God’s continuous act of separation occurs in the so-called first creation account of Genesis (Gen 1:1–2:3): light from darkness, water from water, water from land. This act of separation provides form to the formless, and as creation proceeds so too does the act of separation gain in momentum. Separation and stability are understood as being “good” and beautiful; it provides the stage and the characters.
Later, when some animals are understood as being unworthy of sacrifice or of being eaten, it appears as if they are unclean precisely because they straddle this line of separation. In other words, they inhabit both realms. For example, lobsters or crawfish look as if they are land creatures but they live underwater. Flightless birds, like penguins or ostriches, are another example. They should be in the air, but they can only walk on land. What has been separated should stay separate—those that do not are unclean.
This momentum of creative separation continues in the so-called second creation account (Gen 2:4-25), which focuses on the creation of humans. Except here something odd happens. While formerly the rest of creation began in separation, humanity begins in unity and is then separated. Woman is taken from man, and after their separation they are understood as Eve and Adam. But it is, in fact, more complicated than this because it is the first human’s loneliness that instigates the Lord to engage in this second movement of creation and separation. In a sense, the first human’s loneliness is a co-creator (a co-separator?) with the Lord.
Humans therefore stand both in continuity with rest of creation (in being separated, male and female) but also in their own category (in primal unity). When the Lord presents Eve to Adam, he is—quite literally—the father of the bride bringing her to Adam in marriage. Marriage, then, is the embodiment (we might say “sacrament”) of this unity-in-duality, in that the one who became two is now one again (as two). The fall must be understood within this unitive, marital context.
While there is much else that can be said about it, the fall clearly represents humanity returning to a type of primordial chaos. Adam and Eve, the two that became one, now—due to the Tempter—treat each other as two. As such, they have become a category mistake, much like penguins and lobsters. The Lord intended them to together be his image to creation, standing both within and above the rest of creation. By the fall, however, they no longer stand within this unique realm, but instead fail and fall into mutually exclusive categories. They are, in this way, unclean and must be expelled from the holy of holies that is the Garden.
It is within this trajectory of unity debased to uncleanliness that, outside of Eden, we should understand the fratricide of Cain and Abel. The sons are simply perpetuating their parental primordial division, and they are sundering what should be one, and not making it so much separate as antagonistic. Notice here that when the Lord separates, shalom (peace and wholeness) is created. When man separates, death comes into the world. It is often said that the Tempter did not in fact lie to Eve when he said she would not die because, well, she didn’t. But, with Cain and Abel, we see the true horror the Tempter masked from Eve, who could not at the time have foreseen a death worse than her own. To be the parent of a murdered and murderous son is worse than any personal death.
And with Cain and Abel, death begins its long march through every other family with a catalogue of sins worthy of Paul: fighting within the very womb of the mother, incest, trickery, deception and lying, murder and unfulfilled oaths. In short, the world of flesh and the kingdom of man is here, in microcosm, in a type of anti-sacrament.
And yet, there is a hidden stream, a way not so much back to Eden, but a way forward toward some other land. And that is found in the story of Joseph and his brothers (Gen 37-50). Capital punishment was born when Cain killed Abel, we might say “due to the hardness of his heart.” And this bloodshed continues and indeed flows into the pit in which Joseph’s brothers flung him. Up until this point, the logic of Genesis and death is that Joseph’s brothers should be killed for effectively killing him. In fact, it was mandated and the brothers know that. But, like the creation of humanity, something odd happens here—and it happens in Joseph, the beloved Abel-son, and Judah, the Cain in this story.
Without rehashing all the exquisite details of the story, Joseph eventually ends up the de facto head of Egypt and has the authority to execute the ordained judgment on his brothers. But Joseph has been through a lot. He has, in fact, gone through a resurrection, several times. And within that process of resurrection a mercy was born in him that reverses the flow of death and retribution.
However, Joseph does not act alone in this. Just as humanity’s primal loneliness instigated the Lord to act, so too does Judah’s act of self-sacrifice begin to recreate the brotherly bonds of unity. When the brothers stand in front of Joseph, with the belief that their youngest brother Benjamin is going to be called upon to act as the suffering servant for them all, Judah, the one who instigated Joseph’s death, offers himself in place of Benjamin. It is then that the gates of mercy are opened and Joseph, who should be calling for their deaths, weeps instead, rejoins his brothers and then offers them the bread of life.
Sometimes commentary and drawing out meaning can kill a good story. And so I’ll conclude with this simple observation: What we find here as a path to unity is not an attempt to get back to Eden. Rather, we find that unity can only be achieved through a communal act of mercy and self-sacrificial offering. For a Christian, this comes as no surprise but deserves an abiding repetition within our communities. Perhaps more deeply, we also must all be the Judah who accepts and embraces that we are vessels of wrath and have contributed to the fall of our brothers. Doing so unleashes the mercy of the beloved son, who can then provide us with the bread of life and gather us into a resurrected unity once more.
Brad Henry is an attorney in North Carolina. He converted to Catholicism in his senior year of college and then went on to obtain a Masters in Theology from Duke, graduating in 2002. His focus was on Hans Urs von Balthasar. He is married with five children. In his spare time, he enjoys reading books on biblical studies, theology, and literature.