11 October 2010

To Keep My Brother

Hugh Hewitt was recently concerned with the President’s description, speaking in New Mexico (28 September), of why he was a Christian and what it meant to be a Christian. Question and answer are split between the two following videos, beginning at about 6:20 into the first posted video.


Obama refers to a passage in Genesis and tacitly asserts that it conveys the notion that we are our brother’s keepers. Color me skeptical.

And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" And [Cain] said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" [God] said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to Me from the ground" (Genesis 4.8-10).

The question asked by Cain seems to be a request for information. Cain, we are to believe, is honestly asking God if he is Abel’s keeper. But note what Cain says just previously: “I do not know [where my brother is].” Cain’s question is rhetorical, claiming that it is not his job to know Abel’s whereabouts. Remember, the question Cain is answering is about Abel’s whereabouts, not his welfare. Today we might say, “It’s not my day to keep up with him.”

Obama seems to be under the impression that when Cain uses the word translated “keeper” he means the same thing as is meant when in verse 2 it is said of Abel that he was a “keeper of flocks”, a shepherd. We are, if Obama is correct, our brothers’ shepherds. But the two words are not the same. Abel was a “keeper [רעה] of flocks”. Cain denies being his brothers “keeper” (הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר). It doesn’t take a Hebrew scholar to see that the two words are different. הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר is used in reference to sheep only one other time, in 1 Samuel 17.20, where David is recorded as leaving a flock of sheep with a keeper. But this is telling: in the same passage (verse 22) it is recorded that David left his baggage in the care of a “baggage keeper”. This second notion, of someone who “keeps” in the sense, not of shepherding, but of guarding, is the one most associated with the word employed by Cain in Genesis 4.9. The word is used similarly elsewhere in references to officers called “keeper of the wardrobe” (2 Kings 22.14), “keeper of the king’s forest” (Nehemiah 2.8), “keeper of the women” (Esther 2.3). Frankly, I don’t feel like I need a keeper, thank you very much.

It is interesting to see and compare the Septuagint with the New Testament. In the LXX, the word Cain uses is translated into Greek as φύλαξ, while the word employed with reference to Abel is ποιμν, the same word used in the New Testament to refer to pastors. How is φύλαξ used? In the Louw-Nida schema, it belongs to the category of words associated with rule, or control (i.e., 37) and appears three times: Acts 5.23, Acts 12.6, and Acts 12.19. Each time it is used, it refers to guards in prisons. Get the picture? Cain is really asking, “Am I to be holding my brother captive, so as to know at all times where he is?” Or, perhaps a better fit with the context: "Am I my brother's master?"

But Obama is not a Bible scholar, certainly no Greek or Hebrew scholar. So let’s stipulate that, all of this aside, he really means “keeper” the way that the word is used of Abel. He wants to be his brother’s shepherd. But recall that his claim is that the Scriptures, or specifically Jesus, teach that we are our brothers’ keepers. The fact is, the Scriptures don't teach this. Secondly, let us note that Obama wants to use this as an excuse for his statist policies. Even if I am my brother’s keeper, it does not follow that support for statism is an appropriate means of exercising my duty.

I might not mind so much the idea that I am my brother’s keeper in the same sense in which Abel was a keeper of flocks, if not for the fact that the state bears the sword. I might wish to be my brother's keeper by assisting him with paying his medical bills, but the sword-bearing state makes me do it, whether I want or not, and in a way I might not want. The sword-bearing state makes me be my brother's keeper, but in a way suitable to it, not me. I might not mind, as my brother's keeper, assisting him with his college education by giving money to insititutions I deem worthy of my personal financial support. The sword-bearing state makes me do so anyway, whether I want to or not, taking my money from me and giving to institutions and students which I may deem unworthy. If I am an atheist and find objectionable the biblical notion that people other than my biological siblings are my siblings and that I am their keeper, then the sword-bearing state "establishes" religion by forcing me to, for all practical purposes, pay tithes.

The fact is the state is not the proper means by which I exercise my brother-keeping, assuming we actually have this duty--which we don't. If, as President Obama seems to believe, we must be our brothers’ keepers, then we must be so because the Scriptures teach it. And that’s the problem for the idea that the operations of the state are the appropriate means for exercising this duty.

If we look at the key NT text regarding the state’s obligation, what we find, to put the matter in simplest terms is that the state bears the sword—not the bread basket—for purposes of serving as God’s “avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Romans 13.4). I suppose it wouldn’t bother me so much that statists believe they are acting as their brother’s keeper but for the fact that the state bears the sword, not, let us note, the shepherd’s staff.

Every time Obama and his ilk talk about being our brothers’ keepers I get this image in my head of a book titled, To Serve Man. I mean, it sounds good and all, but it’s really not. It sounds really sweet of people to want to be their brothers' keeper. But it doesn't look like they are going to put up with people who don't want to be kept.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 22 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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