Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Keeping My Brother

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Total Black: $221.46
Total Red: $228,519.06

The other day a commenter posted a reply to one of my entries and asked how extensive your duty is to your brother.  That has to be one of the core questions of any society.  I don’t know that we’ve ever answered it.  But then again even neither did God.

The question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” comes from a translation of Chapter 4, Verse 9 of the Book of Genesis.  Different translations render the same word as “guardian” or even “babysitter”; regardless of word choice, the import of the question remains.  Cain had just killed his brother, Abel, thereby committing the first homicide.  Sometime later God asks Cain where Abel is.  Cain responds: How should I know?  Am I my brother’s keeper?  God doesn’t answer Cain’s question.  Instead He asks Cain what he has done, remarking that Abel’s blood cried out to Him.  God then punishes Cain, cursing him to a life of wandering.  Cain pleads with God that his sentence would effectively mean death, that others would kill him as he wandered.  So God puts a mark on Cain, a warning to others that they would suffer punishment sevenfold if they harmed Cain.  Cain then begets the rest of the human race.

The story of the first murder is fascinating on multiple levels.  Note that God, who is omniscient by definition, asks Cain where Abel is.  He already knows and reveals that moments later when He tells Cain that Abel’s blood cried out to Him.  So, is God just being coy?  Is he playing with Cain?  Presumably the first born child of Adam and Eve knows God and His capabilities.  So, maybe after a long day of toiling in the field (Cain was a gardener; Abel a shepard) and killing, Cain got a little short with God and his rhetorical questions.  Perhaps that explains why Cain answers God’s question with a question, saying “How should I know?  Am I my brother’s keeper?”

What better occasion, soon after creating human beings, than that to lay down the law and make Cain his brother’s keeper.  The first two human beings had already broken the first and only law when they ate from the tree of knowledge.  And now the third human being just killed the fourth.  Not a good start.  But God doesn’t answer Cain’s question.  Instead, He sentences him to exile for Abel’s murder.  But He also takes pity on Cain and protects him from subsequent murder.  I suppose an eye for an eye isn’t the always the proper punishment.

We mustn’t forget the context of Cain’s question.  God had inquired of Abel’s whereabouts.  Cain responded, saying, in effect, “What do I look like, his babysitter?  How should I know where he is?”  Cain didn’t ask that question in the context of neglect or disregard.  He asked it in reference to someone’s inquiry about another’s location.  And since it was a close-ended question, that means there’s only two possible answers: yes or no.  Somehow, though, this question has come to stand for a larger discussion about social responsibility.

I’m no biblical scholar, but I think it’s telling that God doesn’t answer Cain’s question.  In a way, it says that we should already know the answer.  But what is it?  Yes, we are.  Or, no we aren’t.  Straight-forward and yet complex.  In American politics today, Democrats would tell you that we are responsible to and for each other.  Republicans would say that each person is responsible for himself.  (God helps those who help themselves.)  It’s a very compelling question.  If we answer yes, then where does our responsibility end?  That’s what my commenter wondered.  Is it enough to give $20 a month to a charitable organization for the homeless?  And what does it mean to “keep”?  Dictionary.com defines “keeper” as  “a person who guards or watches” or “a person who assumes responsibility for another’s behavior.”  In that sense being your brother’s keeper conveys a minor duty.  We’re just supposed to watch out for him, make sure he stays on track.  Another entry though defines “keeper” as someone “charged with responsibility for the preservation and conservation of something valuable.”  Defined that way and we inherit a very significant duty indeed.

No easy answer, but definitely worth pondering.  For some reason, I think I ponder it too much.  Prior entries discussing my struggles with homelessness show that.

Written by Laid-off Lawyer

August 31, 2009 at 23:54

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