Saturday, February 20, 2010

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Christian busybodies often defend their meddling, everything from welfare to warfare, by asserting that they are being the opposite of Cain, who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Ge 4:9). They conclude that because Cain was a murderer and he asked the question to avoid being punished for his murder, the answer to the question must therefore be affirmative: we are our brothers’ keepers.

I would suggest that they have mishandled this passage, drawn a faulty conclusion, and used that conclusion as the premise for actions that turn out to be harmful to their neighbors.

Let’s begin with the context: Cain has murdered his brother, and the Lord has just asked him, “Where is your brother?” Did the Lord not know where Abel was? Of course he knew. This was a rhetorical question.

When someone asks a rhetorical question, he assumes that the listener not only knows the answer to the question but that they agree on the answer. For example, someone who asks, “Do I need to send you an engraved invitation before you’ll come over for coffee?” assumes that the listener agrees that engraved invitations are inappropriate for invitations to casual cups of coffee. The question is really a statement: “I’ve given you an appropriate invitation.” It is also a call to action: “Come over for coffee.”

In the same way, the Lord’s question to Cain is a statement, “We both know that you have killed your brother,” and a call to action, “Confess your sin and be forgiven and healed” (Ez 33:11; 1 Jn 1:9).

Cain’s response is another rhetorical question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This also packs a statement, “We both know that I am not my brother’s keeper,” and a call to action, “Leave me alone.”

The Lord responds with yet another rhetorical question, “What have you done?” meaning “We both know what you have done” and “Prepare to suffer the consequences.”

Note that the understood answer to Cain’s rhetorical question is no. The Septuagint, the Bible the apostles used, translates it using the word mē, which indicates that the speaker expects no for an answer, as in Matthew 11:23: “And you, Capernaum, [mē] will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths.”

The Lord nowhere treats Cain’s response as a misconsception to be corrected.

After kicking aside the red herring that Cain has thrown down, the Lord gets to the true issue: even if—even though—Cain is not his brother’s keeper, he was wrong to kill Abel.

But perhaps the rest of Scripture shows that we are our brother’s keeper? Nope.

The word “keeper,” šomer, is used for those who guard such things as inanimate objects (Neh 3:29). A different inflection of the same root, mišmar, is used for “prison” or “custody” (Ge 42:17). Most important, of course, is “the one who watches over [šomer] Israel” (Ps 121:4). In every case, we see that the šomer is by nature superior to the one being watched over. Those kept by a šomer have no choice in the matter.

By contrast, I have found no passages where we are commanded to be other adults’ šomer. This is because passages familiar to readers of this blog command us to treat each other as equals. One cannot be one’s brother’s šomer without by definition being above one’s brother in violation of Deuteronomy 17:20 and lording it over him in violation of Luke 22:25-26. We are to be our neighbor’s neighbor (Lk 10:30-37), loving him as we love ourselves (Ro 13:9).

So “I am my brother’s keeper” is a faulty premise, and action based on it is sure to be misguided. It is, for example, the rallying cry of a well-known Christian organization that calls for government prohibition of alcohol. Does the Bible warn of the dangers of alcohol and the sin of intoxication? Absolutely. Does it call for caging those who produce, market, consume, or even abuse it? Nowhere. Yet in the name of Christ this group calls for reinstating a policy that did indeed lower the per-capita consumption of alcohol for almost 50 years, but at the price of making an increasingly anti-God Uncle Sam šomer over Christians and many of our neighbors unwilling even to listen to the gospel. This is victory in Jesus?

It is also the rallying cry of those who consider Uncle Sam the ultimate giver of compassion, either through giving money to the poor or fighting to protect our freedoms. Uncle Sam’s last act of compassion has been to shackle the middle and lower classes with incomprehensible debt to enrich already-unimaginably rich bank executives, meanwhile bombing two, three, four, and counting poor nations to radioactive rubble.

By their fruits you will know them, and that looks to me like bad fruit.

If you’re still convinced that you are your brother’s keeper, please don’t consider me your brother. I don’t want to be kept, thank you. Either love me as your neighbor or ignore my existence.

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