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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 not being his brother's keeper.

Cain was a selfish and wicked soul. The fact that he hated and murdered his brother tells us all we need to know about his character (see The Prophecy of Cain and Abel). 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 because he's not Abel's keeper.

It's often assumed that Cain is trying to justify his crime by saying that he isn't his brother's keeper. It's thought that Cain is saying murder is okay because he has no responsibility to other people. Cain's words are interpreted as evidence that he doesn't understand that murder is wrong.

However, when we look at the context of 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. He knows what he did is wrong, but he doesn't want to admit it.

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. Cain is asking why he's responsible for Abel if he had no involvement in his disappearance. Cain doesn't understand that God already knows what happened.

The Hebrew word for keeper is shaw-mar.

The Hebrew word that's translated "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 be translated "am I my brothers baby-sitter?". The obvious answer is that he isn't his brother's keeper.

Rather than making a grand philosophical statement about how man has no responsibility to his fellow man, Cain is 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.

“If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him" (Exodus 23.4 ESV bible). "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 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. The spiritual well-being of others is the greater concern we should have.

"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 believe. We aren't required to force our beliefs on other people. We should try to be a spiritual blessing to others in the hope that they find the right path.

Am I my brother's keeper in church?

Going back to the first churches there were different roles that members were appointed to. In particular there was a body of elders who guided the congregation. The elders had many responsibilities, such as preventing corruption.

Among the elders was often a bishop. The bishop had to make good decisions, "(for the overseer must be blameless as a steward of God), not self-pleasing, not prone to anger, not given to wine, not a quarreler, not greedy of ill gain; but hospitable, a lover of good, discreet, just, holy, temperate, clinging to the faithful Word according to the teaching..." (Titus 1.7-9 LITV bible).

The role of leadership is important in modern churches. Leaders are not "keepers" of the people, but they should oversee the congregation. Mature believers should guide and protect the flock. No congregation, whether its a monastery or a mega church, can serve God without spiritual leadership. (see Are we Part of the Body of Christ in Church?)

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