Am I my brother’s keeper?

“Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ And he said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’” – Genesis 4:8-9, New American Standard Bible

Nothing like a little fratricide to get you going in the morning, right?

Luca Giordano’s “Cain and Abel.”

Like the stories of creation or Noah’s ark, almost everybody, whether they’re religious or not, has heard of Cain and Abel.

The very first siblings, Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve, with Cain being the eldest. Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd, would present offerings of their work to God. The Bible says that God looked favorably on Abel’s offering but not Cain’s.

Presumably out of jealousy (the Bible never explicitly states a motive), Cain takes his younger brother out to a field and kills him. When God asks Cain where his brother is, he responds that he does not know and asks God the now-famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Apparently, this line is not only famous, but also famously misunderstood. Cain’s question is usually interpreted to be a rejection that he has any responsibility for his brother, and has in turn become a rallying cry for social justice causes.

However, it seems that the original Hebrew in the Torah lends itself to a different interpretation. The word “keeper” is translated from the Hebrew word “shamar,” which means to keep guard of, like a shepherd would keep guard of his flock. In essence, Cain was being a smart aleck to God, asking him if he was supposed to be the shepherd’s shepherd. (Not sure being sarcastic to God is the best move, but that’s neither here nor there.)

So it turns out that, according to some interpretations, Cain’s words should not be taken as a call for brotherhood among men, but instead as the angry, sarcastic taunt of a man who considered men akin to sheep and apt to be slaughtered. Not quite the uplifting message we’re used to.

But I don’t think that this interpretation has to be seen as patronizing and negative.

First of all, God’s rebuke and punishment of Cain says to me that He does believe that we have a responsibility to our fellow man. Cain tried to make a joke out of his relationship with his brother, but God’s response makes it clear to me that we are not intended to follow Cain’s example.

Now, what kind of responsibility is that? Is it that of a shepherd, tasked with caring for inferior beings that need guidance? Would accepting that interpretation also mean accepting the idea that we are sheep-like and need to be cared for?

I don’t think so. Everyone in our society has valuable skills and talents, things they excel in. At the same time, we all have our faults and shortcomings, areas where we could use measured improvement.

I take the story of Cain and his flippant remark to God to be an affirmation that we all have things that we excel in, and it is our responsibility to use those skills for the common good. Not only that, but it is our responsibility to help others develop their skills in areas where we excel and they struggle.

I don’t see this as patronizing. It’s not patronizing to take your strengths and use those to help others improve themselves. It’s not patronizing to be constantly vigilant of ways that you can use your talents to make your brothers’ and sisters’ lives better.

Daniele Crespi’s “Cain Killing Abel”

But that is not the only message that I find in the story of Cain and Abel.

“’When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is too great to bear!…I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’ So the LORD said to him, ‘Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him.” - Genesis 4:12-15 New American Standard Bible

Cain had just committed a heinous act; he had killed his brother, the first murder and an act of fratricide at that. And while God certainly doles out a harsh punishment for Cain, He also offers him His protection.

God could’ve let Cain meet his inevitable death as a wanderer, and no one likely would’ve objected. But He didn’t. He placed His mark upon him to ward off anyone who would think to kill him.

I think this can be seen as a profound message about forgiveness. If God found it in Him to forgive and protect the first murderer, surely we can find it in ourselves to forgive each other.

Our lives are too short to be stifled by petty arguments. Too often, we let our stubborn attitudes keep us away from the important people in our lives. Time we spend not forgiving those we love is time with them we can never get back.

We should follow God’s example and choose forgiveness whenever possible. This doesn’t mean we forget when others have wronged us, as God did not forget Cain’s offense, but we must do our best to avoid grudges and move on in our relationships and our lives – especially with those closest to us.


Ryan Levi

About Ryan Levi

Ryan Levi considers himself religiously secular yet culturally Jewish. He provides commentary from his unique religious perspective. 

6 Responses to “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

  1. Steve Swope

    Ryan, really nice article! Feels very “midrash-ic.” Thanks! I think you would enjoy the work of James Kugel, a former Harvard professor of Hebrew scripture. He’s got a website online, or ask me for book recommendations (I’ve got 3 of his).

  2. Ryan Levi

    Thanks for the read, Steve! I appreciate the comment. I checked out Mr. Kugel’s website and his work looks interesting. What would be a good starting point?

  3. Steve Swope

    When I get out of my driveway and into my office, I’ll look at my bookshelf and make a suggestion on where to start with Kugel. Glad you checked him out!

  4. Kris Katarian

    It’s a pleasure to read your writing, Ryan. I look forward to what comes next.

  5. Steve Swope

    Ryan – now that I’ve shoveled out, again…! I think I’d recommend Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible” for a first foray into his writing. It’s got a great introduction to the history of modern biblical scholarship, and ends with a brief essay on how a person of faith (namely, him) can embrace both scholarship and faith.

  6. Ryan Levi

    Thanks Steve! I’ll be sure to give him a look. Glad to hear you’ve enjoyed our recent weather so much!


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