While the mystery of Christ’s tears surely surpasses human finite understanding, one thing is clear: the promise does not cancel the present pain of death or circumvent grieving and lamentation. In fact, the path from Abraham to Christ strongly suggests the opposite, that knowledge of the promise and the final victory of God over death actually makes the reality of death that much more devastating because death is that which should never have been. Abraham knows something of what God must do to right the wrong of death. Jesus knows exactly what God must do to right the wrong of death.
One of the most striking and memorable of William Blake’s many wonderful paintings is The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve. Here the artist imagines the moment when Adam and Eve find the corpse of Abel, the first victim not simply of murder but of fratricide.
To the left, Cain, terrified either by what he has done or the fact that he has been discovered, flees the scene, his head surrounded by fire, symbolizing judgment, and the background—a dark, volcanic sky—intensifying this. To the right, a horrified Adam stares in disbelief and accusation at his fleeing son. And in front of Adam, Eve bows in disconsolate despair over Abel’s body. Her face is hidden, but that simply enhances the agony of the moment: Blake knew that a mother’s grief in such circumstances transcends any artist’s ability to give it expression. The hiddenness of her tears reveals the depth of her agony.
The painting is, of course, a work of the poet’s imagination. The Bible does not record the pain and sorrow that Adam and Eve must have felt when they realized Abel was dead. Though death was an intrusion into God’s created order, Moses does not care to delineate the emotional pain and confusion of this, the first murder, and of these, the first parents. As Blake knew that Eve’s heartbreak was revealed more dramatically by hiding her face, so Genesis does not domesticate the moment by verbalizing it.
Grieving in the Face of Death
I have thought about Genesis a lot during the past few months because Moses’s narrative of Creation and Fall has to be foundational to any Christian response to the coronavirus. Yet, in this context, what has come to strike me most about the early chapters is what is absent, what is not mentioned: grieving in the face of death. It is not that grief would not have been there—Blake’s picture surely captures something of what Eve must have felt. It is the fact that Moses chose to omit it.