One day, the philosopher Jacques Derrida reflected on the biblical account of creation and life in the garden as he began to dress. He noticed his cat looking at him and was surprised to find that, for a brief moment, he experienced embarrassment. Why should he feel ashamed or embarrassed, “When caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal?” His cat cannot be aware of his nudity, because she herself is naked and unashamed.

“Ashamed of what and before whom? Ashamed of being as naked as an animal. It is generally thought . . . that the property unique to animals and what in the final analysis distinguishes them from man, is their being naked without knowing it. Not being naked therefore, not having knowledge of their nudity, in short without consciousness of good and evil.”

In turning to reflect on the relationship between shame, nakedness, clothing, and the recognition of animal nature, Derrida focuses on the movement from the beginning of “this awful tale of Genesis,” where immodesty is unknown, to the end, where the animal that is human knows itself, “the only [animal] to have invented a garment to cover his sex”; for the human, “knowing himself would mean knowing himself to be ashamed.” In “crossing borders or the ends of man I come to surrender to the animal—to the animal in itself, to the animal in me and the animal at unease with itself.”

Now more than 150 years ago, Darwin made it impossible for us to ignore this relationship with animals. More to the point, he clarified our relationship to animals by calling attention to the matter of death and dying as a driving force of natural selection. While we may recognize that we are destined to “go the way of all the earth” (Josh 23:14; 1 Kgs 2:2), humans also tend to view themselves as somehow special, different from other animals. Unlike these animals, however, we make weapons in preparation for such encounters with danger and death, devise religious rituals  and stories to help avoid them in the first place, and can ruminate on the question, “What if?”

What role might the value of accounting for the role death anxiety play when reading the Bible? By using the Jahwist’s narrative of creation and life in the garden, we can see that those elements which have been demonstrated to interact with death anxiety—such as animals, the emphasis of the animal-human boundary, and concern for body covering—are present in the narrative and should be taken into consideration. In Genesis 2–3, we see the author’s integration of the issues of life, knowledge of death, and the interaction of human beings with animals. The themes of the knowledge of mortality and human status vis-à-vis other animals are also found in other mythological literature, most notably Genesis 1 and Gilgamesh.

By exploring terror management theory and animal reminder disgust, I hope to demonstrate that Genesis 2 and 3 are artfully crafted to deal with the stress of human awareness of its own creatureliness and mortality by creating a great gulf between humans and the rest of the animal world. Humans separate from the animals, and this separation is hardened as they move from being at ease with their nakedness to being, as Derrida puts it, “an animal that is at unease with itself.”

This is a short, adapted excerpt from Dr. Alderman’s new book, The Animal at Unease with Itself: Death Anxiety and the Animal-Human Boundary in Genesis 2–3 (Lexington Books / Fortress Academic, 2020). This text brings together terror management theorists’ focus on death anxiety and biblical studies, and utilizes the concept of animal reminder disgust‒‒the visceral reaction to reminders of our animality‒‒to better understand the opening chapters of Genesis, dealing particularly with themes of mortality, the human body, and the animal-human boundary in those chapters.