Friday, August 28, 2009

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Genesis 4:2-9 (NIV)

2...Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.6 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."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?"

While reading In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis by Karen Armstrong, I came across an interesting view on the story of Cain and Abel. Those unfamiliar with the story can click here. After Cain murders his brother, God questions Cain about the whereabouts of his brother, Abel. Instead of answering, Cain evasively dodges the question with another question and a pinch of sarcasm, "What, am I responsible for my brother now?"

[The Death of Abel by Gustave Doré]

1000 times YES!

At first it sounds as if Cain is trying to ditch his responsibility for his brother. But after rereading the text I believe the writers of Genesis were trying to tell us something about the relationship between the Divine and mankind. God did not give any reason for showing favoritism towards Abel's offering while disregarding Cain's. And when Cain became angry God asked him to cool it as if he were teaching him a lesson.

God: "Sometimes I'm gonna pick on you (mankind) and you're gonna have to learn how to master your emotions. I may send storms to destroy your homes and famine to kill everything and everyone you love, but you must seek control over yourself."

God takes the role of the teacher even though he shares in the responsibility of causing Cain to become angry. Yet Cain cries out against this injustice in an interesting Jewish Midrash (click on the link and scroll down to the section on Multiple Interpretations). In it, Cain blames God for not protecting Abel and for creating mankind with this evil inclination. God also blames himself for creating man with this evil inclination before the events of the flood (Genesis 6:5-6) and regrets for being too hard on humanity for His mistake, regrettably, only after the mass genocide and destruction of the flood (Genesis 8:20-21). To Traditional Christians, this evil inclination originated with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve and not from God. Armstrong interprets the text as stating that mankind was created with an instinct for life and creativity. The 6th day when God proclaimed that his work was very good was the same day that he created this evil inclination in humanity.

And behold it was very good. This is the evil impulse. Is the evil impulse good? Yet were it not for the evil impulse no man would build a home, nor marry a wife, nor beget children, nor engage in trade. Solomon said, "All labor and all excelling in work is a man's rivalry with his neighbor." (Genesis Rabbah Ecclesiastes 4:4)

So when Cain responded with his seemingly sarcastic response he was defending himself, and humanity, for only being human. Yet, this does not let Cain off the hook. I don't know Hebrew, but I have Google. Cain's response in Hebrew:

Lo yadati , I do not know.

Ha-shomer achi anochi? Am I my brother’s keeper?

Shomer in Hebrew translates as guard, keeper, or watchman.

Even though Cain blames God for causing him to become angry and for creating him, and the rest of humanity, with this evil inclination Cain is also to blame for not guarding his brother from himself, a fallible man. Cain represents humanity as it struggles to guard itself from itself AND from God. God may have created us with an evil ticker, making God an accomplice to evil, but in the end the choice to commit or not to commit evil falls squarely on us. We are to watch and guard each other from every evil regardless of the origin, espescially when it originates from within ourselves. We can blame God and Satan all we want but if we allow our inner demons (hatred, prejudice, greed, etc.) to cause harm to our fellow man then we deserve mass genocide by the hands of God. But we can be better than that for we are born with the ability to love and hate. Which will you choose? Hatred has no boundaries so why should we limit our love? We should love the rich and the poor, the clothed and the unclothed, the friend and the stranger, the hetero and homosexual, the saint and the sinner. If we pick and choose whom to guard, whom to love, then we have failed, and deserve to be wiped off the face of the planet. I am no saint either. I pick and choose just like everyone else, but I strive and struggle to move beyond my inner boundaries, introduced to me in my childhood, to a natural state of love. So when I read Cain's question "Am I my brother's keeper?" I see it as a cry of injustice to all of life's woes. How do we help one another when we're all caught in the same struggle? Well, simply by understanding that we are ALL caught in the same struggle, so let us choose to struggle together.

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