"My Brother's Keeper" Meaning

Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
In a story told within the biblical Book of Genesis, Cain slew his brother Abel, whose sacrifices were favored by God.
In a story told within the biblical Book of Genesis, Cain slew his brother Abel, whose sacrifices were favored by God.

The phrase "my brother's keeper" is a reference to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel from the book of Genesis. It is generally understood to mean being responsible for the welfare of a brother or other sibling or, by extension, for other human beings in general. Cain, who is quoted as having made this statement, claimed not to have this responsibility. The phrase, however, is often used with the suggestion that people do have such a responsibility to care for and watch over their fellow human beings.

Cain and Abel

Though Cain asked whether he was his brother's keeper in a scornful manner, most traditional societies value children who help look after their siblings.
Though Cain asked whether he was his brother's keeper in a scornful manner, most traditional societies value children who help look after their siblings.

The story of Cain and Abel appears in the first 16 verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. The phrase "my brother's keeper" appeared in William Tyndale's 1530 English translation. Tyndale's translation was one of those incorporated into the King James Version of the Bible, which was completed in the early 1600s and has been one of the most widely used versions of the Bible.

Abel Murdered

In some families, older children feel responsible to help care for their younger siblings from an early age.
In some families, older children feel responsible to help care for their younger siblings from an early age.

Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd, each sacrificed the fruits of their labor to God. God looked favorably upon Abel's sacrifice, but not Cain's, and in his anger over the incident, Cain murdered his brother.

Cain's Answer

God later asked Cain where his brother was, and Cain replied, according to the King James Version, "I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?" God, who knew that Cain had killed Abel, punished the murderer by making him a "fugitive and a vagabond." When Cain complained that anyone who came across him would kill him because of his actions, God declared that vengeance would be taken on anyone who killed Cain, and God marked Cain as a sign that he was not to be harmed.

Personal Application

The concept of "my brother's keeper" might be applied more generally to taking care of others in need.
The concept of "my brother's keeper" might be applied more generally to taking care of others in need.

With his question — "Am I my brother's keeper?" — Cain attempted to hide his misdeed by claiming no responsibility for his brother. Followers of Biblical teachings often interpret this story as a reminder that they are, indeed, responsible for the welfare of other people. Someone who is his brother's keeper looks out for and cares for others, even if they are not actually related to him or her. For example, a person who tries to be a "brother's keeper" might donate his or her time or resources to help others and will place the needs of others before his or her own.

A Story That Translates Across Time

Searching for “my brother's keeper meaning” can lead you down a fascinating path of discovery. To gain some deeper insight into that meaning, we can examine the language in which it’s expressed. We know that the Tyndale Bible is the first English translation that directly sourced the original Hebrew and Greek texts. Earlier English translations include the Old English Hexateuch, completed by Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham in the 10th century C.E. But the Hexateuch and similar editions sourced the Latin Vulgate, which itself was a translation of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. So to arrive at the original meaning, we need to look at the classical Hebrew in which the Book of Genesis was written.

Insights From the Hebrew Text

Genesis 4:9 depicts Cain asking the classic question. We should keep in mind that Hebrew grammar and syntax follow different rules in English. A word-for-word translation of Cain’s reply to God reads something like this: “Not I do know. The keeper of my brother I?” While it reads and sounds unusual to native English speakers, we can still get the general meaning.

The key term to watch in this phrase, of course, is “keeper.” The original Hebrew phrase at that spot is “ha shomer,” with “ha” as the definite article and “shomer,” a singular noun form of the verb “shamar.” This verb’s definition is to keep, guard, watch, preserve, protect, or have charge of someone or something.

The Link Between Selfishness and Loneliness

God’s judgment of Cain in the classic story seems fitting. Cain is forced to wander for the rest of his natural life, but he also cannot farm the land as easily as he once did. Only a few of his descendants are listed in the remainder of Genesis 4. After that, there’s nothing but radio silence about Cain. Meanwhile, Seth is born and continues the human race.

The aftermath of Abel’s murder illustrates a point. Even if God hadn’t declared that Cain would endlessly roam, it’s hard to imagine that Adam and Eve would have tolerated his presence if he’d tried to remain with them. By both murdering his brother and refusing any responsibility to care for him, Cain effectively cut himself off from his family. Cain’s actions resulted in his own isolation — because he could never return home.

Selfishness and Isolation in Modern Times

Harming others can certainly put us at odds with our families and communities. Yet there’s an interesting link between selfishness and isolation. Early in human history, being excluded from their social groups could put people in harm’s way. Without the protection, food, and shelter the group provided, they were extremely vulnerable. Feeling isolated can prompt us to seek human connection, but there’s always the chance of slipping into self-preservation mode. Isolation can feed self-preservation tendencies, resulting in even greater loneliness.

Familiar Bonds, Altruism, and Community

As we see from the direct translation, it’s still clear that Cain is asking God if he’s supposed to watch out for his brother. Both modern and ancient audiences would understand that Cain is both lying and deflecting God’s question. He not only denies that he knows Abel’s whereabouts, but he also refuses to accept responsibility for Abel’s wellbeing.

Naturally, many of us would shout a resounding “Yes!” in reply to Cain’s infamous question. His words are a rejection of familial responsibility: It provokes outrage and disgust on a visceral level. Whether or not our parents practice what they preach, most of us grow up with the basic idea that we’re to watch out for our fellow family members. If we don’t, it’s more than just a personal or moral failing. Depending on the situation, someone could literally suffer or die because of our inaction.

Altruism Beyond the Family

Of course, care and concern extend can extend to those who aren’t family members. Such altruism not only benefits those we help, but it can also positively impact our larger communities. Maybe there is a little self-interest involved sometimes. Scientists have discovered that altruistic acts trigger the reward systems in our brains, so that’s why we feel good after helping others.

When our ancestors placed others’ wellbeing above their own, it also ensured their social groups’ survival. These practices, plus interdependence within the family, have stood the test of time. When we think of “my brother’s keeper meaning” in these contexts, we can better understand human nature. This can also help us make healthy choices for ourselves, our families, and our communities at large.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a LanguageHumanities editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a LanguageHumanities editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Discussion Comments

jessiwan

I just realized something. God is supposedly all-knowing, right? So why did he feel the need to ask Cain where Abel was? And apparently he knew the answer already but he still felt the need to ask. Now what is this called in English? You knew the answer to something but you still asked anyway.

Another thing: God seemed pretty arbitrary. He preferred one kind of offering but not another kind. I don't know why. I thought that Christians said that as long as it came from your heart, God would smile upon it. But it's not the case based on this story.

What makes even less sense is that God condemned Cain to be a fugitive but put a mark on him so that he would not be harmed. What message is this supposed to convey? That God loved Cain and did not want him to be hurt? If he truly loved Cain that much, wouldn't it be easier to not make him a fugitive? Like the whole story just doesn't make any sense to me. And this is ignoring the fact that it is a very bloodthirsty, pointlessly violent story.

anon990276

We are and always will be our brothers' keepers, as they are ours. United we stand, divided we fall. Think.

anon941854

The meaning of a "brother's keeper" is basically what the article says, but the meaning to some people is someone who takes care of someone when they can.

anon348525

Just one girl's thoughts.

Whether Cain's response to God's question was sarcastic/flip/casual, the words in the passage speak volumes to people around the world, and *that* is what matters. Maybe Cain did not know the impact of the question when he spoke, and it does not matter; it matters what we see in it.

I am not a religious girl, but I interpreted these passages into a tattoo. It is to remind me that as long as I live, however I suffer, my only true responsibility is kindness, and to know that the world is not all about me. I am merely a part of something much bigger than I can even imagine. --olivia

anon315473

You are your brother's keeper. That's why the world is like this today. If you (people in general)

had done this, and America had done this, we as a nation would not be in the shape we are today!

No country in the world has been built on selfishness and survived. Every race in this country has survived because of being a person who realize that yes, you are your brother's keeper!

anon296846

The basic question and the unnoticed remark here is what happened to the best gifts of Cain? What was the mind set of Cain before the offerings?

The first murderer did not see himself as a murderer, but instead the anger of vengeance still showed in his emotion. That was the genesis of a whole lot of satanic acts today.

anon279787

Being a "brother's keeper" is the highest role ascribable to a red-blooded male. Be assured if you adhere to this dictum and strive to bring about harmony among all of creation, you will be rewarded - be assured, you will be rewarded. Such is the truth.

anon264089

What I think it really means isn't just a smart remark, but a literal question. It has been referred to throughout the bible, by Jesus, Paul, Peter and John. Jesus says, "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." This is commanding us to be a "brothers keeper" that we are all responsible for our neighbors, that no matter how much we deny it, it's true we must love and care for our neighbors, friends, and even strangers as if they were family.

anon188971

Even if Cain was basically claiming that it just wasn't his day to keep tabs on Able, the underlying theme is of God knowing his sins toward his brother. The Bible is pretty easy to read at face value, but it is generally accepted that it is also meant to be a commentary on humanity as a whole.

anon157310

A "keeper" in the English-language Bible is one's master or supervisor, not simply one's caregiver. The term always refers to a relationship between a person of superior status and one of inferior status. In other words, a parent can a child's keeper, a husband can be the keeper of a wife (considered inferior in Biblical times), a slave-owner can be a slave's keeper, an overseer a worker's keeper, and a farmer a farm animal's keeper -- but not the other way around.

Thus, a politician who openly aspires to be "my brother's keeper" is declaring (without intending to, presumably) that he wants to care for and dominate his brother.

anon69308

I agree with anon42319. Seems obvious to me. There are plenty of passages about caring for each others' needs and loving one another, but this is not one of them.

anon55280

In other words, in American English, the question would have been: "How should I know? Am I supposed to be his babysitter or something?"

anon42319

I think, "Am I my brother's keeper?" has been distorted as an admonishment that we take care of others and look out for their welfare.

In reading the passage, I see it only as a rhetorical response to God by Cain in the same manner as someone would say, "It's not my day to watch him." Cain was being defensive, evasive and a bit of a smart aleck.

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    • In a story told within the biblical Book of Genesis, Cain slew his brother Abel, whose sacrifices were favored by God.
      By: nickolae
      In a story told within the biblical Book of Genesis, Cain slew his brother Abel, whose sacrifices were favored by God.
    • Though Cain asked whether he was his brother's keeper in a scornful manner, most traditional societies value children who help look after their siblings.
      By: poco_bw
      Though Cain asked whether he was his brother's keeper in a scornful manner, most traditional societies value children who help look after their siblings.
    • In some families, older children feel responsible to help care for their younger siblings from an early age.
      By: yanlev
      In some families, older children feel responsible to help care for their younger siblings from an early age.
    • The concept of "my brother's keeper" might be applied more generally to taking care of others in need.
      By: Alina Isakovich
      The concept of "my brother's keeper" might be applied more generally to taking care of others in need.