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Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

posted Sep 30, 2018, 10:22 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Oct 30, 2018, 5:21 AM ]

Genesis 4:1-16

Fratricide is an ugly word… an ugly concept… an ugly reality.  

Fratricide, of course, is sibling murder.  We might prefer to imagine that no family could be so screwed up as to become the seedbed for murder.  We might prefer to imagine something so distasteful as murder would only happen among those who are strangers.

But after the seemingly innocuous sin of eating the forbidden fruit, the next sin described in the opening chapters of the Bible is brother killing brother – fratricide.  

The story starts with nary a hint of what is to come.  It starts with an act of love – Adam and Eve have sexual relations, the result of which is a child – the first child – Cain.  And soon after that (it seems) there is another child born – Abel.  Two brothers.  Perhaps they and their father might go into business together – Adam and Sons, Inc?  

It would have been nice, but we know the story doesn’t unfold that way.  Instead we are told that Cain and Abel choose different professions.  Cain tills the ground – a truck farmer, perhaps (minus the truck, obviously!) and Abel is a rancher – a herder of sheep.  

It seems that our ancient ancestors have been religious from day one and so, we are told, the day came when both Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to the Lord – to YAHWEH.  And immediately, trouble is afoot, for, we are told, God has regard for Abel and his sacrifice, but not for Cain and his sacrifice.

In the church of my upbringing, we were confident that we had this sorted out:  God wanted a bloody sacrifice… not one of fruits and veggies.  But the text does not say that, and I think we err if we draw that conclusion.  The text is certainly open to many questions, but assuredly the text does not lay first emphasis on the sacrifices.  The text lays first emphasis on those bringing the sacrifices.  It is ABEL (and his sacrifice) whom God approves.  It is CAIN (and his sacrifice) whom God does not approve.  Did Abel bring his sacrifice with joy and with generous abandon and with gratefulness to God?  We aren’t told, but it’s possible.  Did Cain bring his sacrifice with resentment and a begrudging spirit and did he make his sacrifice as small as he thought he could get away with?  Again, we’re not told.  But there’s something about Abel and his spirit of which God approves and something of Cain and his spirit of which God does not approve.  

And Cain, we are told, was angry – very angry.  And it seems that a conversation ensued between God and Cain and nowhere in that conversation does God advise Cain to swap some of his fruit for one of Abel’s lambs so that he might offer a “better” sacrifice.  No, God merely advises Cain to “do well.”  And if he “does well” God assures him he will be accepted.  This is certainly not about the makeup of the sacrifice.

But what comes next is stunning.  And it is, I am sorry to report, remarkably and tragically human.  Cain invites Abel into the field – apparently one of Cain’s vegetable fields, and while out there – away from any witness, I suppose – Cain rises up and kills his brother.  

It seems that there is an ancient and very human delusion which imagines that if the supposed source of our discomfort can be eliminated – all will be right.   Cain kills Abel and imagines things will now be okay.

Think about this for a moment:  In killing Abel what is revealed about Cain’s thinking?  At least this:  That the source of Cain’s trouble with God was NOT Cain’s own stinginess and resentment, but his brother’s generosity.  

There follows another interaction between Cain and God, but before we go there, I think we must stay for a moment in the depressing reality of Cain’s thinking.  Cain’s thinking boils down to something to which we are nearly all subject – the idea that my own unhappiness is due to someone else – someone else who is somehow different than me.  Imagine all the human suffering and violence and war that has been kindled by the inability to accept that we are not all alike.  Whether the difference is skin color or relative wealth, or gender identity, or national origin, or political affiliation, or whatever else (and unfortunately, the list of differences that gnaw at the human heart is LONG) – much of human alienation arises from the unwillingness to accept difference.  

Three days ago much of the nation was transfixed by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing in which on the one hand an allegation of serious misconduct was leveled and on the other hand a protestation of innocence was uttered.  And this nation is today torn between the two.  

I do not possess sufficient insight to know which to believe (though, like nearly everyone else, I have my opinion) – but I know the issue matters.  I know that for far, far too long (most of human history, to be blunt) women have been devalued and treated as property by men.  It is, I suppose, not surprising that those males who imagine that women exist principally for the enjoyment of men would be angry and resentful that women are beginning to claim their own legitimate place as equals to men in every respect.  Which is a variation of what was going on with Cain.  Cain found it impossible to accept that he was not entitled to God’s approval – that there was a difference between him and the spirit of his sacrifice and that of Abel and the spirit of his sacrifice that disqualified him from God’s approval.  Cain could have chosen to learn from God’s critique, but instead he imagined that the problem was Abel and Abel’s different sacrifice, so he killed him.  Ever since that day humans have been tempted to imagine that if only everyone were exactly like me, all would be well.  

But when God created humankind, he created us alike in some ways – we all have 26 pairs of chromosomes, after all – but in other ways we are very different from each other and so far as I can tell, God delights in those many differences and we would do well to learn to do the same.   In a nutshell, instead of being angry and threatened by the ways in which we are different from each other, God seems to invite us to be curious about and enriched by our differences.

After the murder, God again has conversation with Cain.  Cain makes to evade his guilt – Am I my brother’s keeper? – he protests when God inquires as to the whereabouts of Abel.  

Cain’s question is, in fact, profoundly important.  It is a question with which each of us must grapple.  Are we the keepers of our sisters and brothers?  

Maybe the phrasing of the question is prejudicial.  Maybe we are not each other’s “keepers” – but perhaps in asking the question that way Cain was revealing something else amiss in his heart.  No, Cain was probably not Abel’s “keeper,” but he was his brother.  He was related to Abel in a way that should have implied respect and care and even love.  Instead Cain despised his brother and ended his life.  Are we the keepers of our sisters and brothers – even those who look differently than do we?  Does skin color matter to God?  Does sexual orientation or identity matter to God?  Does God care more deeply for Americans than God does for Hondurans or Mexicans.  We all know that God loves all people precisely the same – that in fact, there is a special place in God’s heart for the poor and dispossessed.  Consequently, as followers of Jesus we are called to question certain orthodoxies of nationalism.  A politician may perhaps assert, “America First,” but can a Christian?  I think not.

No, we may not be the keepers of our sisters and brothers, but we are – in Christ – assuredly connected with all of God’s beloved children and God is almost certainly watching carefully to see whether we love our neighbors – those we know and those we will never meet – as intensely as we love ourselves.  

The story of Cain and Abel is tragic, and it is frighteningly contemporary.  

By God’s grace may we together have the courage to be followers of Jesus – people who love even when we disagree – people who show respect even when we do not understand – people who protect those who have little ability to protect themselves.  

Did we imagine that God’s call to the Christian life was a call to something easy?  I think not – we are called to something consummately hard.  By God’s grace let us accept this hard challenge and rely on God’s Spirit to live in ways that bring a smile to God’s face.


Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

30 September 2018

Genesis 4:1-16