, I am tempted to regard them as stand-alone events that exist apart from a larger narrative. The news feeds us in a similar way every day: Disconcerting headlines, dealt one after another, register as a series of disturbing stories that seldom seem connected to anything like a grand scheme. That being said, if I endeavor to understand the Old Testament apart from God’s love for humanity, my conclusions will be incorrect every time.
After creating The Book of Genesis Illustrated, even Crumb defines humanity’s atrocities in relation to a loving God. “In an odd way, the God of Genesis is quite benevolent and passionate,” he said in an interview with Vanity Fair. He argues that if God made the Earth, He can destroy it, too—that is, if its inhabitants persist in their sinful ways. In Crumb’s mind, if you’re God and humanity is your child, “you don’t want to disown [your] kid, because you still love him.”
God’s love comes to fruition in the New Testament, which isn’t exactly child-friendly either. When talking about the crucifixion, critics of Christianity seem to say, “If there’s a God, couldn’t He think of a less savage way to save the world?”
If I endeavor to understand the Old Testament apart from God’s love for humanity, my conclusions will be incorrect every time.
I think we assume that there’s a certain foolishness that comes with horrific violence—that the wise rightly avoid it and the foolhardy embrace it. No one ever calls Cain wise for killing Abel. The apostle Paul seems to understand how absurd it must seem, then, for the Creator’s love to find its ultimate expression in the crucifixion of the guiltless God-man. “Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, “but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
If the crucified Christ is God’s wisdom in action, then I cannot hope to understand the very violent death of the Savior apart from the love that is characteristic of the Creator throughout Scripture. Perhaps the crucifixion was the only way God could communicate the severity of our sins, the grief in His heart over His creation’s heartless actions, and the depths of His love.
Like the woman I spoke to in the play place, I find the more unsavory stories of the Old Testament unsuitable for toddlers. But I am also learning to look at everything I read in Scripture through the lens of God’s love in the hopes that I might teach my daughter to do the same someday. When she explores a book like Genesis then, she might do so with one eye on the cross—that instrument of death that God transformed into an instrument of salvation with His love.