The Real Meaning of 'My Brother's Keeper'

This is such an elementary point that I fear making it will seem silly. On the other hand, so many people seem so completely in the dark about it that it is worth stating the obvious. Claiming to be "my brother's keeper," as President Obama is so wont to spout, is an insult to the brother!

I suppose the confusion is perfectly understandable since most of us encounter the phrase in its English translation and not the original Hebrew, and numerous otherwise-well-meaning organizations have taken it as their motto. See here, here, and here for examples. After all, Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines "to keep" as "to watch over and defend esp. from danger, harm, or loss." But Webster's also defines "to keep" as "to restrain from departure" and "to retain or continue to have in one's possession or power." So which meaning does "brother's keeper" have in its original usage?

The phrase comes, of course, from Genesis, chapter 4 -- God's devastating interrogation of Cain after Cain killed Abel out of rank jealousy. God asks Cain innocently, "Where is your brother, Abel? [i]" Cain replies, "I don't know," and asks, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Now, some of us grew up aping that catchy margarine slogan, "it's not nice to fool Mother Nature," so we can immediately recognize that it is probably not a great idea to try to deceive the Creator of heaven and earth, especially just after you did something He warned you not to do. God, of course, is not amused and curses Cain, who ends up lamenting, "My punishment is more than I can bear."

But what was Cain actually saying when he uttered those words to God? The Hebrew word used here for "keeper" means more than "protector" or "defender"; it is more akin to "overseer" or "master," as in "keeping" sheep (1 Samuel 17:20, 22); royal wardrobes (2 Kings 22:14); the king's forest (Nehemiah 2:3, 3:29); gates (1 Chronicles 9:19); vineyards (Song of Solomon 1:6); and the temple threshold (Jeremiah 52:24) [ii]. Although these jobs are foreign to most of us, we can get the sense of them by thinking "zookeeper" or "doorkeeper."

Now, if you think that treating your brother like a dumb animal, a clothes collection, a tree, a gate, a vine, or a doorway is charitable, then consider the context -- Cain was wise-assing God! Cain wasn't responsibly pondering, "Am I my brother's noble defender?" He was saying, "How the hell do I know where he is? It's not in my job description to keep track of him!" It was meant to shame God into replying, "On no, of course you aren't. I'm so sorry I asked." Simply put, Cain's rhetorical sneer is not the query of a loving, responsible brother, but the bald bluster of a brutal murderer.

Look, the pages of American Thinker are hardly the place to get into a theological debate about the meaning of obscure biblical phrases, but you need to know that when a die-hard leftist appropriates a wise-ass remark made by the archetypal murderer, he is really showing you more about himself than he would like. He's really saying, "It's my job (because I take it upon myself) to keep these people in line because they are unthinking, inanimate, and helpless objects which are frankly more like property than equals." If that is what Obama really thinks of the American people, then we can only hope we escape his brotherly affections.


[i] All bible quotes are taken from the New International Version, copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, the International Bible Society.

[ii] W. O. Klopfenstein, Keeper, Keepers, III Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 781 (Merrill C. Tenney et al. eds., 1976).
This is such an elementary point that I fear making it will seem silly. On the other hand, so many people seem so completely in the dark about it that it is worth stating the obvious. Claiming to be "my brother's keeper," as President Obama is so wont to spout, is an insult to the brother!

I suppose the confusion is perfectly understandable since most of us encounter the phrase in its English translation and not the original Hebrew, and numerous otherwise-well-meaning organizations have taken it as their motto. See here, here, and here for examples. After all, Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines "to keep" as "to watch over and defend esp. from danger, harm, or loss." But Webster's also defines "to keep" as "to restrain from departure" and "to retain or continue to have in one's possession or power." So which meaning does "brother's keeper" have in its original usage?

The phrase comes, of course, from Genesis, chapter 4 -- God's devastating interrogation of Cain after Cain killed Abel out of rank jealousy. God asks Cain innocently, "Where is your brother, Abel? [i]" Cain replies, "I don't know," and asks, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Now, some of us grew up aping that catchy margarine slogan, "it's not nice to fool Mother Nature," so we can immediately recognize that it is probably not a great idea to try to deceive the Creator of heaven and earth, especially just after you did something He warned you not to do. God, of course, is not amused and curses Cain, who ends up lamenting, "My punishment is more than I can bear."

But what was Cain actually saying when he uttered those words to God? The Hebrew word used here for "keeper" means more than "protector" or "defender"; it is more akin to "overseer" or "master," as in "keeping" sheep (1 Samuel 17:20, 22); royal wardrobes (2 Kings 22:14); the king's forest (Nehemiah 2:3, 3:29); gates (1 Chronicles 9:19); vineyards (Song of Solomon 1:6); and the temple threshold (Jeremiah 52:24) [ii]. Although these jobs are foreign to most of us, we can get the sense of them by thinking "zookeeper" or "doorkeeper."

Now, if you think that treating your brother like a dumb animal, a clothes collection, a tree, a gate, a vine, or a doorway is charitable, then consider the context -- Cain was wise-assing God! Cain wasn't responsibly pondering, "Am I my brother's noble defender?" He was saying, "How the hell do I know where he is? It's not in my job description to keep track of him!" It was meant to shame God into replying, "On no, of course you aren't. I'm so sorry I asked." Simply put, Cain's rhetorical sneer is not the query of a loving, responsible brother, but the bald bluster of a brutal murderer.

Look, the pages of American Thinker are hardly the place to get into a theological debate about the meaning of obscure biblical phrases, but you need to know that when a die-hard leftist appropriates a wise-ass remark made by the archetypal murderer, he is really showing you more about himself than he would like. He's really saying, "It's my job (because I take it upon myself) to keep these people in line because they are unthinking, inanimate, and helpless objects which are frankly more like property than equals." If that is what Obama really thinks of the American people, then we can only hope we escape his brotherly affections.


[i] All bible quotes are taken from the New International Version, copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, the International Bible Society.

[ii] W. O. Klopfenstein, Keeper, Keepers, III Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 781 (Merrill C. Tenney et al. eds., 1976).

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