During my thirteen years of Catholic school education, my theology teachers drilled both the Old and New Testaments–especially Genesis–into our young minds. Liana Finck, the author of Passing for Human and Excuse Me and regular contributor to The New Yorker, revisits the Torah in her new graphic novel Let There Be Light which introduces delightful drawings and a nuanced approach: God is a woman. Once I graduate from Barnard, I will have engaged in a decade of women’s education; in this graphic novel, Finck’s work embodies the ideals of women’s education, as she reimagines the ultimate authority figure, God, in her own image. Finck triumphantly revisits her childhood education through a feminist lens; in the Author’s Note, she explains, “Studying the Torah At Hebrew Day School, I thought of it mostly as a portrait of one childlike (and therefore relatable) character full of feelings and desires: God.”
In this book, God is a youthful woman who fears and is disappointed by men while allowing her emotions to control her actions. For example, in her portrayal of Noah’s Arc, God looks down from Heaven to see men thinking evil thoughts (this story, of course, takes place after Adam and Eve have been expelled from the Garden of Eden). Awakening to “the wickedness of man,” God watches over three men: the first thinks, “I wonder if there’s a kegger I can crash tonight!;” the second man thinks, “I’m going to sleep with my neighbor’s wife!;” finally, the third man simply thinks, “Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder Murder.” By including the modern idea of a keg party, Finck alludes to collegiate rape culture that can foster an age-old desire for a friend’s wife. These disturbing images cause insomnia for God, as laying down on a cloud while clutching a smaller cloud, she considers, “Why Can’t I Sleep? Oh, yes. Men.” Finck then includes Noah to demonstrate “God’s first love:” God loved Noah so much that she protected him and his family from the flood. In fact, so disappointed with men’s behavior, God cries for forty days and forty nights, thus creating the flood with her tears. Finck presented this excerpt from her graphic novel at Barnard in the fall semester, and she joked about the malicious nature of men, exclaiming something along the lines of “never trust men!”
Finck separates her graphic novel into three distinct sections. First, she writes of the “Past,” from Adam and Eve to God’s “withdrawal” after the story of Babel. During this period of withdrawal, Finck explains, “If you look close enough at a droplet of water, you will see the entire universe inside of it. Just so with the Torah, as in life, God appears less in each chapter of the Torah than in the one before. In ‘Abraham,’ she appears mostly as a disembodied voice. In ‘Issac,’ she is hinted at but not seen. And by ‘Joseph,’ she is glimpsed only in dreams.” Before transitioning into the second section, “Present,” she explains why she includes this summary of the first part of the Torah: “God’s vanishing is so gradual that we hardly notice it at all. She is letting us adjust, bit by bit, to the dark.” Next to two drawings of first a mother bird and her child bird and then a solitary, flying bird, she declares, “For only in God’s absence can we begin to comprehend her love for us. Only then can we see her in ourselves.” This section playfully reimagines the beginning of the Torah to encourage readers to remember the Light of God amidst this darkness. In the Author’s Note, Finck explains her intentions for this book: “I hope that the God I’ve created in this book is relatable in some ways to some people, or that she’s at least a fun character to read about. But my real aim in making this book is to demonstrate that each of us is allowed to create God (or gods) in our own image.” This sentiment reverses the centrality of God’s creation in Genesis: just as God has created us in Her own image and likeness, we too must create God in our own image.
The next section, “Present,” may be most entertaining for New Yorkers. It begins with the story of Abraham, whose sleep is interrupted by God’s voice. Following God’s advice to “leave his home, and his town, and his friends and his family. And go to the place that I will show you. There, I will make of you a great artist. And everyone will know your name,” he takes a train to Penn Station after smashing his family’s false gods. Abraham has a terrible time in art school, as other students mock his work, but after many years–during which at one point he sacrifices a hot dog to God in Central Park–he finds overwhelming success in his artist career. After waiting for a long time to step up his relationship with his fiancé Sarai, Abraham finally proposes and asks her to have his baby; Sarai is far too old to have a child herself, so Abraham joins the collection of Biblical stories called “the begats,” during which “men miraculously give birth to their own offspring.” In the “Past” section, Finck includes “The Begats,” labeling them “a rash of miraculous births.” She emphasizes the blood of these births by framing the pages with a vibrant red. By using red, Finck seems to make a point about the danger of birth without a woman: because God is a woman who created mankind, human women may aim to embody this fertility.
Finally, my favorite part of the “Future” section is the story of Joseph. She starts this section with the name “Joseph” in a black and gray heart, symbolizing God’s love for him before explaining this love: “Joseph will be a good sleeper. Maybe too good. He will dream an entire universe–an underwater kingdom of unimaginable wealth and elegance… next to which his own will seem plain and empty of light.” After this dream, God appears to Joseph in her full form of womanhood, proclaiming that he will be powerful and his siblings will bow down to him. Joseph wakes up confused as to who she was, as since the time Adam mistook God for an old man with a beard, God has been portrayed as a man. Whereas in the original story, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, this story imagines that his brothers push him into a well because they are jealous that their father knitted him a coat. This well scene is my favorite of the graphic novel, as this futuristic take on religion is fascinating. Within this underground world where all humans become mermaids and mermen, Joseph becomes the great leader Zaphenath-Paneah. He spreads God’s message and eventually reconnects with his brothers who bring him his beloved father. Joseph even solves global food scarcity in this portrayal of the future.
Surprisingly, the graphic novel ends with a return to the story of Adam and Eve. In the epilogue, Finck explores women’s quest for likeability: God lays on a cloud in the night, and Finck reflects, “We twist ourselves into knots in our desire to be liked by men. We hollow ourselves out– Erase ourselves. When they don’t respond the way we hope they will– We descend into sadness– fly into rage– Blame ourselves. Vow to do better. Inevitably, though, the fever will pass– leaving room for other thoughts.” This section highlights the range of God’s emotions and facial expressions. As a man walks away from God, she reacts with intense sadness, anger, and guilt. During this guilt, her crown leaves her head as she lays on her pillow of clouds, representing the disembodying feeling of this rejection. As a response to this acceptance, God does the unthinkable: she zaps Lilith, the primordial she-devil, from the form of the serpent back to her original form. Thus, Linck successfully rectifies the negative interpretations of Genesis, as she restores power to this feminine devil. In the Author’s Note, she notes the hidden messages of the Torah: “Eve eats the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and that’s why a woman must always serve her husband.” Throughout this graphic novel, Finck rectifies the misogynistic interpretations of the Torah, reclaiming them for a feminist audience. Surely, this book reminds us that God, or gods, can be created in our own image.