What if the God of the Hebrew Bible was a woman? In Let There Be Light, Liana Finck’s playful Jewish humanist retelling of the Book of Genesis, this question isn’t simply a thought experiment. It isn’t even a ploy to swap out the mercurial God of Genesis for a more enlightened model. Finck just wants you to know that her God is a woman, floating above us with a crown and a fairy godmother wand, a woman who is quick to anger and has some attachment issues, but is mostly doing the best that she can.
Genesis lends itself to adaptation, as even the most Bible-illiterate among us are likely to have passing familiarity with its stories: the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, Joseph of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. These are origin stories meant to orient us to our place in the world and our responsibilities to one another and their meanings shift depending on the reader. In Finck’s hands, they form a narrative about relationships: resentful spouses, jealous siblings, and an emotionally insecure God who can’t seem to figure out what she wants from her chosen people.
Examining the human element in these ancient stories, Let There Be Light remixes its source material in funny, startling ways. The book is structured in three parts: “Past,” which is vaguely set in what we might call Bible Times, “Present,” in which a modern-day Abraham fulfills his covenant with God not in the Promised Land of Canaan, but as an art student in a sort of Promised City, and “Future,” a science fantasy that unexpectedly imagines Joseph’s Egypt as an underwater kingdom peopled by merfolk (perhaps poking fun at the exoticization of Egypt in contemporary and ancient depictions—but also, why not merfolk?)
The artwork in Let There Be Light has a spareness that recalls Tom Gauld’s graphic novels. Despite its simplicity, it’s perfectly pitched to carry the story’s tonal leaps. At one moment, we’re treated to visual gags designed to make readers cackle (wait until you get to the “Begatting” section, which lampoons the erasure of women from Bible lineages by depicting babies sprouting from patriarchs in the manner of Athena from the head of Zeus). Yet the next moment, Finck starkly renders a story like the binding of Isaac, in which Abraham is spared at the last minute from sacrificing his beloved son. Against the grayscale line art, the color red is used to link images of desire or destruction—reminding the reader that we are all connected by blood, in more ways than one.
In the afterword, the author acknowledges she’s dodged some of the most difficult stories in Genesis. We don’t read of the rape of Joseph’s sister Dinah, nor do we witness the forced enlistment of enslaved women Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah into the Abrahamic lineage. While this book is deeply concerned with gender, it doesn’t wholly reckon with the ways in which female characters in the Torah are treated like property instead of people. Finck explains that she didn’t want to make these women’s stories feel like an afterthought in a narrative that might not do them justice. I did feel these omissions in the text, but I can understand her reasoning.
By the end of this book, the tricky God-human relationship has become less histrionic and more sustainable, and Abraham’s desperate striving has given way to Joseph’s triumphant thriving. Finck leaves us with a lesson plucked from the Jewish diaspora, voiced by a God that’s mellowed out over the millennia: “What’s most important is that you stay alive, and stay together.” For readers open to reading the Bible as literature, whatever their faith background, Let There Be Light brings exuberant new life to this very old book.
Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation
By Liana Finck
Penguin Random House, 2022
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Jewish
Character Representation: Jewish