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Am I my Brother's Keeper?

People sometimes say "I am my brother's keeper". What does being our brother's keeper mean? Where does the bible say that we are supposed to be our brother's keeper?



The phrase brother's keeper comes from Genesis 4.9. After Cain murders Abel, God questions him about his brother, "And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4.9 KJV bible).

Cain's response here, "Am I my brothers keeper?", has become one of the most famous lines in the bible. It's often quoted to imply that we should all be our brother's keeper. It's often thought that Cain's sin was that he wasn't his brother's keeper.

Cain was a selfish and wicked soul. The fact that he hated and murdered his brother without cause tells us all we need to know about his character. However, the idea that Cain was supposed to be the literal keeper of his brother may not be the point of the story.

Looking closely at Genesis 4.9, we see that Cain is saying two things. First, he says that he doesn't know where Abel is, which is an obvious lie. Then, Cain makes the famous remark, "Am I my brothers keeper". After denying any knowledge of where Abel is, Cain implies that it's not his problem where Abel is because he's not his keeper.

It's often assumed that Cain is trying to justify his crime by saying that he isn't his brother's keeper. However, when we look at his words we see that he's not trying to justify his actions. Rather Cain is lying about what he's done. He's saying he doesn't know why Abel is missing when clearly he does know.

This is the context in which Cain asks "am I my brothers keeper". The context is that he thinks he can hide Abel's murder from God. So Cain is asking whether he is responsible to know where Abel is (assuming he had nothing to do with his disappearance).

The Hebrew word for "keeper" is shaw-mar.

The Hebrew word that's translated as keeper is "shaw-mar" (Strongs #8104). It means literally a custodian, watcher, or caretaker. It can mean a protector of important or valuable property. It implies a high level of responsibility, well beyond simple concern or compassion.

So we see a level of sarcasm in Cain asking whether he's his brother's keeper. His younger brother is by this point a grown man, tending flocks of sheep. Abel is capable of taking care of himself and doesn't need a keeper. Neither was Cain appointed as Abel's keeper.

So in Cain's response to God, he is literally asking whether he's his brother's guardian or watcher. Perhaps the statement could even be translated "am I my brothers baby-sitter". The obvious answer is that he isn't his brother's keeper.

Rather than being some grand philosophical statement about how man has no responsibility to his fellow man, Cain is just being a sarcastic liar. In Genesis 4.9, he's stating the obvious while trying to cover up his crime. Clearly Cain knows he did something wrong, and doesn't want to admit it.

Shouldn't we still be our brother's keeper?

Under normal circumstances we aren't the literal keepers of our brothers and sisters. However, as Christians we do have responsibilities to others, "And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matthew 22.39 KJV bible).

Loving our neighbors as ourselves doesn't mean being their keepers, but it does mean taking their best interests to heart. Sometimes this means giving to others, and inconveniencing ourselves, and other times it doesn't. As Christians our main responsibility is to consider the well-being of others as our own.

More important than the secular welfare of others, is their spiritual welfare. Our ultimate goal is to spread the truth of God's salvation.

"When I say to the wicked, O wicked one, dying you shall die! And you do not speak to warn the wicked one from his way, that wicked one shall die in his iniquity, but I will require his blood from your hand. But you, if you warn the wicked from his way, to turn from it, and he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul" (Ezekiel 33.8-9 LITV bible).

As Christians we should be spiritual watchmen. We should both live and confess Jesus Christ as the salvation from God's wrath upon the world. However, like the watchman of Ezekiel, we aren't accountable for what others do or believe. We aren't the direct moral keepers of our brothers and sisters.

Comments: (4)
Topic: Our Brothers Keeper
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Brother Craig
I advise anyone doing a serious study of this topic to look at the admonition of Peter to the elders among the body of Christ: "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers -- not because you must, but because you are willing as God wants you to be...." (1 Pet 5:4).

In the context of being our brother's "keeper", then, remember that Christ is the chief example. Remember the words of James: "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well, keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?'" (James 2:15-16) Do not be quick to dismiss being our brother's keeper. It is an effective demonstration of our faith, because it is tangible!
2nd June 2012 12:39pm
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Doug Buckley
Hi Craig, 1st Peter 5 is a good verse because it illustrates how we should (or perhaps shouldn't) be our brother's keeper:

"Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-3 KJV bible).

Peter tells the elders to take oversight of the flock, but not by "constraint", and not being "Lords" over God's heritage. He says to set the example. So we see a kind of gentleness here that is different from a master or overlord or custodian. A lot of times a shepherd will feed and protect sheep without them even knowing it, because they trust him.
So people are free to follow their own path, and Paul even tells us to shun and separate ourselves from those who walk disorderly (2nd Thess 3.6).
4th June 2012 4:52am
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C.S.
Every mother, father, and guardian is a keeper. Society is a keeper of law and order. Married couples are keepers, government officials are keepers, there is no such thing as every man for himself.
13th October 2013 9:04pm
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Betty Arsenijevic
It is mainly in capitalistic societies that individuals are not their brother's keepers.
19th March 2015 12:47pm
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