Was Cain Supposed to be His Brother’s Keeper?

You referred in a recent lectionary talk with Peter Leithart to “being our brother’s keeper.” What is your understanding of the ethical meaning of a “keeper” biblically speaking?

It is sometimes a point of controversy in liberal/conservative Christian political arguments as to the relevance of Cain’s refusal of the role of “keeper” (when in fact, Cain has not just failed to aid Abel but murdered him actively) to our understanding of our call to love and serve our neighbor, using the phrase as an expansive claim that justifies almost any kind of political action desired, casting the one who is skeptical of the action as a Cain-like person who dismisses a call to be his brother’s keeper.

To me “keeper” has connotations of a guardian with charge of a dependent inferior or one who is weak. Like ‘zookeeper’ or a tale of a overprotective father who “keeps” his daughter safe locked in a tower. Do we find being a “keeper” of another as a model of Christian regard elsewhere in scripture, and if not, should we found an ethic by simply negating the dismissive words of a murderer?

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