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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive "A Contract with God? Will Eisner’s Seminal Graphic Novel as Anti-Theodicy”[1]

Terry Ray Clark

Can humans establish a mutually binding contract with God? Will Eisner explores this question in his groundbreaking work, A Contract with God. In spite of the fact that covenant theology has a long history of use for making sense of evil and misfortune, normally by blaming humanity for being an unfaithful covenant partner and crediting God with sending well-deserved punishment, Eisner questions the value of covenantal thinking for doing the work of theodicy.

 

 

Before examining his work, it may prove helpful to discuss briefly the roots of biblical covenantal thought. Jon D. Levenson has written that "the goal of the Sinai narratives [is to] present the Sinaitic experience [i.e., the event that supposedly cements Israel's covenant with Yahweh on Mt. Sinai] as disclosing the essential, normative relationship of YHWH to his people."[2] Israel, normatively speaking, was understood to have a mutually binding contractual relationship with their god, governed by clearly defined rules and regulation. It is on the basis of this understanding that Jewish identity is still maintained. 

           

This relationship is often explained in light of ancient Near Eastern parallels, such as the parity treaty between two equal partners, and the suzerainty treaty, between two unequal parties. The latter is demonstrated historically in the Hittite and Assyrian treaties, wherein a king initiates a relationship with a weaker political entity, offering royal protection from other would-be invaders and economic prosperity, in exchange for loyalty in the form of good citizenship on behalf of his new subjects. In connection with this, one encounters the image of the king as shepherd, which not only served as political propaganda, but also suggested an important royal responsibility. The king as shepherd admittedly wielded power over his subjects, but he was expected to do so with justice and piety.

Ancient Near Eastern treaties typically contained a significant amount of "fine print" that clarified the obligations of both parties. Non-compliance by either could make the contract null and void. Provision was made for both to retain a copy of the agreement, and divine witnesses were called upon in many cases to “seal the deal” in an official ceremony. These divine witnesses were expected to enforce the terms of the contract by instituting blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. As Levenson points out, this provided a built-in "moral mechanism based on the principle of retribution," which was "implemented not so much by the workings of the human political order, as by a transcendent element, the trustworthiness of the gods to respond to an oath sworn in their holy names.”[3] Thus, once initiated, both parties to such a treaty were expected to be informed of their respective duties, and to be faithful in carrying them out.[4]

           

In this conceptual world, the issue of enforcing covenant fidelity is more problematic when one of the parties is a divine being. This is the heart of the matter addressed in A Contract with God, which uses the theme of covenant to explore human suffering and the question of God’s reliability for alleviating it. Eisner suggests that the normative dynamic of divine-human relations involves an elusive or transcendent deity to which humans, nevertheless, reach out in hope of attaining assistance. The human "preoccupation" with covenants "stems from the primal concern with survival."[5] Unfortunately, humanity's attempts to hold God accountable often prove futile. As divine sovereign, God remains unfettered by any covenant he alone does not initiate. While humans may seek to negotiate terms, they do so from the position of an unequal partner.

This is demonstrated by Frimme Hersh, Eisner’s chief protagonist, in the first chapter of A Contract with God. Hersh, an orphaned child growing up in anti-Semitic Russia in the late nineteenth century (14), was “helpful and kind” (15) to all those around him. In spite of abject poverty, he grew up being told that God would “reward” him for his good behavior (15-16). And this seemed to prove true, as the surviving elders pool their funds to save the life of one member of their village (16-17). Believing Hersh to be “favored by God” (16), they send him to America. In the course of his journey, Hersh seeks to establish a binding contract with God in order to guarantee the deity’s fair dealing with him in the future.

Hersh is tentative at first. He inquires about the nature of his would-be covenant partner, questioning his Rebbe concerning God’s justice and whether God takes notice of those who do good deeds. Eisner has the Rebbe answer not affirmatively, but with questions. When Hersh asks if God is just, the Rebbe responds, “If justice is not in God’s hands—where else would it be??” When Hersh asks if God will know that he is good, the Rebbe says, “Why not?? Does it not say that God is all-knowing!?”[6] In this way, Eisner suggests that no one can have assurance on such matters. Theodicy, the attempt to defend God’s righteousness, by necessity arises because humanity lacks such assurance. The tentativeness of the Rebbe’s responses here reflects Eisner’s own tentativeness about the goodness of God and represents more realistically the nature of the human condition.

Such tentativeness can also be found in the biblical tradition. In Genesis 28, the patriarch Jacob concludes his first immediate experience with the deity, via his dream at Bethel, with the following conditional vow: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God” (Gen 28:20-21). The tentative nature of this vow appears strange in light of the fact that Jacob supposedly acquired his father’s blessing in 28:1-5, including the promise of descendants and land, and God has just confirmed this in the midst of the ladder dream in 28:13-16. Additionally, the very fact that, on the night of his dream, Jacob stumbled upon a holy place while fleeing Esau’s anger, and lived to name it Bethel (“House of God”; 28:15-16), was further confirmation of divine grace.

By way of contrast, Frimme Hersh, having no such assurances of divine presence or favor, attempts to compose his own contract with God and begins to abide by the terms that he himself establishes therein.
 

Unlike the covenant between God and Israel established at Sinai after the Reed Sea rescue (Exod 14-15, 20-31), Hersh cannot yet reference a prior act of divine deliverance. Nor does Eisner, unlike the Book of Exodus, provide the reader with any of the details of Hersh’s contract. This leaves open the possibility that it was simply Hersh’s life of kindness to others, and chance, rather than divine intervention, that persuaded the villagers to secure him safe passage to America. Hersh, however, interprets later good fortune as the blessings to be expected from a faithful suzerain for treaty compliance on the vassal’s part. Finding an abandoned child on his doorstep one day, Hersh looks heavenward as if in acknowledgment that the infant is a gift from God, and he lovingly raises her as his own.

Unfortunately, this pattern of interpretation disintegrates when the child dies prematurely.

It is this incident that leads Hersh to accuse God of unfaithful dealings, even though the reader never receives clear evidence of divine agreement or divine compliance with Hersh’s contract. 

This should not be interpreted as an attempt to get God "off the hook." The author's own comments about the autobiographical nature of his story in the 2006 edition of A Contract with God, published 28 years after the initial release, make this clear. While set in a fictitious tenement building at 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx (New York City), the inspiration for the story was Eisner's own grief over having lost his only daughter to leukemia at the age of sixteen. As Eisner puts it, the act of writing this story "exorcised my rage at a deity that I believed violated my faith."[7]

Knowing this raises questions about Eisner’s understanding of what humans may rightfully expect of their creator. Must the deity be righteous and just in accordance with human expectations, or does humanity simply want this from the deity? Are humans, by nature, destined for disappointment in their attempts to bind God to a consistent code of conduct? Do humans seek contracts with God more out of need rather than a sense that God can actually be trusted? Or, perhaps, in accordance with ancient Near Eastern treaty expectations, should not a deity who expects obedience from his creatures necessarily conduct himself with justice, caring for them like a shepherd for his flock, or else risk that flock going astray? Apparently, Eisner is more interested in clarifying the persistence of such questions rather than offering definitive answers, but he does so by drawing upon biblical concepts and imagery.

The setting for his tale, the tenement "ship afloat in concrete," is a reflection of Noah's ark, which in Genesis 6:1-9:17, if not in the popular culture’s imagination, represents a complex symbol of divine grace and divine wrath. Rather than serving as a means to rescue the righteous and recreate a planet in the throes of sinful chaos, Eisner’s inner city boat appears to trap its inhabitants, dooming them to further suffering and suffocating confinement. Here, the inhabitants of the ark are the ones drowning, in their own poverty, corruption, disappointment, and hopelessness. Eisner thus highlights with this image the ambivalent nature of God, who creates the watery chaos. It simultaneously represents divine grace and divine abandonment, divine grief and divine anger. 

This ambivalence is made obvious in the contrast between pages 4 and 8 of the graphic novel. On page 4, Hersh returns from the funeral of his daughter in the midst of a deluge. The text notes that the rain poured down "without mercy" [italics mine]. Even though the tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue "seemed" to Frimme Hersh "ready to rise and float away … like the ark of Noah," this allusion carries no consolation for a man who has just buried his only child.

On page 6, the narrator speculates that "only the tears of ten thousand weeping angels could cause such a deluge," suggesting some amount of heavenly sympathy for the plight of Hersh and his daughter. Yet on page 8, the narrator credits "the hand of God" with "pluck[ing]" this child "from [Hersh’s] arms." Is it possible that heaven might display both attitudes at once?[8]

With his supposed contract violated, Hersh begins observing the official days of mourning, but not quietly. He openly accuses God of breaking “our contract,” and God apparently responds with equal “fury” in the storm outside Hersh’s window.[9]
 

Here the reader witnesses human grief turned to righteous indignation. Like the biblical character Job demanding his day in court with an apparently unjust deity, Hersh asks questions of God that are answered only by thunder and lightning. Finally, he rejects God outright. He abandons his contract, spitting upon the stone tablet and tossing it out the window.

 

Unlike the stone tablets that Moses breaks at the sight of Israel’s apostasy (Exod 32), this tablet remains intact as it hits the ground in the alley beneath the apartment. The rain, perhaps again symbolizing heavenly tears, increases in intensity and continues to fall throughout the days of mourning.

With his ritual mourning concluded, Hersh recites the Mourning Prayer “for the last time,” and sunshine returns.[10] The heavens are apparently finished mourning also, but what is also finished is Hersh’s faith. He embarks on a new path of selfishness and greed, and ironically experiences “uncanny luck” in his endeavors.[11] But even as he grows increasingly wealthy, he becomes dissatisfied and despondent. Eventually, he returns to his synagogue, seeking help from its most learned elders in drawing up a new contract with God. He theorizes that perhaps the first was “poorly written,” having been composed by a child, and that is why God did not honor it.[12] The elders agree to help, concluding that, in effect, “all religion [is] a contract between man—and God.”[13]

Happy for the first time since his daughter’s death, Hersh rejoices that he finally has “a genuine contract with GOD,” one that is “bona-fide.”[14] With tears in his eyes, he decides to make a fresh start, daring to hope again. He rediscovers the will to do good, to “give,” and “do charitable work again,” even “marry” and have a daughter to replace his lost “Rachele.”[15]
 

Pointing to the sky, he exults that “this time, you will not violate our contract! This time, I have three witnesses!”[16] And while in mid-sentence, Hersh has a heart attack and dies.

The next image in the novel is of a rainless storm. “At the exact moment of Hersh’s last earthly breath … a mighty bolt of lightning struck the city…. Not a drop of rain fell … only an angry wind swirled about the tenements.”[17] It reminds them “of that day, years ago, when Frimme Hersh argued with GOD and terminated their contract.”[18]

           

Both in the book of Job and in Eisner’s graphic novel, the chief protagonist attempts to hold God accountable for behaving justly. In both texts, God manifests in a raging storm, resentful that his character has been called into question (cf. Job 38). When Job “meets his maker,” God asks rhetorical questions designed to silence his accuser. When Hersh tries to hold God accountable with a new contract, he is silenced as well. In the canon, the righteousness of Job is upheld when God restores his fortunes, but the question of God’s goodness remains. Clearly, God has the power to do with Job what he pleases, but does might necessarily make right? And how is the death of Hersh to be interpreted? How should the reader understand the stormy reaction of the heavens to his passing? Did God terminate this new contract because it truly was bona fide and therefore binding on the deity? Is Eisner saying that the divine suzerain ultimately cannot be counted on to deal justly with his vassals? Is theodicy ultimately a futile endeavor?

           

Eisner depicts God not as a personal treaty partner, but as a transcendent force. Humanity longs to overcome the divide that separates the creature from his mysterious and distant Creator. When God does appear, it is in a stormy way, drawing upon a common theophany motif found throughout the ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Bible.[19] There is ambiguity and ambivalence in this depiction, and interpretation of divine behavior and motive remains elusive.      

The epilogue to Eisner’s tale contains a fascinating and complex image. In the wake of the storm following Hersh’s death, a fire mysteriously engulfs Hersh’s old neighborhood, but “miraculously” leaves the building at 55 Dropsie Avenue unscathed.[20]
 

It serves as a parody of the biblical flood, where God promises never to use water again to destroy all life on earth (Gen 9:15). In both texts, there is a hero on the day of catastrophe. Instead of Noah, Eisner presents a young boy named Shloime Kreks, who saves three children and “old Missis Kelly” from the fire and receives the accolades of his neighbors: “My, what a good boy,” says one; “God will reward you, my boy,” says another.[21] History begins to repeat itself. Shortly thereafter, in the alleyway beside 55 Dropsie Avenue, Kreks picks up a stone to fight off some young “toughs” who are threatening him, and discovers Hersh’s discarded contract. The graphic novel ends with Kreks adopting the contract as his own, signing his name beneath that of Hersh.

           

In the wake of his own struggle with theodicy following the death of his daughter, Eisner weaves a tale of ambiguity and ambivalence, powerfully capturing humanity’s plight to pin down the deity and hold God accountable for behaving in a dependable and responsible way. Like the character of Job, one finds in Hersh not a protagonist who questions the deity’s power or prerogative to dictate earthly events, but who questions the deity’s faithfulness. Even if God has might, is he always right?

           

To blame the deity when misfortune arrives, on the basis of a contract that God never signs, is perhaps a mistake on Hersh’s part. But his efforts are certainly well intentioned. Much like Jacob’s conditional vow at Bethel, it is primarily designed to secure divine assistance. Like Jacob’s, it represents not a parity treaty, but an attempt on the part of a vassal to set the terms of a contract with his suzerain. But unlike Jacob, who merely requests that God follow through on what he has already promised, Hersh attempts to compose the entire contract himself. In the case of the second attempt, the one that is supposedly “bona fide,” Hersh does not live long enough for the reader to determine whether God will honor the terms, which in itself reflects poorly on the deity.

           

Ultimately, Eisner’s work speaks more clearly about the nature of humanity than about God. Human characters perform the only unambiguously good deeds in the novel. Rather than a work of theodicy, this is more appropriately labeled an anti-theodicy. The deity remains mysterious and cannot be held accountable to human conceptions of morality. Divine freedom and power are preserved by the story, but not necessarily divine righteousness. Clearly, the divine suzerain is not imagined here, as is so often the case in the ancient Near Eastern treaty context, as a shepherd (although we should question how often the suzerain ever really deserved such a title). The possibility of some degree of divine sympathy for humanity’s plight remains in Eisner’s tale, but the end of the novel is primarily a reiteration of the beginning. It demonstrates humanity’s desire to face the problem of evil with a dependable covenant partner without offering any real hope that such a thing can be achieved. 

           

Whether intentional or not, one finds an intriguing cipher on page 37 for interpreting Eisner’s work. In the midst of Hersh’s lapse from the faith, when “his success appeared to be as much the result of uncanny luck as anything else,” one of his business partners states, “THEY’RE GOING TO PULL DOWN THE EL. NOW YOUR PROPERTY WILL TRIPLE IN VALUE.” The phrase “pull down the el” is in bolder print than the rest of the text on this or the facing page and, like all text in the graphic novel, is lettered in the upper case. Knowing that in the Hebrew Bible, “El/el” often serves as the generic word for God, this offers an intriguing possibility for interpretation. Is not Hersh, like most religious people, simply seeking a legitimate means of pulling down the deity in order to overcome divine transcendence? In the words of the elders of the synagogue on page 48, “Is not all religion a contract between man—and God,” an attempt to possess a “guiding document—so that he might live in harmony with God?” If so, as Eisner seems to be saying, then who is God to “deny him this?”[22]     

Terry Ray Clark, Georgetown College, Kentucky

Notes

[Author’s note: Most critics consider Will Eisner the creator of the graphic novel genre, launching it with a series of tales collected under the title A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories (New York: Baronet Books, 1978), the first chapter of which is dealt with in this article. Along with a great many other Jewish artists and authors, Eisner has been highly influential in defining and redefining comics in America. What makes A Contact with God unique is the courage it demonstrates for exploring the so-called “problem of evil” that plagues most monotheistic religions, a problem often ignored by those who espouse a covenant theology. This work remains highly relevant for critically analyzing civil religion in America, which tends to draw upon the notion of the United States as God’s new covenant people (i.e., “God’s New Israel”). I borrow this term from Conrad Cherry (ed.), God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (rev. and updated; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).]

[1] All images in this article are reproduced with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton, and the copyright holder, the Estate of Will Eisner (2006). They are taken from Will Eisner, A Contract with God (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).

[2] Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (New Voices in Biblical Studies; eds. Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins; New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 18.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] Cf. Levenson, Sinai & Zion, 29; Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 113-15; George E. Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” ABD 1:1179-1202. For further information on ancient covenants, cf. John H. Hayes, “Covenant,” MDB, 177-81, and the bibliography provided.

[5] Eisner, Contract with God., xii.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., xii.

[8] Apparently the answer is “yes” in Gen 6:6-7.

[9] Ibid., 24.

[10] Ibid., 30.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] Ibid., 48.

[14] Ibid., 50.

[15] Ibid., 51.

[16] Ibid., 52.

[17] Ibid., 53.

[18] Ibid., 54.

[19] Cf., e.g., J. Jeremias, Theophanie: Die Geschichte einver alttestamentlichen Gattung, Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1965); J. K. Kuntz, The Self-Revelation of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967); J. J. Niehaus, God at Sinai: Covenant & Theophany in the bible and Ancient Near East (Studies in Old Testament Biblical Theology; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).

[20] Ibid., 56.

[21] Ibid., 57.

[22] Ibid., 48.

 
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