Am I my brother’s keeper?

Genesis 4:6-14

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We all know the phrase.  And we all want to be able to answer yes.

Tony Blair first introduced “New Labour” to the party conference describing it as the kind of compassionate socialism that said “I am my brother’s keeper.”

In 2008, Barack Obama’s Christmas Day message was this:

“Now, more than ever, we must rededicate ourselves to the notion that we share a common destiny as Americans — that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.”

The phrase “Am I my brother’s keeper?” turns up everywhere.

And in many permutations.


Perhaps my favourite is the joke about a monkey in a zoo reading Darwin.  The lights go on and he asks: “Am I my keeper’s brother?”

“My brother’s keeper” is very well used.  And it’s found on the lips of community-minded, peace-lovers the world over.  But actually the phrase was coined by the world’s first murderer.

Cain, the firstborn, had just killed Abel his brother.

“And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.  And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?  (Genesis 4:8-9)

There was history between the two.  Both had been offering sacrifices to the LORD, but in their own way.  Cain brought fruit and grain.  Abel brought blood sacrifices.

Abel had learnt the lesson taught to his parents so powerfully.  The LORD had put aside Adam and Eve’s ridiculous fig leaves and clothed them in skin.  He had demonstrated to them the way of atonement.  We can’t cover ourselves, we must be covered by the sacrifice of another.  Humanity cannot buy God off with our paltry morality.  No, the Promised Saviour would have to come and die as a bloody sacrifice to atone for our sins.

Abel’s offerings modelled this.  Cain’s were just more of the old fig-leaves.

The LORD looked with favour on Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s.  And Cain’s jealousy turned to murder.

There were such high hopes for Cain.  He was the firstborn of Eve.  And Eve’s words upon his birth were full of expectation – she seemed to think she had begotten the LORD-man right away (Genesis 4:1).

But the firstborn of the human race according to the flesh was not Saviour but Slayer.  What a damning indictment on the race of Adam!  Out of fellowship with our LORD and thus out of relationship with each other.  The bonds have been broken, vertically and horizontally.  What could ever restore them?

Well Cain should have answered his own question positively.  Not because of some common destiny or an abstract shared humanity. Cain was his brother’s keeper because he was the eldest.  And the firstborn son is meant to watch over the family.

So, finally, when the One promised to Eve was born into the world, He came as Firstborn over all.  Christ’s reconciling work was not simply to unite us to His Father but to restore the family bond as well – “that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:29)

We will not answer Cain’s question through our own humanitarian efforts – important though they are.  The answer to Cain is the true Firstborn who shed His own blood to be our Keeper.  Praise God for a Brother who watches over us!

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