“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” — Patrick Swayne

It’s quite possible that the ground was still wet with “the blood of righteous Abel” (Matt. 23:35) when the Lord’s question, “Where is Abel your brother?” fell on Cain’s ears (Gen. 4:9). God’s mention of the fact that Abel was Cain’s brother marks the fourth time in the first nine verses of the chapter that this is mentioned, with two mentions in the verse preceding (v. 8). God will point out this fact twice more before He is finished talking with Cain (vv. 9-10). It is impossible for readers of the text to escape the relationship Cain had with Abel before “Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him” (v. 8).

Improper worship, Cain’s choice to offer “the fruit of the ground” (v. 3) instead of to offer “by faith” as Abel did (Heb. 11:4; cf. Rom. 10:17), and God’s response to said worship ought to motivate us to investigate carefully how we approach the throne of God. Cain’s anger at God’s rejection and God’s gentle rebuke coupled with a beautiful promise (Gen. 4:5-7), remind us that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas. 1:20) and that God’s “commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). The text therefore encourages us to respond with repentance and obedience rather than anger and disobedience when God’s word differs from our own thoughts, opinions, and actions. The fact that anger led to murder illustrates why our Lord connected the two and encouraged us to avoid both through love (Matt. 5:21-22; Rom. 13:8-9).

These lessons and many more could (and should) be extracted from the text. However, to ignore the contrast between Cain’s actions and his relationship with his brother is to ignore perhaps the most obvious feature of the text. Cain’s words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9), stand out in stark contrast not only to his behavior, but to the six affirmations in the context that Abel was his brother. Disobedience is wrong, as are anger, murder, and lying. But there is something especially wrong about what Cain did – something so wrong in fact that a God Who authorized the death penalty for murder in every epoch of time (Gen. 9:6; Lev. 24:17; Acts 25:11; Rom. 13:4) chose not to use it but chose instead to allow Cain to live a marked, cursed existence for the rest of his life (Gen. 4:11-15). As Israel’s sin caused it to become “an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword” (Dt. 28:37), so too did Cain become a living testimony to the evil of fratricide.

Answering The Question And Making A Connection

Connecting the lessons of this powerful account to Christians today begins first by reflecting on the answer to Cain’s question. Was Cain his brother’s keeper? Some who have studied the word translated “keeper” have discovered that in terms of a legal requirement, the answer is no; as far as we can tell, man was never given a command regarding his fellow man involving any form of the word “keeper.” We have no way of knowing for sure whether such a command existed during the patriarchal dispensation in which Cain lived, but the fact that asked he asked the question seems to confirm that he believed the answer to be no.

Interestingly, while man was never commanded to be a “keeper,” the Bible regularly affirms that God is one. Possibly the greatest affirmation of this fact is Psalm 121, where God is said either to be a Keeper or to keep six times. It is impossible to know whether Cain thought of God this way or not, but the conclusion is clear and powerful: whether he intended it or not, both Cain’s question and his behavior said to God, “I am not like you. I am the opposite of you.” Whereas God would “neither slumber nor sleep” to keep His servants – His family – “from all evil… from this time forth, and even forevermore” (Ps. 121:4, 7-8), Cain walked with his brother into a field and murdered him. When God sentenced Cain to a cursed existence rather than to death, He provided man with living proof of the foolishness of behaving so contrary not just to God’s will but to His nature.

While fratricide is not unheard of today, many of us would recoil at the thought of killing kin even without hearing about Cain (and, inversely, if we were tempted towards this sin, Cain’s story by itself would probably not dissuade us). In fact, if we believe that one of the thirty-nine books written for our learning (Rom. 15:4) included this account simply so that we would know that killing a sibling is a bad idea, we have probably missed Moses’ point. Jesus expanded the scope of application of this account by bringing the blood Abel down on the heads of those who would persecute anyone righteous (Matt. 23:34-36; Lk. 11:47-51). Let’s connect the dots and go a step further.

Behavior can be understood as black and white, right and wrong, etc., on either side of the line of God’s will. Yet behavior should also be considered to exist along a spectrum on either side of that line. Consider Ephesians 4:28: “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” Without a doubt, one has done well not to steal but to work instead. However, true progress towards godliness has not been made towards godliness – God-likeness – has not been made until one learns to give as God gives (Matt. 5:43-48). To borrow from the image Jesus paints, one has not truly and fully differentiated himself from those who persecute the righteous until he gives, even to his enemy.

Do you see the point? Brother killing and brother keeping exist on a spectrum just as stealing and giving do. I have not learned the lesson of Cain until I have learned to emulate my guardian God.

Becoming A Brother’s Keeper

While killing my brother may be quite an unnatural thought, so too is keeping my brother. This isn’t necessarily because we don’t understand family love; it is because as a Christian my brothers are those “who hear the word of God and do it,” not those who share my birth or adoptive mother (Lk. 8:19-21; cf. Matt. 12:46-50; Mk. 3:31-35). Some of us come to Christ knowing how to love our physical family, but God calls us to develop those feelings towards His church. It’s crucial to our faith to learn how to become a brother’s keeper.

Paul said, “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love” (Rom. 12:10). In the language behind the text, Paul uses the word for emotional love twice, each time compounding it. The first compound word in the order of our English text (“kindly affectionate”) takes the Greek word for emotional love (philos) and connects it with the word for natural love (storge). The second compound word (“brotherly love”) takes emotional love (philos) and combines it with the word for “brother” (delphos). The teaching is simple but profound: Paul tells us to take the image of a healthy, caring relationship between two siblings and apply it to our brethren in Christ until it becomes natural.

Loving my brothers in Christ as members of a family love one another is not enough; Jesus said our love is not perfect until it is like God’s (Matt. 5:48). To learn how to be a brother’s keeper, I must model myself after my Father.

Turning back to Psalm 121 seems like a good place to start. Learning about Israel’s Keeper provides me with some wonderful points of reflection as I strive to be a keeper myself. Have I allowed my brother’s foot to slip from the faith (Ps. 121:3a; Heb. 2:1)? Have I slept while others are asleep to Christ and His light (Ps. 121:3b-4; Eph. 5:14). Have I provided shade to the weary (Ps. 121:5-6; Jas. 5:20; 1 Pet. 4:8)? Have I protected my brother’s path and made His way easier or passed by on the other side (Ps. 121:7-8; Lk. 10:25-37)?

Am I my brother’s keeper? Perhaps it’s the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking, “Am I becoming like my God?” May God bless us as we put the example of Cain behind us and walk towards the example of our God.

Patrick Swayne serves as a minister to the South Anchorage Church of Christ in Anchorage, AK. He is married to Chantelle Marie (Herd), and together they have two sons: Ezekiel and Ezra.


1All Scripture herein quoted is taken from the NKJV unless otherwise noted.

2The ESV translates the term uniformly as “keep,” whereas the NKJV chooses “shall preserve” in the last three instances.

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