Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Most of my life I have used the question of Cain as recorded in Genesis 4:9, "Am I my brother's keeper?" to emphasize the fact that Cain was trying to deny the fact that he had any responsibility for caring for his brother, as many of us show little concern for our brothers. I have begun what I have called "brother's keepers" programs, for it was my contention, along with thousands of others, that we are indeed our brother's keepers, for we have many responsibilities toward them.

It is true that Cain's attitude was bad, and ours may be equally so. However, a closer examination of the story and the words have led me to the conclusion that if God had answered the question, He might well have said, "No, you are not your brother's keeper, but what does that sarcastic and evasive answer have to do with the question I asked you?"

When we examine the use of the terms "keep" and "keeper" in the Bible, we will discover they are often used in describing how one cares for animals or prisoners. The mean spirit and sarcasm of Cain can be perceived more readily, and the reason for the negative answer to the question can be given if we paraphrase it. If he had said, "Am I his watchdog?" he would be asking about the same thing. It would be about the same as if he said, "Am I his jailer?" The correct answer is, "No."

Suppose a mother came home where she had left her two teen-age children working or playing. When she enters, she sees only one. She asks, "Where is your brother?" The remaining irreverent child might ask, "Am I a baby sitter?" One can easily see that the answer is the same in all these situations. "No, you are not a baby-sitter (keeper of babies), a jailer (keeper of prisoners), a watchdog (keeper of sheep)." But that does not absolve us of guilt if we have failed in our responsibilities to our brother, whatever they may be.

A whole system of theology has been built around such philosophies and programs as "brother's keepers." We have no objection to the usual normal work of such programs. They involve such things as being watchful for the welfare of your brother, especially if he is weak. When he misses a service, inquiry is made concerning the reasons. Whatever help he may need is offered. We have mutual responsibilities, as ours is a "one-another" religion. These kinds of attitudes and actions are authorized by many such passages as "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).

The role of the elders as shepherds comes nearer being that which was suggested by Cain, since Hebrews 13:17 says, "they watch for your souls." Many brethren today reject the idea that even the elders have any authority as a keeper of the sheep, but are merely supposed to lead by example. They are like a shepherd who walks out in front of the sheep and merely hopes they will follow. If a sheep starts to wander away, the shepherd (according to that philosophy) has no authority to send his sheep dog to round hem up or do more than say, "Please come back."

I reject that as false doctrine. It is true that the elders are not to be "keepers of the flock" in the sense of "lording it over God's heritage" (1 Peter 5:3), but this does not imply that they are therefore without authority to lead and discipline as God directs. It is true that the term "rule" in Hebrews 13:17 is not the kind of autocratic rule Jesus had in mind in Mark 10:42-43 when He said, "Ye know that they who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you." They do have authority, however, to keep watch for the flock in a sense that Cain did not.

If we assign our own meaning to "keeper" and say that you are to be my "keeper" in the sense that I am to be yours, which would involve mutual care and concern for each other, there is little damage done. However, there is always a problem when one takes a Bible expression and assigns a different meaning to it than it originally had in the Bible. We do not find that meaning attached to the word anywhere in the Bible. The Lord's Supper may become a eucharistic sacrament. Baptism may become a sacramental act by which salvation is automatically conferred. A bishop may become "the chief elder" and even have authority over a "diocese." A brother's keeper may become a "senior prayer partner," a "discipler," a "spiritual advisor," or a "guru" of some other kind.

Therefore it is better to find the scriptural meaning of a term and use it in a scriptural way. If we do that, then we should be aware that Cain was saying something like this: "Why are you asking me about my brother's whereabouts? Am I supposed to be his baby-sitter, watching his every move? Am I supposed to be his jailer, making sure I know where he is all the time? Am I supposed to be his sheep dog chasing him if he goes astray?" The correct answer to those questions is, "No, but so what?" Of course, the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" was merely a hypocritical, sarcastic rejoinder to God's question, trying to hide the fact that he had murdered his brother.

We may also pretend that since we are not in authority over our brother as his "discipler" or "spiritual advisor" or "senior prayer partner" as was conceived either in Gainesville or Boston, we have no obligation to him, and do not need to know or care about where he is. We may thus be as responsible for his death as Cain was for Abel's death. And being a hypocrite or liar will not absolve us from guilt. The principle of what God said in Ezekiel 33:7-9 still applies to us. "So thou, son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die, and thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way; that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thy hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it, and he turn not away; he shall die in his iniquity, but thou hast delivered thy soul." It is probable that this is what most of us have meant by the phrase, "brother's keepers," but it is almost certain that is not what Cain meant by it. It might be helpful when we use a term which is found in the scriptures that we are sure we use it the same way it is used, or explain how we are using it.

T. Pierce Brown

Published in The Old Paths Archive