Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” – Genesis 4:9

Memorable words regardless of who you are and what you think of The Bible. “My brother’s keeper”…so much is loaded into so few words.

This post was inspired by a discussion of the verse on CBC Radio…particularly where ‘keeper’ was compared with ‘shepherd’. I appreciated this comparison and was prepared to launch into a nice lengthy discussion about Cain being a shepherd of his brother in the sense his brother was a shepherd of sheep etc.

Unfortunately I can’t do that because a basic word study has shown me that the Hebrew word used here for ‘Keeper’ is הֲ שֹׁ מֵ ר (e-shmr) while the Hebrew word typically used for ‘Shepherd’ is רעה (roʿeh).

I might have been able to get away with it if, in the same chapter the word to describe Abel as a shepherd was shmr, but it is not.

Still I think there are other worthy things about the word shmr worth saying – most importantly the word does not only mean keeper but also guardian (and perhaps this is the better translation here although keeper may infer guardian as well).

Am I responsible for my brother? Is he of a worth that he requires my guardianship? There is irony here because as a shepherd Abel exercised a certain amount of guardianship over his flocks. But there is an important difference…a shepherd raises his flock ultimately toward the purpose of sacrifice (food, God etc.) while a guardian treats what is being guarded as something even greater…something that should not be sacrificed or killed but cherished.

SIDE NOTE: Christ is known as the shepherd but he is the ‘Good Shepherd’ who lays down his life for his sheep rather than expecting his sheep to lay down their own lives.

In this sense God is the shmr (guardian) over Cain, Abel, Adam and Eve as they represent humanity. As image bearers (Imago Dei) of God we then bear a guardianship responsibility over one-another in as much as we are capable of emulating God (which often seems like not much at all if I am speaking for myself).

In short the answer to Cain’s (and likely our) rhetorical question is – yes, you are your brother’s keeper as a reflection of God’s guardianship over humanity.

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