After Cain killed Abel in the book of Genesis, the Lord asked the surviving brother for the whereabouts of his missing sibling. “I do not know,” Cain replied. He added a question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)
The question appears to hang in the air, as both the Lord and Cain know the answer. The Lord pierces the silence with another question: “What have you done?”
As I think about the events unfolding in the Middle East over the last week, I am reminded of this biblical story—along with a slew of others chronicling conflict between brothers.
The author of Genesis understood the nature of humanity, revealing humans’ propensity for violence. However, the author understood the significant power of cultural systems in creating an arena where humans are pitted against one another.
In the story of Cain and Abel, what caused Cain to kill his brother? Readers are told it was because of the sacrifices brought to the Lord.
Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable, while Cain’s was rejected. Why? Serious scholars of the biblical text note the significance of the brothers’ livelihoods: Abel was a herdsman while Cain worked the soil.
Let us not forget the Lord handed down some severe consequences for their parents’ previous disobedience: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil, you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).
The very next story in the Genesis narrative is the conflict between the two brothers. The cultural system they inherited valued herdsmen over agriculturalists. The author even appears to have Yahweh accept one offering and reject the other.
However, readers miss the point if we concentrate too much on the offerings and neglect the emphasis on relationships. The consequences of sin pits brother against brother, demanding one be valued over the other.
The story is not about Yahweh’s rejection of the brothers but the rejection of a sinful system that values one brother over the other. The system’s rejection creates so much anger within Cain that he rises to kill Abel. This perverted system continues through the entirety of the Genesis narrative.
From the misdeeds of Abraham and Sarah, we see the tension between Ishmael and Isaac. From the conniving of Isaac and Rebecca, we witness the struggles between Esau and Jacob. From Jacob and Rachel, we see the enmity between his elder sons and Joseph.
In the final analysis, the religious, economic and political systems pitted humans against humans. These systems can only thrive when humans are convinced of their value. And when humans succumb to the lies perpetuated by these systems, the potential for violence grows exponentially.
However, there is hope. In all the stories mentioned after Abraham, peace emerges when the brothers reunite.
Joseph welcomes his brothers into his company after years of treachery, turmoil and agony (Genesis 45:1-15). Esau embraces Jacob after years of estrangement (Genesis 33:1-5). And, in one of the most neglected reunions within the Abrahamic saga, Ishmael and Isaac reunite upon the death of Abraham (Genesis 25:1-11).
Within these stories, we hear the echoes of Cain’s question to Yahew: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, of course, is a resounding “Yes!”
More than anyone I know, Jesus, a radical Jewish rabbi, attempted to convey this truth.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
“Love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:39).
“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house’” (Luke 10:5).
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
When will the world reject systems that divide us, convincing one group of humans they are favored by God over another? When will we set the weapons of division, hate and violence down to embrace the true salvation of God—shalom, peace, salaam?
Who will be the brother or sister who finally declares, “I am my sibling’s keeper”?
For those whose hands are raised, let’s continue to pray for peace and advocate for justice. Let’s continue to remind each other we are our siblings’ keepers.
CEO of Good Faith Media.