A Brother’s Keeper

The serpent told the woman she would not die if she ate the forbidden fruit. Oh sure, God may have said something like that, but it is not really what He meant. No, in fact, it is pretty much the opposite. If she ate, then she would become like God, knowing good and evil. God does not want this. He is trying to keep this from her. Suddenly the fruit which had been passed-by without issue all this time now became desirable. God’s command, His threat, receded into the background as the longing to eat the fruit came front and center. So, she ate. Not only her, but her husband as well, and life on earth changed drastically. Sin entered the picture and along with it the condemnation of God. They knew they were naked, exposed, with nowhere to hide. Their own silly garments of leaves did nothing to cover their shame when God arrives in the Garden.

But God was not overplaying His hand. He was not just giving empty threats. There is punishment for disobedience. There is a curse that changes the creation He loves. The curses fall upon the relationship between man and the ground from which he came. By the sweat of his brow, he will work for his food. In a moment, a life of ease and plenty slips away from man and he will know painful labor, a life of frustration and stress until he returns to the dust of the earth. The curse falls upon relationship between husband and wife and upon the bearing and raising of children. The curse speaks of lifelong enmity between the offspring of the deceiving serpent and the children of man. There will be temptation, sin, failure, and sorrow. But there is hope as well. For God promises one born of woman will crush the head of the serpent. There will be victory in the end, a life beyond the curse. And then, in a beautiful foreshadow of things to come, God mercifully cloths His people with garments of skin. Garments of skin means something had to die, blood had to be spilled, an innocent sacrificed to cover their shame.

Then Eve, the mother of all the living gives birth to Cain. She says, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” A man like the one which was promised to crush the head of the serpent. A man to overcome the curse. Here is hope. Here is the promise of life amid death. Then she is blessed with another son, Abel. Truly she must have rejoiced in the goodness of God, the One who sees fit to bless even though they were disobedient, even though they had sinned. Cain and Abel grew in wisdom and stature. Cain worked the ground while Able tended the flock. And these two brothers brought offerings to God, Cain from the fruit of the ground and Able the firstborn of the flock. We are told God has regard for Abel’s offering but not for Cain’s. Perhaps this has to do with the curse itself. Cain demonstrates his ability to have dominion over a cursed ground, to make something meaningful by the sweat of his brow. While Able mimics his God and sacrifices an animal, like the one that had covered his parents and hid their nakedness.

But whatever the reason, God has no regard for the work of Cain… and Cain is angry. How could God just ignore my sacrifice, all my hard work, all my toil and pain? Does He not care what I have done? Does He not see how much I sacrifice? Then God says to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Cain must have thought, “But I did do well, and You do not care.” And in his anger, he had no idea how close sin was crouching behind him. For in a sudden act of violence he turns his anger from his God to his brother, to that favored one, and he killed him.

Now, I want you to consider something with me for a moment, for I think quite often when we witness acts of senseless violence, where it is not a revenge plot or a self-defense situation or a wartime atrocity, at its root is this anger of Cain. When we hear the news of the next school shooing or the crazy person who walked into a church with the intent to harm people or the madman who drove his car into a crowd, we are rightly horrified and shocked by it. What scares us even more is how there is not some apparent reason, some logical evidence which would explain why the person did what they did. I have often wondered if perhaps deep down their anger, their rage, is actually with God. They may not call him God, they may speak of fate or destiny or simply the universe, but whatever it is, it has had no regard for them, no regard for what they have accomplished, what they have produced, and in their anger, they want revenge. But how do you get revenge on God? How do you get back at a universe that has consistently rejected you? Perhaps, in a sudden act of violence you turn your anger from your God to your brothers, to the favored ones.

There is a famous painting by the French artist Bouguereau (above) titled “The First Mourning.” It depicts Adam and Eve with their murdered son lying across them. Eve’s face is buried in Adams chest as he both stretches his arm over her in a vain attempt to protect while he clutches his own heart with the other hand, for in this moment the hope they had in their own children dies. Able is dead. Cain is a murderer. Who will crush the head of the serpent? So, God speaks to Cain and says, “Where is Abel your brother?” Out of his anger Cain responds with a line that has become quite famous, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Was it his duty to keep watch over his brother, to know where he is and what he is doing? It is his final attempt to stave off the judgment of God, to not have to face the atrocity he has committed. But God knows, of course He knows. He says, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” There is no hiding from this. Because of what he has done, the ground which was already cursed will be even more difficult for him to tend and so he will become a “fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

Here is where Cain breaks. He sees what he has done and knows the bleak outlook for his own future. He responds to God and says, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” He has just killed his brother, but it is a brother he needs. It is one who will not leave him alone, who will not abandon him to wilds of the earth that he requires. And here we see the mercy of our God shine through, yet again. The mercy which covered the sin of Cain’s parents with the sacrifice of an animal is the same mercy that now marks Cain. Of course, we do not know precisely what this mark is, but it is a reminder both of the guilt of what he has done and the divine promise of God. God Himself would be His bothers keeper. He would care for the failed mess that is Cain.

The thing is, the scriptures speak often about the marking of God, the declaration that these ones belong to God, they are His people, His saints. It might be the language of circumcision, or the sealing of the blood of the Lamb, but throughout the New Testament it is most often spoken of as the washing of Baptism. In many ways, Baptism is like the mark of Cain. It is a declaration both of your guilt and of the promises of your God. To be baptized is to say you cannot save yourself. It is to be washed in the work of Christ alone, to be bound to His sacrifice. To be baptized is to say you are a sinner and you cannot save yourself. But that baptism is the promise that you belong to your Lord. You are a brother or sister of our Lord Jesus Christ. He has taken from you all your sin, all your rebellion, and all your shame. And in return, He has clothed you with His holiness, His perfection, His love, and His forgiveness.

In our Baptismal liturgy we still recite those old words saying, “Receive the sign of the holy cross, both upon your head and upon your heart, to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.” You are marked in the promises of God. You have a Brother’s Keeper who will not abandon you or forsake you. In fact, He will defend you from your accuser. He will champion your entrance into eternal life. He will welcome you into the banquet hall. All glory be to God.