Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

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.

21 Responses to “Brother Themes in Genesis”

  1. KirkC said

    One thought just popped into my head as a read this. It might seem simple, but I have not thought about it before, but maybe some of you have. The real tragedy of the Cain and Abel story is the lack of forgiveness and reconciliation between the brothers.

    Do we have to look after our “brother?” In light Brian’s comments on the “Accountability” thread, it seems we do. Why? Because if we do not look after our family we could lose them forever. As soon as Cain stopped caring about his brother is when he lost him. However, unlike the others brother narratives Robert cites, Cain and Abel never reconcile. Thus, because Cain did not act as a shepherd to his brother, in a very real sense, he lost him (mostly likely eternally).

    So, I am thinking Cain’s punishment was not for his bad attitude, or even for his lying, but for his lack of forgiveness and love he showed towards his brother. All the other “bad” brothers in Genesis eventually come around, and God accepts them in one way or another.

    Maybe if we show more love and forgiveness for those who have offended us in our families, the more then God will forgive us of our trespass. In other words, as we reconcile with each other, we become reconciled with God.

    Reconciliation is then essential to the Gospel plan of Happiness.

    Just a few opening thoughts after reading this. Thanks for your work here Robert.

  2. J. Madson said


    We also have the example of Lehi and his brothers in the Book of Mormon. Their failure at reconciliation or at-one-ment led to murder in the same way that Cain and Abel’s failure did. One could argue that the ensuing wars and conflicts over generations are all tied back to this initial failure which lead to a mimetic rivalry between the two brothers, cascading down generation upon generation, complete with scapegoating traditions.

    I have always felt that there are great lessons to be learned from the various brothers in the scriptures who stand in for us in all of our actual and potential conflicts. There is much to learn from those who were their brother’s keepers and a very dire warning from those who failed to reconcile their differences.

  3. KirkC said

    Nice BOM connection J.

    I think we all have a person(s) in our families (or that is close to us) that we fear we are not yet reconciled with. This is one reason this subject is meaningful for us on so many levels.

  4. Dennis said


    The last time I read the Book of Genesis, these and other brother themes stood out more powerfully than anything else.

    I think there are lots and lots of insights to gain from the Esau and Jacob story. One possible interpretation I’ve had is that Jacob is forced to revisit his antipathy towards Esau through his marriage to Leah. Had Esau not sold his birthright, it is very plausible that Laban would have been thrilled to give Leah to Esau (the eldest to the eldest) and Rachel to Jacob (the youngest to the youngest). By being tricked to marry Leah (interestingly, by the brother of Rebekah, who tricked Isaac to bless Jacob over Esau), the feud of the brothers lives on via Leah and Rachel, as well as through their children.

  5. Robert C. said

    There is a phenomenal post at the Visions of the Kingdom blog connecting this story of Cain and Abel (and Seth) with the scapegoat ritual and the symbolism of Christ, and more:

    “The Lone and Dreary World: Cain and Abel, and the Outer Court of the Temple”

  6. Robert C. said

    J Madson #2, yes, thinking about how this theme of mimetic rivalry perpetuates across generations is, I think, crucial for understanding the Book of Mormon.

    Also, if you look at the post I just linked to in #5 in a Girardian light, there’s an interesting Girardian theme to be thought through more here.

    To elaborate the banishment-redeemed pattern a bit more in Genesis:

    * Abel is slain,
    . . . but Seth ascends

    * Noah is banished (by the flood),
    . . . but is saved by the ark (like an Isaianic remnant?)

    * Isaac is (almost) slain,
    . . . but is spared and fathers Jacob/Israel, the 12 tribes, etc., etc.

    * Jacob flees Esau’s wrath to Padan-aram (Gen 28:2),
    . . . but comes back to Canaan with great propserity

    * Joseph is banished to Egypt,
    . . . but is favored by Potiphar and Pharoah, and saves the rest of his family

    Now, in the Book of Mormon, we have, just to name a few prominent examples from each of the major BOM books:

    * Lehi‘s family flees Jerusalem,
    . . . but prosper in the New World

    * Nephi is repeatedly mocked by his brothers,
    . . . but ends up ruling over them

    * Alma is banished from King Noah’s court,
    . . . but escapes to the wilderness, and then arrives in Zarahemla and is made high priest

    * The Anti-Nephi-Lehites are slain,
    . . . but the sons of Helaman arise and are protected and victorious

    * Nephi and Lehi are imprisoned
    . . . but are miraculously spared (Helaman 5)

    * On the eve before the Christians are slayed,
    . . . the star appears as Samuel predicted and the Christians are saved

    * Mormon’s brethren are wicked, and eventually die out,
    . . . but through Moroni and the BOM, the book will come forth in the latter days and be received by the righteous remnant of Lamanites

    * The Jaredites were destroyed
    . . . but Coriantumr and their record was found by Limhi (Ether 15:33)

  7. Robert C. said

    Dennis #4, yes great point about Leah being an effective stand-in for Esau (continuing the mimetic rivalry?). A very slight quibble: without “stealing” Esau’s birthright, Jacob never would have fled to Laban’s place in the first place (Gen 27:45). A more careful and detailed reading/analysis would also bring in redactive issues and what not, but I don’t think such issues should become a damper on the Spirit’s ability to inspire our imaginations, make interesting comparisons and contrasts, etc., etc.

  8. KirkC said

    #5, Robert, thanks for the link. Great stuff!

  9. joespencer said

    Incidentally, Rene Girard discusses the Cain-and-Abel story in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

    I have lots of thoughts on much of what’s being talked about here, but I’ll just introduce one other topic for now: Genesis closes in particular on the tangle of Joseph and Judah, but it should not be missed that this story was likely given its final shape during an era of intense rivalry between the Northern Kingdom (Joseph) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Importantly, the role of Joseph became immensely important for the Lehites, who traced their lineage to Joseph and who spent much of their earliest years pondering on the relationship between the record they would write [and] the record Judah would produce. All these questions of brotherly rivalry in Genesis is quite relevant to the project of the last days as projected by the Book of Mormon.

    • J. Madson said


      Yes, Girard discusses it there as well as his book “Things hidden form the foundation.”

      Without going into too much detail, I highly recommend “The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence” by James G. Williams. He takes many of the ideas of Girard and discusses some of the meta themes of the OT. His chapter entitled “enemy brothers” is highly relevant to this discussion and is the inspiration for my own chapter in a forthcoming book that discusses parallels with the BoM and the lessons the OT and BoM invite us to learn about rivalry, mimesis, and atonement.

      I find the Jacob and Esau story one of the more touching and emotional stories for myself personally. Jacob and Esau’s progression until their eventual at-one-ment is beautiful. I am particularly struck by the way in which Jacob’s own wrestling or as Nibley liked to translate it, ritual embrace, with the Lord is told in junction with him putting aside his mimetic rivalry and embracing his brother in the same way the Lord embraced him, in arms of everlasting love. It is also significant, as James Williams points out, that the Hebrew word used by Jacob when he reconciles with Esau is the same word for the blessing he previously stole. Jacob offers it back. Likewise, Esau returns the same love and affection for his brother. They weep together, there is enough blessing for the both of them. It seems that part of entering God’s kingdom is the realization that there is plenty for all. We do not need to engage in petty rivalries that escalate into chaos, murder, etc. We can’t help but weep when Jacob’s sons fail to learn the lessons Jacob and Esau learned. The text tells us Jacob is sorely displeased with them. For all the greatness we see in Esau and Jacob here, it is the great grand children who fail to learn the lessons of hospitality and atonement that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob learned and slaughter the descendants of Esau upon entering the promise land.

  10. Robert C. said

    Joe and J Madson, great stuff—I look forward to hearing more of your insights as we work through these passages this year in Sunday school.

  11. KirkC said

    I have never read Rene Girard, and it seems everyone here loves him! What is a good book to start with?

  12. joespencer said

    Without question, The Scapegoat. If you’re interested in working carefully through his larger theory, you should go to Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World.

  13. KirkC said


  14. J. Madson said

    Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World is my favorite and I also like I See Satan Fall Like Lightning alot. I am only part way through the scapegoat.

  15. The man puts it on the line no matter what weight

  16. KirkC said

    The Early Jewish writer Philo worked a lot on the Old Testament, and the Book of Genesis particularly. In his studies he would look for a common thread that ran throughout the book, in Genesis he found “conflict.” He even talked about much of the brotherly conflict that Robert brings up in his OP.

    Philo believed that all scripture (including Genesis) contained allegory and symbolism. This allowed the Jews to take difficult situations, and turn them into simple truths. These truths could then be incorporate into their spiritual lives.

    I do not necessarily agree with many things that Philo wrote, but I think his thoughts here have some bearing on this discussion.

  17. […] Brother Themes in Genesis – Hmm . . . you certainly won’t find this in Genesis: Two of our brothers presented alternative plans embodying different ways of conceiving our responsibilities toward others in the pre-earth council. […]

  18. […] Brother Themes in Genesis […]

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