Brother Themes in Genesis
Posted by Robert C. on January 2, 2010
I’d like to continue our previous contemplations here and here regarding the phrase “brother’s keeper” (Gen 4:9). Having dabbled a bit in the Biblical studies literature on Genesis, esp. from a literary perspective, I’m quite convinced that Genesis was written or redacted in such a way that it should be read as a whole book with unifying (and contrasting) themes. What can we understand by thinking about this incident with Cain in light of other conflicts between brothers in the book of Genesis?
Consider, in particular, the development of the relationships between Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and Judah (and the rest of Joseph’s brothers). Initially there is conflict between these brothers, but later there is reconciliation (Jacob and Esau reconcile in Gen 32, and Joseph and Judah reconcile in Gen 44-45).
So, Cain’s raises a good question, and I don’t think there’s an obvious or straightforward answer regarding the extent to which we should be “keepers” of our brothers. In general, I don’t think we get easy answers in the scriptures. Scriptures are not written like math books with exercises and proofs, with answers to odd-numbered problems in the back. Rather, scriptures are comprised of narratives, poems, questions, discourses, etc. Scriptural insights come only to those who ponder them, and ruminate about the various themes and interactions, theological issues and tensions, cultural differences and shifts, etc.
In this spirit, it seems to me that the much of the book of Genesis presents us with an extended treatment of this question regarding our responsibilities to others. At first, Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s vulnerable state and cleverly gains the birthright from him. Jacob is not Esau’s “keeper”—rather, every brother for himself. Laban then treats Jacob in a similarly exploitative way, extracting 14 years of labor out of Jacob instead of the expected/intended 7 years, before releasing Rachel (Gen 29).
Later, however, after what might be read as a conversion experience (Gen 32), Jacob lavishes gifts on Esau as a conciliatory offering, which Esau graciously and forgivingly accepts.
Judah is at first complicit with his brothers in selling Joseph into Egypt. Judah also behaves according to an every-brother-for-himself attitude toward Tamar (Gen 38). However, Judah subsequently acts in a self-sacrificing way towards his brother Benjamin by offering himself in Benjamin’s place (Gen 44).
I would venture that each of us has at times succumb to the every-brother-for-himself attitude. However, the Gospel is about hope and reconciliation in the face of human weakness. Two of our brothers presented alternative plans embodying different ways of conceiving our responsibilities toward others in the pre-earth council. Each of us chose the plan of our eldest brother who offered himself as our keeper, to watch out for us, and to sacrifice himself for our sakes. My hope and prayer is that we will remember this plan, and His sacrifice, and our pre-earthly choice to follow His example, and that we will find many appropriate ways to magnify our calling as keepers of each other, to bear one another’s burdens, and to be concerned with the welfare of our extended human family.
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