My Brother's Keeper

“This story shall the good man teach his son,…from this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered—We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”~William Shakespeare (Henry V, Act IV, Scene III)

Perhaps you are blessed enough to have a brother. If not, maybe you have a friend who is “like a brother.” Either way, be it a brother by blood or by choice, brotherhood is a unique love. It’s a love where two people imagine the same blanket fort in the backyard and make it happen without ever discussing or analyzing the design. It’s a love that jumps to a defense of “I can hit him, but you can’t.” It’s a love that teaches you to be quick to say “I’m sorry” when the wrestling match escalated from fun to out-of-hand. It’s the kind of love that sees the other person’s tears before they fall. It’s a love that makes you shake your head, but never question or change how you feel, because the conflict is sometimes the proof of the love.

It’s interesting that the first conflict in the bible, between people, occurs between brothers. In Genesis, chapter 4, just pages after Adam and Eve have been banished from Eden, we read the story of how they had two children.

We are told that “Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.” 

From a historical perspective, it’s interesting to note that Cain and Able, though brothers, come from different backgrounds. Able is a nomadic shepherd. His life is probably less than stable. Cain, on the other hand, has settled into society. He’s a farmer. He’s got land, and probably some semblance of wealth. The early people hearing this story could probably relate to the conflict between civilizations that were agricultural versus those that were nomadic. And it’s interesting that this conflict ripples today: between the haves and the have nots; between the nations that produce and the nations that consume; between the brothers that play by the rules and the brothers that make their own paths.

The story goes on to say that, “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,  but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.”

Now the conflict here seems obvious. Everyone knows, you don’t play favorites between two brothers. Imagine the blow to Cain’s ego. He’s the one who settled down and accumulating wealth. His brother is “a restless wanderer,” a nomad. At best, Able is bringing down the property values. At worst, he’s an embarrassment to the family. But somehow, God looked with favor on Able’s sacrifice.

Perhaps it’s because God loves an underdog. Over and over in the bible, God chose weak people as an example of the type of faith we should exalt. Or perhaps Able gave more superficially than Cain. But from a historical context, perhaps the early people hearing this story—the same ones who would see the conflict between shepherds and farmers—would also relate to a conflict where different people are worshiping the same God in different ways. Instead of focusing on God playing favorites, the conflict is born out of Cain’s need to be better than his brother instead of equal. Just like today, where people of different Abrahamic faiths (or even people from different corners of Christianity) argue over who is right instead of seeing one another’s beliefs as equal.

The climax of the story comes when “Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?”

God never answers the question. The next verses go on to explain how God already knew what had happened. He curses Cain to be a “restless wanderer on the earth” but he never says “yes, you are your brother’s keeper.”

Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel calls the story of Cain and Able “the first genocide.” It’s the first time the haves blamed the have-nots for their problems. It’s the first time the producers and consumers fought to control the power dynamic. It’s the first sibling rivalry to set the tone for centuries of jealousy, bickering, and resentment. It’s the fundamental conflict that underscores war, racism, bullying, and xenophobia.

Maybe if God had given a straight answer, we would have gotten it. Maybe we’d be better at supporting each other’s visions instead of analyzing the design to death. Maybe we’d more quickly jump to one another’s defense. Maybe the wrestling matches would end with “I’m sorry’s” instead of escalate into death tolls. Maybe we could see the tears before they become acts of violence. Maybe we could shake our heads and agree to disagree because sometimes the conflict is proof of the love.

But perhaps God’s curse to Cain is the answer. When he makes Cain a “restless wanderer on the earth,” he makes Cain like Able. He puts Cain into his brother shoes. In essence, God says, “if you don’t know the answer, then you need to be more like your brother.”

I’m lucky enough to have a brother who has been a tremendous mentor in my life. From building blanket forts to bruised noggins, I have never doubted that the conflict is proof of our love. This Saturday he’s graduating. I hope you join me in extending him a heartfelt congratulations. I couldn’t be more proud of the person he is, and the life he is making for himself. And I am honored to be his keeper, and know that he is mine.

Zach Herzog

*Join us in praying the Daily Texts*

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