"People sometimes say that I am my brother's keeper. What does being our brother's keeper mean, and where does it say that we are supposed to be our brother's keeper?", (Question from James L.).
The phrase brother's keeper comes from Genesis 4.9. After Cain murders Abel, God questions him about his brother, "And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4.9 KJV bible). Cain's response here, "Am I my brothers keeper", has become one of the most famous lines in the bible. It is often quoted to imply, that unlike Cain, we are supposed to be our brother's keeper.
Looking closely at Genesis 4.9, we see that Cain's response to God has two parts. First, he claims that he doesn't know where Abel is, which is an obvious lie. Second, Cain answers God with what appears to be a rhetorical question, "am I my brothers keeper". After denying any knowledge of where Abel is, Cain implies that he's not supposed to know where Abel is, because he is not his keeper.
However, there are two questions that still have to be answered with respect to Genesis 4.9. Clearly, Cain is denying responsibility for Abel, but we don't know what level of responsibility he denies by the phrase "brother's keeper". Once we know what is meant by brothers keeper, we need to ask whether Cain's inference that he is not his brother's keeper is incorrect? In other words, should we assume that Genesis 4.9 is teaching us all to be our brother's and sister's keepers?
Given that Cain murders Abel, on account of Abel's righteousness, we know that Cain probably has little concern for anyone besides himself. This leads to the typical interpretation of Genesis 4.9 that Cain is justifying his crime in the belief that he is not his brothers keeper. In asking "am I my brothers keeper", Cain is suggesting that he has no obligation to anyone other than himself. According to this view, God expects that we be our brothers keeper, but Cain assumes the opposite, and so doesn't feel guilty in murdering Abel. Some take this further, and politicize it to say that in God's eyes we are all responsible for the collective well-being of others. If a murderer like Cain suggests he has no responsibility for his fellow man, then concepts such as individualism and personal responsibility must be unbiblical.
However, when we look closely at the phrase "brother's keeper", we find that it means something different from what is often assumed. The Hebrew word that is translated as "keeper" (shaw-mar), means literally a custodian, watcher, or caretaker. So in Cain's response to God, he is literally asking whether he is his brother's guardian or custodian. Perhaps the statement could even be translated "am I my brothers baby-sitter". So the term "keeper" doesn't mean guide, helper, or aid, but implies a much higher level of responsibility, such as a caretaker or parent.
So we find in Cain's question not a defiant belief in individualism or every man for himself. Maybe Cain does believe in these things, but in the context of Genesis 4, Cain's remark is one of sarcasm and absurdity. His younger brother is by this point a grown man, tending flocks of sheep. Of course Cain is not his brother's keeper. No one is their brother's or sister's keeper (shawmar), unless that person is incapable of taking care of him or herself.
By knowing the meaning of the term brother's keeper, we can better understand what takes place in Genesis 4.9. In questioning Cain about Abel, God alludes that he might know something about what has happened to him. Cain first denies any knowledge of his brothers disappearance. Then he adds in a sarcastic rhetorical question meant to deflect away any further inquiry (leave it to Cain to be sarcastic with God). Clearly the truth makes Cain uncomfortable, and he doesn't want to face up to what he has done. Therefore, Cain is not trying to justify his evil deed by saying he is not his brother's keeper, but to deflect and avoid the consequences of it.
Under normal circumstances we are not the literal or figurative keepers of our brothers and sisters. However, as Christians there are responsibilities that we have to our fellow man, "And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matthew 22.39 KJV bible). Loving thy neighbor as thyself doesn't mean being your neighbor's keeper or overseer. Instead it means taking his or her best interests to heart. Sometimes this means giving to others, or inconveniencing ourselves, and other times it doesn't. Thus, as Christians our responsibility is to empathize with others, and consider their well-being as our own.
More important than the secular welfare of others, is their spiritual welfare. As Christians our most important responsibility is to expose others to the truth, "When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul" (Ezekiel 33.8-9 KJV bible).
As Christians we must act as spiritual watchmen. We need to declare the reality of salvation and God's future wrath upon the world. Like a watchman, we are not accountable for how others react to our declaration. Neither is it our place to be overseers and force them to believe in a certain ways. However, we are responsible for sounding the trumpet and ensuring that as many people as possible are exposed to the Word. Thus, we are not responsible for the choices of our fellow men, but we have responsiblities to them.
Sister Renee 28 Jul 2011, 17:44Hello readers,
Brother Craig 02 Jun 2012, 12:28I appreciate the clarity and sincerity of this appraisal of the meaning and implications of the "brother's keeper" dialog in the Bible. In this individualistic culture we live in, we must guard against judging our neighbor for not availing himself or herself of the opportunities and privileges we ourselves enjoy in pursuit of being a "rugged individual", capable of meeting our own needs. Neither should we elevate the meeting of others' physical needs at the expense of fulfilling our duty to serve their spiritual needs, changing the pure gospel into a "social gospel" as it were. I advise anyone doing a serious study of this topic to look into the teaching of Jesus and his apostles concerning the "poor" and "needy". I would pay particular attention to the admonition of Peter to the elders among the body of Christ: "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers -- not because you must, but because you are willing as God wants you to be...." (1 Pet 5:4) Abel was a shepherd of sheep, a keeper of sorts. Perhaps this had something to do with his sacrifice being acceptable. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and his sacrifice was the ultimate act of keeping... that we should no longer be lost, but found by God's grace. In the context of being our brother's "keeper", then, remember that Christ is the chief example. Remember the words of James: "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well, keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?'" (James 2:15-16) Do not be quick to dismiss being our brother's keeper. It is an effective demonstration of our faith, because it is tangible! It has profound spiritual meaning!
Doug Buckley 04 Jun 2012, 04:59Hi Craig, I agree that our American culture is very individualistic and its easy to read American ideals and values and morality into the bible, especially when it comes to subjects like being our brothers keeper.
Doug Buckley 30 Jun 2012, 23:03Note: I deleted the previous comment. Suggesting that those who teach we are our brothers keeper "work under the influence of Satan" crosses the line with respect to rule 2.
Brian G. 01 Sep 2012, 17:07Abel did nothing to provoke Cain's attack. Cain was really ticked off at God for not accepting his half-hearted sacrifice, but directed his fury at someone who was not half-hearted in his giving. Abel, as a man who whole-heartedly served God, had a keeper: God. Cain was not the keeper, but had to deal with the Keeper. Paradoxically, God promises Cain he will be his keeper, at least of his physical self. Even with such grace given, it seems apparent that Cain continued to choose to reject God and pass that attitude on to his offspring.
Sue 11 Nov 2012, 21:28I have been reading NCR on the internet and it seems most Bishops felt that we should be careful of how we vote. One actually said the Democrat Platform was evil and we should not vote for evil, particularly because of the abortion issue, etc.
Doug Buckley 12 Nov 2012, 11:38Hi Sue, I don't know the situation so this is just a guess, but maybe you're pushing too hard. Alot of people won't change their minds no matter what, and you have to careful about overwhelming people or getting them mad at you. Jesus tells us to be clever as serpents and gentle as doves when spreading the gospel, and this is true about changing peoples minds in general.
Jennifer Durham 10 Dec 2012, 12:21This was a very good article. Unfortunely I am suufering from the Cain and Abel effect but it is with my oldest sister. Obviously she didn't physically kill me but she kill me spiritually. So, enough though I am strong daughter of God when she did what she did it crushed me. She is like Cain feeling uncomfortable and has not remorse, and doesn't want to face up to what she has done enough though there is proof that she did it. Therefore, she is trying to justify her evil deed by saying she didn't do it and doesn't want to be involved. Or better yet she is saying" Am I not my sister's keeper", while playing the chameleon effect in hiding and trying to avoid the consequences of it. As a child of God I am trying to forgive her but she is making it very hard by still attacking me with her evil ways.Thank for your article it gave such good understand of what "Am I my brother's keeper"really means.
Doug Buckley 12 Dec 2012, 03:01Hi Jennifer, good to hear from you. I don't really know much from your post, but remember that whatever happened can and will be healed in the Lord if you seek him and trust in him, and forgive others. You don't have to let anyone be a part of your life that's bringing you down either.
C Shepherd 08 May 2013, 10:05some times many times we have to use force, that's the nature of sin
sydney kambatika 04 Jun 2013, 11:26The command of Love thy neighbor as you love yourself and love God with all your mind and soul must be practiced all the time.
Deb 25 Aug 2013, 09:57Jennifer I struggle as well to forgive after being crushed many times.
Beloved Daughter 13 Oct 2013, 01:14I have a friend who is now 40 who has spent the better part of his life in one kind of institution or another, since age 6. We became friends 10 years ago when he was out on parole. He rescinded 2 years later and returned to prison. We faithfully wrote letters to one another or the last 8 years. He became eligible for parole after 6 years, was denied, but released to an alternative treatment center for 2 years. This May, he was released on parole. He was picked up again earlier this week.
Doug Buckley 13 Oct 2013, 14:35Hi BD, thank you for sharing with us. We're really not our brother's keeper or caretaker in a spiritual sense. Trying to be our literal "brother's keeper" can even cause harm.
Brian 13 Oct 2013, 20:37BD - One of Satan's tricks is to make us feel guilty or responsible for things that only God is big enough to be responsible for. We may be responsible to lend a hand for a temporary misfortune, but there are some folks with a chronic problem that will never go away. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."
C Shepherd 13 Oct 2013, 21:50every mother, father, guardian is a keeper, society is a keeper of law and order. married couples are keepers, government officials are keepers, there is no such thing as every man for himself.
Beloved Daughter 13 Oct 2013, 22:42Doug and Brian,
angela 18 Nov 2013, 21:07I AM MY BROTHERS KEEPER............HE SAID AM I .......AS IS WE ALL DO NOW RIGHT ? AM I WRONGE FOR BEING SELFISH ? YES!!!! I AM MY BROTHERS KEEPER !
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