Beginnings in Genesis – the Shepherd's Shepherd

am I my brother’s keeper?

genesis 4:9

Cain failed to master the wild beast that was crouching at his side and it devoured him. The awfulness of the scene that unfolds is heightened by the repetition of the word brother.

Genesis 4:8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?””I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother‘s keeper?” 10 The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother‘s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother‘s blood from your hand.

It’s almost as if the writer of the story cannot believe what is happening here. How quickly have we gone from eating a forbidden fruit, to murdering a sibling.

The Lord gently interrogates him, not to gain information, for the Lord already knows what has happened. But he gives Cain a chance to acknowledge his responsibility for his brother. The sin has been committed and here we face some starling parallels with Adam’s experience.

‘Cain, where is your brother?’ (4:9) — ‘Adam where are you?’ (3:9). The individual question posed to Adam, becomes a social question when posed to Cain. But unlike Adam who responded truthfully, at least in part, Cain tells an outright lie. Again an indication that things continue to go downhill in the world.

Cain’s response to God is an insolent witticism. Abel’s occupation is of course a keeper of flocks. Cain responds, literally, ‘Am I a shepherd to the shepherd?’ The implication that Genesis wants to convey is ‘yes! – you are responsible for your brother.’

Here is a deadly lesson for me.

Cain’s first encounter with God was in worship. It was in the context of the sanctuary that he refused to listen to God’s correction and stubbornly refused to change, but grew jealous and angry towards his brother.

God is left behind then, and Cain is on his own, not just in the place of worship, but in his everyday environment. The field, remember, is his workplace. It is in his everyday environment that God calls him to responsibility for his brother. But when God is kept out of the picture it’s a dog eat dog world. And Abel’s blood seeps into the ground.

In the OT blood and life were believed to belong to God. To shed another’s blood was to take something which belongs to God. Abel’s blood belonged to God but Cain took it. Just as his father and mother reached out to acquire wisdom which was not theirs but which belonged to God. Cain took blood and in a sense it became his, and in a twisted sense he thus became ‘his brother’s keeper’. Now Abel’s blood cries out to be avenged.

There is a way of ‘keeping my brother’ which nourishes and cares and seeks his welfare. This way rejoices in his gifts and cherishes his contribution. But there is also a way of ‘keeping my brother’ which is for our own benefit. It is an expression of jealousy and envy, of taking from him what belongs ultimately to God.

This is the way of Cain. The way of slavery. If we’re not careful we can go the way of Cain in our relationships – people a sex objects; people a units of production. Nations do it also, for wealth, for security.

It is always a destructive way.

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