In a previous column, I took the President to task for his repeated use, most recently in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, of the phrase “my brother’s keeper” in support of his fiscal policies. That column raised quite an angry stir.
I should not have been surprised by this. The notion of keeper-hood is at the heart of the American left. The European left, at least since the time of the French Revolution, has waged open war on religious institutions and ideas.
But in the United States, where respect for the Bible remains high, the left more often attempts to appropriate religious language, misquoting it in support of statist solutions.
When someone like me points out that the Bible, in fact, does not say, “We are our brother’s keeper,” but instead quotes the first murderer (and soon to be first political ruler) as saying “Am I my brother’s keeper?” such a revelation threatens the whole enterprise in religious subterfuge, and it has to be punished.
Here are the objections that have been raised to my article, and my answers:
Some, for example fellow Forbes contributor Victoria Pynchon, said that the President was not quoting the Bible. Others suggested that he was simply quoting poetry. It is true that the president did quote poetry, for example John Donne’s statement that “no man is an island”, but I was referring to this other quote, “We are our brother’s keeper.” That is clearly an attempt to quote the Bible. The President’s remarks were given at a prayer breakfast, not at a conference of the Metaphysical Poets Appreciation Society.
Furthermore, the paragraph in which he made the brother’s keeper remark was preceded by the President saying that he prayed daily, that he believed his faith was not just part of his personal life but belonged in the formation of public policy, and by several attempts by the President to quote the Bible in support of his progressive political program, particularly that of raising taxes on the rich in order to fund various transfer payments. Of course he was using the Bible to support his politics: the only real question is whether he was using it properly.
Some who suggested that the President was not quoting the Bible nevertheless claimed that, if he had been, he would have been using it correctly and that the Bible does indeed teach that we are our brother’s keeper. They claim that when Cain asks if he is his brother’s keeper, God says that indeed he is. The problem is that God says no such thing. In fact, what is so conspicuous about the story of Cain and Abel is how often the Bible refers to Abel as Cain’s brother. It’s so frequent as to sound almost stilted:
“Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”
(Genesis 4:8-11 ESV)
The Bible uses the word ach, brother, six times in four verses. The only person who says ‘keeper’ (in Hebrew shmr) is Cain. In fact, God pointedly uses the word brother twice in direct conversation with Cain after Cain uses the word keeper. It seems clear that this passage is contrasting two views of the ethics of social relations; one is a keeper/kept relationship and the other is a brother/brother ethic.
Treating the Torah as a literary unit sheds much light on this: throughout the rest of the Torah Israelites are reminded that God is their shmr, their Keeper, their Shepherd. In contrast, the law frequently makes reference to the moral and legal obligations that Israelites have towards one another with the phrase ‘your brother’. Even the king is referred to this way; Israel is instructed to choose as king “one from among your bretheren”. Even the king is a brother, not a keeper.
Some complained about my translation skills. Following Leon Kass, who has taught the book of Genesis for over two decades, I suggested that the word ‘keeper’ might be interpreted as ‘shepherd.’ Some of my critics denied that the word could be translated that way. This is flat wrong: for example, Hosea 12:12 says that the patriarch Jacob was a ‘shmr of sheep’, so ‘keeper’ can sometimes mean ‘shepherd.’
I’m told that in modern Hebrew, a Shomer is a variant of a legal guardian: a keeper, for example, of a child until the time when he or she can fully exercise control of inherited wealth. In Biblical Hebrew a shmr can be a guardian at the city wall. I stand by my decision to interpret a shmr as a shepherd in the context of the story of Cain and Abel.
Abel, after all, was a herdsman, so the pun makes sense: Cain is sarcastically saying that he is not a shepherd of the shepherd. Neither a legal guardian not an armed guard translation would make sense in context: there was no property to be held in trust for Abel, and there were no walled cities to guard.
In fact, after his fratricide, Cain goes on to found the world’s first city and first political entity. Kass says that this story illustrates the close relationship between violence and politics. I think he is right. And I think this story provides little Biblical comfort for those who would twist the text in order to argue for expansive state power.
The government can only be our shepherd if we are its sheep, or our guardian if we are its children. One can have a legitimate argument about whether a shepherd/nanny government is the right form for us at this time.
But one cannot reasonably enlist the Torah, and most especially not the story of Cain and Abel, on the side of the Shepherd State without doing violence to the meaning of the text.
Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com.