It’s one of the most infamous comebacks of all time, and it appears right in the start of God’s Holy Bible.
Cain, son of Adam and Eve, has just killed his brother, Abel, after his brother made a better sacrifice offering to the Lord.
As Scripture tells us, “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?”” (Genesis 4:9).
Why does Cain ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Is he serious, or is his response as callous and sarcastic as it appears?
There are a few theories as to why Cain said what he said, but neither are good. One is that he was attempting to hide his evil behavior from God, and the other is that he knew God saw what he’d done, and his response was a deliberate challenge to the Lord.
What Does “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” Mean?
In this verse, God was asking a rhetorical question in an attempt to remind Cain of his responsibility. Although the world’s population was small at this time—Cain and Abel are the first children of Adam and Eve, the first people made by God—God had already established His sovereignty and His ability to know all and do all. He’s already created the world, the universe, and everything in it, and He’d also banished Cain’s parents from the Garden of Eden for their disobedience.
God asking Cain about the whereabouts of his brother was, in essence, calling Cain into account: Where is he? What did you do? And why?
Cain’s feigned ignorance in his “I don’t know” was a direct lie, but then his challenge to God took the matter one step further. By asking “am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain exhibited indifference to the role of compassionate and caring shepherd God has already given to humanity.
After all, in Genesis 1:28, God gave Cain’s parents their directive to be fruitful and rule over the earth (Genesis 1:28), and He put them in the Garden of Eden initially “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Naturally, Cain would have known about God’s instructions that people are to care for all living things. Yet he’d just killed his brother in a jealous rage. By questioning God’s directive, he was declaring an uncaring indifference to God’s command. He was asking, “Why should I?”
In this context, a “keeper” is a caregiver, a tender, one who looks out for and cares for another. We know by reading Scripture that God wants us to care for and “keep” each other; numerous verses indicate this.
What Is the Context of Genesis 4?
Genesis is thought to have been written by Moses for the Israelites and covers creation to approximately 1,800 BC, essentially explaining how the world began and everything of major importance that happened from the start of time until Joseph’s death in Egypt – a bit before Moses led the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land.
In Genesis 1 and 2, we’re told how God created earth and the first people. In Genesis 3, we’re told how the serpent tempted Eve into eating from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how she gave some of the fruit to Adam to eat as well, and how God subsequently cursed them and banished them from the Garden of Eden forever.
Now, in Genesis 4, we are told that these same two people, Adam and Eve, gave birth first to Cain and, later, his brother Abel (v. 1-2).
Abel is a shepherd and Cain is a farmer, and when it comes time for the family to make their offering to God, Cain gave an apparently mediocre gift—"some of the fruits of the soil” (v. 3)—while Abel gave an apparently exceptional gift, “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” (v. 4). God was pleased with Abel’s gift but not Cain’s, and Cain was upset.
God then counsels Cain, asking him why he is angry. “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 rule over it” (v. 7).
Then Cain invites his brother to go out to the field with him, and there he attacks and kills Abel (v. 8).
Immediately after this, God asks Cain where Abel is, and Cain responds disingenuously.
But God knows the truth, telling Cain that Abel’s blood “cries out” to Him from the ground (v. 10). As He did with Cain’s parents, God banishes Cain from the land. He also curses his ability to work the ground and declares that from now on Cain will be a “restless wanderer on the earth” (v. 12), though He puts a protective mark on Cain so no one will kill him. Cain then moves away to the land of Nod.
Why Does Cain Challenge God?
It is possible Cain was hoping God didn’t know about his evil deed and was feigning ignorance when he claimed not to know where Abel was and asked whether he was his brother’s “keeper.” The word “keeper” in Hebrew comes from the word shamar, which means to keep, watch, or preserve, like a bodyguard or protector. It’s the same meaning used in Genesis 2:15 when humanity is tasked to “keep” and care for the land, and in Genesis 3:24, when God drove Adam and Eve from the garden, he placed cherubim at the entrance to “keep” and protect the garden from their reentry.
But it appears Cain does indeed know he is supposed to be his brother’s keeper, even if it is a role he doesn’t desire. God was reminding Cain of his duties to his fellow humans, while Cain in turn was telling God he didn’t wish to accept those duties.
Did God Expect Cain to Be Responsible for His Brother?
God did expect Cain to be responsible for his brother, as God also expects us all to be responsible for each other. At creation, God commanded us to care for the earth and all upon it. And over the years He consistently repeated this command: love others. Care for others. Provide for others. Be responsible for others.
It’s the same thing He said to the religious expert thousands of years later when asked “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). We are responsible for all in our community, all in our midst, whether we want to be or not.
It’s the same thing Jesus said in His parable of the sheep and goats: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
And, in turn, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v. 45).
Am I My Brother's Keeper, even Today?
It’s as true today as it was at creation, as true for us as it was for Cain.
Sometimes, we want nothing more in life than to look out for ourselves and our own interests—our family, our survival, our personal gain. We grow angry or greedy when we realize we are supposed to give our all, and that giving our all to God means sharing what we “have” with others and tending to their needs.
But all we have is a gift from God. Abel knew this, which is why God appreciated his offering. Cain did not.
We can learn much from his story.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Gajus
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.