You Are Your Brother’s Keeper

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Cain_slaying_Abel,_1608-1609We’ve been slowly working through Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters. The next chapter addresses the Old Testament’s answer to the question of how we are to relate to our fellow humans. Provan takes two major approaches to addressing this question. The first continues his general approach of starting with Genesis. The second looks at the sweep of the rest of scripture. Both are interesting and will be outlined here.

The fall of Cain. Provan takes Genesis 4 as the starting point for this discussion. There is meaning in the names of Cain and Abel and in the statement of Eve that created Cain with God. This is a literary masterpiece with a message for the ancient Near Eastern audience (and for us). Eve claims to have become a cocreator with God producing Cain whose very name “speaks of the human tendency toward self-divinization.” (p. 192)

The name Abel (Heb. hevel) speaks, in contrast, of the reality of a human being’s existence as mortal. Hevel means “breath” or “breeze” (e.g., Isaiah 57:13) and thereby refers to what is insubstantial or fleeting or to actions that are in vain or to no purpose—futile or pointless endeavors whose effects do not last. Everything to do with mortal existence is said in the Old Testament to be “ephemeral” or “fleeting” in this way. Representative is Psalm 39:5: “You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath (hevel).” Where the name Cain speaks of grasping after divinity, then, the name Abel signifies the transient nature of human existence. (p. 192-193)

The tendency of Cain toward, if not self-divinization, at least a sense of arrogance toward God is seen in the incident of the rejected sacrifice. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. (Gen 4:3) In contrast Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. (Gen 4:4) Abel’s offering was accepted, but Cain’s was not. Provan suggests that there are two reasons for this – first because Abel brought the best, but Cain did not. The second is more important – Cain did not bring his best because his heart was not right. Cain brings an offering to get something from God and is angry that God didn’t fulfill his part of the bargain as Cain understood it. The story reflects a commentary on the typical ancient Middle Eastern attitude toward sacrifice.

These ancient peoples “expected their gods to show them favor in their various endeavors. They were therefore very interested in how to attain the favor of the gods.” As one ancient Babylonian text counsels its readers, “Every day worship your god. Sacrifice and benediction are the proper accompaniment of incense. . . . Offer him daily, and you will get your reward.” Sacrifice, in this way of thinking, is about giving in order to receive; it is nothing other than a form of bribery. (p. 194)

But biblical sacrifice is not about feeding and appeasing the gods As Provan puts it “God is interested in what is right” and ethical performance is more important than ritual importance. He comments on Isaiah 1:10-17 and quotes several other passages from the OT to back up this point.

I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them . . . but let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream. (Amos 5:22-24)

To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Proverbs 21:3)

Cain refuses to be reconciled with God and takes his anger and disappointment out on Abel. And this leads to the famous question when God confronts Cain. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The question is never explicitly answered, because it does not need to be. From the perspective of biblical faith, the answer is obvious. Yes, if you have been created to work the garden and take care of it (literally to “keep” it, Heb. shamar; Genesis 2:15), you are certainly also to “keep” (shamar) your brother. Just as the good God “will keep you [shamar] from all harm—he will watch over [shamar] your life” (Psalm 121:7), so also a righteous image bearer of God will watch over the life of his fellow image bearer. That is the core of right relating to my various neighbors: to “keep” them. (p. 198-199)

Provan has more to say about the significance of the story of Cain and the message it conveys. This is worth discussion, but will have to wait for another post on the passage. That Cain, and all of us, are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper has great significance for the biblical faith.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Provan sees another message implicit in the story of Cain and Abel as well. God treats Cain generously despite his rebellion, as he also treated Adam and Eve generously despite their rebellion. So too should we “be generous to our neighbors even when they are our enemies and even when they live dark lives that breed further darkness.” (p. 205)

The first three of the ten commandments in Exodus 20 deal with the Israelites’ relationship with God. The fourth concerns the sabbath, but includes a command that it is a day of rest for all including servants, animals, and foreigners. There is the positive command to honor father and mother followed by five commandments that deal with the right way of relating to others … thou shalt not – murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony, covet.

The last of the commandments is the most fundamental (20:17); it concerns coveting (i.e., desiring or yearning for something belonging to someone else).

It is wrong desire, these texts suggest, that lies at the heart of a dysfunctional community—desire for the wrong gods and desire for the wrong things. We want things without regard for the other persons with whom we are in relationship, whether God or other human beings. (p. 207)

Although commandments in Exodus 20 are largely phrased as negative, the Old Testament provides positive statements throughout.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18 is an important verse, highlighted by Jesus along with the command from Deuteronomy 6:5 to Love God …All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Positive love involves caring for those who are weak, powerless, down and out; the widow, orphan, and stranger. The theme runs through much of the old testament, especially the prophets and the wisdom literature, with the definition of neighbor expanded beyond just “your people.” Proverbs 25:21-22 provides an example:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.

The burning coals are not revenge, nor is the reward for taking revenge by being merciful to heap burning coals on his head. Rather the burning coals are the result of the difference between right and wrong behavior and the reward is for doing what is right.

It is these two injunctions, then—to love God and neighbor—that lie at the heart of the Old Testament understanding of the right way to live in the world. These principles provide the framework within which more specific instructions like “do not steal” and “be generous” make sense. These are, in fact, the principles according to which all specific rules about how we should live are to be understood, as we shall see further in chapter 10. Behind and beneath all such rules are relational realities. I should relate rightly to God, acknowledging that God is God, entrusting myself to his goodness and seeking to love him, obey him, and pray to him; and I should relate rightly to my fellow human beings, seeking their good, “keeping” them, and avoiding covetousness and all the wrongs that arise from it. (p. 209-210)

Loving my neighbor, moreover, involves both negatives and positives. It involves refraining from such neighbor-harming activities as favoritism, cheating, oppressing my workers in pursuit of gain, failing to honor my parents, murdering, committing adultery, stealing, and providing false testimony. At the root of all such evil is covetousness, and from this too I must refrain. Positively, neighbor love involves taking stringent action, with God’s help, rightly to order my desires. Beyond that, it involves virtues like generosity and the deliberate cultivation of empathy, without which it is impossible even to conceive of how to love my neighbor as myself. (p. 212)

Provan goes on to explore the ways that the biblical faith, through its structure of society around the call to love your neighbor as yourself and to be your brother’s keeper is significantly different from most, if not all, other traditions. He disputes the argument that the Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a global ethic found in many religions and philosophies. To claim such requires a reductionist strategy that ignores the fundamental differences in the various faiths.

Does the bible, especially the Old Testament teach that we are our brother’s or sister’s keeper?

If so, what does this mean and who is your brother/sister/neighbor?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you would like to comment please see You Are Your Brother’s Keeper at Jesus Creed.

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