November 2018

Genesis 4:1-16 contrasts two brothers: Cain and Abel. Clearly, the biblical author wants us to recognize that these two brothers are vastly different from each other. Nonetheless, they are still brothers—a point underscored numerous times (vv.1, 8, 9, 10,11).    
                            Abel:                                                   Cain:  
Name means: “breath, or vapor”

Name means: “acquire, or buy”

A keeper of sheep (v.4)

A tiller of fruit of the ground (v.3)

An offering of firstlings of his flock, their fat portions (v.4)

An offering of the fruit of the ground (v.3)

The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering (v.4)

The LORD had no regard for Cain and his offering (v.5)

Abel is killed by his brother (v.8)

Cain killed his brother (v.8)

      Many interpretations of Genesis 4:1-6 tend to speculate on one brother’s offering over and against the other’s sacrifice. However, with the brevity of the description of the two sacrifices and the general lack of information, each of the brothers’ disposition and intention behind their respective offerings amounts to an “incidental report of the first sacrifice.”[1]  
                 Instead of wandering through such a speculative rabbit trail I find myself drawn to Cain’s famous response to the LORD, “Am I my brother’s keeper” (v.10)? The knee-jerk response often given from the pulpit and Sunday school teachers is usually a resounding “Yes!”. I suspect there is an old sermon manuscript on my computer’s hard drive with me proclaiming the same. However, in the Hebrew the correct answer to Cain’s question is “No, you are not your brother’s keeper.” W. Sibley Towner argues, “No is the usual response in the Hebrew Bible to a positively stated rhetorical question.”[2] 
The Hebrew the verb in question is shamar meaning “to keep.” A survey of shamar demonstrates what one is meant to keep, such as a garden (2:15), the covenant (17:10), the feasts of unleavened bread (Ex.12:17), sabbaths (Lev. 19:30), the charge of the sanctuary (Num. 3:38). The Old Testament offers a buffet of items that we are to shamar, but one’s sibling is not one of them.
When push comes to shove, humanity does not have a strong track record in its dealings with one another. Whole people groups have been colonized into slaves; others were sentenced to gas chambers, and within recent months immigrant children have been separated from their families’ cities at the southern border. There is a growing number within the United States and the world round who exist below the poverty-line as the rich grow exponentially richer in their cocoon of wealth. The good news, the silver lining hardly spoken is that we are not “to keep” each another instead, the psalmist providing a little perspective proclaims that it is the LORD “who keeps (shamar) Israel” (Ps. 121:4).
The LORD as a Divine Parent allows us space to cultivate and to attend to our fields and/or our flocks. The LORD “keeps us” as we learn, study, and apply the Scripture into our daily lives, negotiate the closest most trying of human relationships. Perhaps, it is designed that through our faithful obedience to the LORD’s commands that all other relationships find their proper balance and we discover, “Cain is not his brother’s keeper (shamari). Cain is his brother’s brother.”[3]
Nicholas Perry, Pastor
[1]  Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary. OTL. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 104.
[2] W. Sibley Towner, Genesis. WBC. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 61.  
[3] Towner, 61.