Cain, Abel and Statism

by: FireTag

May 26, 2012

A couple of months ago, while gathering up all of the data required to “render unto the IRS” and trying to feel better about all of the work involved in doing so, I ran across an interesting piece of Biblical literary criticism. It became even more interesting to me when I started thinking about the ideas it expressed in the context of Joseph Smith’s experiences about the deeper meanings of the Book of Genesis.

In an article on the Forbes website, Jerry Bowyer noted the following:

“There are some things, however, which are in the Bible, but so terribly mangled as to distort their meaning almost completely… Sometimes quotes are mangled so badly as to be twisted into a complete opposite of their intentions…. President Obama’s frequent references to us being ‘our brother’s keeper’ are an example of the last kind of Bible misquote…

“Although it has become one of his stump themes, the President’s use of this particular misquote in last week’s National Prayer Breakfast has brought his exegetical skills under greater scrutiny. It’s about time.

“First, let’s get the story right: Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and been expelled from the Garden of Eden. They conceive and bear two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain is a farmer of some sort, and Abel is a shepherd (remember this part, it will be important later). Cain and Abel offer the fruits of their labor, grain and sheep respectively, to God as some sort of religious observance. God is pleased with Abel’s offering, but not with Cain’s. Despite warnings, Cain fails to master his evil nature and murders his brother Abel…”

So God rhetorically asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” God says nothing about “keepers” or “keeping”.

It is Cain, the first murderer, who tries to dodge God’s question by asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Bowyer continues:

“In the book, The Beginning of Wisdom, Leon Kass observes that in effect Cain sarcastically asks whether he is the shepherd’s keeper. The point is pretty clear in English if we stop and reflect for a moment, but it’s even clearer in the original Hebrew in which Cain asks whether he is the shmr of his brother: shomor.  The shepherd is missing and Cain is saying that the shepherd is not one of his sheep. In other words, Cain is being a smart ass.

“But Cain, in his choice of wording, is also revealing a lot about his interior life and his philosophy of human nature. He thinks of men as being shepherds of other men, who of necessity must therefore be sheep. The old Roman saying that Homo homini lupus est (“man is a wolf to man”) is prefigured in the sense that if the first group of men is a wolf to the second group of men, then the second group of men must be sheep to the first.”

“…Cain continues to treat people like sheep after his expulsion. As his parents were driven from the Garden of Eden, Cain is driven from the land of Eden into the wilderness. And there he founds history’s first political dynasty, a city which he names after his son. I think Leon Kass is right that the Torah is presenting a Hebraic philosophy which shows us the ‘twisted roots’ of the polis, whose origin is in fratricide. The only major difference between this story and Rome’s founding myth about the death struggle between brothers Romulus and Remus is the moral disapproval; the Roman story was told with pride.

“Is there some element of social theory in all this? I think there clearly is, though not the one the President is trying to build. The story of Cain provides a backdrop against which Israel is presented with two types of shepherds: immanent and transcendent. Every time Israel assembled before the temple, they were to be dismissed with the Bircat Cohenim, the ‘priestly blessing’: “May the Lord Bless you and keep you…”

“The political and economic theology of shepherds starts with the affirmation that the role of provider, shepherd, and keeper of the people does not belong to any imminent human authority, but to the Lord. On this foundation, we see the Torah develop a social theory of equality before the law and of brotherhood among citizens, not keeperhood by the state.

“Am I my brother’s keeper? No. According to the Torah, I am not my brother’s keeper, because I am my brother’s brother.”

Joseph Smith’s recapitulation of a previous vision attributed to Moses extends this notion to the idea that the cosmic dispute between good and evil concerns the circumstances under which anyone but God has the right to rule another, even if for their own good. Mormons call the concept “unrighteous dominion”, and it appears at the very beginning of Genesis.

Referring back to the beginning of this experience, recorded in Genesis 1 (Book of Moses 1), Book of Moses 4 states:

1 And I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely, I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.

2 But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me — Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.

3 Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down;

4 And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.

Note that earlier in this replay of Genesis, natural trees are also described as living “souls”, beings created spiritually before physically just as were men. So the notion that not one “soul” of man should be lost emphasizes the severity of what it would take to reduce mankind to being captive of another’s will. Less agency than trees — the thing from which we typically made puppets?

In a private conversation about this post, Hawkgrrrl suggested that there are three possibilities:

  • Yes, we are to be our brother’s keeper (along the lines of “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me.”)
  • No, we are not to be our brother’s keeper (along the lines of everyone having to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling and the self-sufficiency ideals of the church).
  • We aren’t “keepers” but “brothers.”  We should lend a hand and support but not create pockets of dependents and charitable donors in society.

What do you think of Bowyer’s argument?

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13 Responses to Cain, Abel and Statism

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 26, 2012 at 6:38 AM

    I really liked this. We are our brothers brother.

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  2. Bradley on May 26, 2012 at 9:21 AM

    You raise a good point about our patronizing worldview. We control through guilt and various forms of “godly” manipulation to get behaviors to “conform”.

    Unfortunately, these methods of “perfecting the saints” are a lot like what Satan proposed to God in the first place. When Christ tried to point this out, the “control matrix” of the day killed him.

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  3. Bonnie on May 26, 2012 at 9:42 AM

    LOVE this. I had not made the connection between the natural inclination to be an undershepherd and the natural inclination to exercise dominion – a huge distinction that is treacherous to navigate because it’s difficult to see in daily living. I really appreciate the “keeping” imagery and tying it to the earliest records. This profoundly resonates with me, especially because the “growing” imagery is every bit as pervasive in the scriptural record, but Cain twisted its possibilities, just as Lucifer before had twisted leadership.

    The last two paragraphs lose me a bit. I think the article and your discussion of it make a crucial point: we are NOT our brother’s keeper because to behave so is to usurp the position of God, just as Lucifer did. We are undershepherds, keepers in training, subject to the Keeper and reporting to him as we learn the ropes. That is why we lead by “long-suffering, meekness, love unfeigned” – not only because that’s the best way, but because it’s the only part of keeping that we have a right to take to ourselves.

    For instance, I have strict rules about how my children discipline one another. The guide is: you can only correct to the degree that you have the power to heal what you hurt. If the person you would correct does not trust your helpful intent, you have no power and therefore fewer freedoms. On the other hand, you have the responsibility to speak and encourage, to offer guidance and to be trustworthy. You have no ultimate responsibility if that person errs when you have done your best to navigate helping but not hurting in your help, because that is between me and him/her. We discuss the fact that ultimately, I am in the same position with them and God, because I should not discipline further than I have the power to heal what I hurt either, because they are less mine than his. I am so glad to connect the keeper imagery, the grower imagery, the war in heaven, and the concept of unrighteous dominion in my head.

    I don’t see this as an issue of puppetry or self-sufficiency. I do however heartily agree that being “brothers” as opposed to “keepers” alters our relationships with one another fundamentally (because it places us at an equal level with one another.) With this alteration in our interactions with one another there will be no more -ites. It’s the secret of Zion, if we can master it.

    What a phenomenal post. Thank you.

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  4. FireTag on May 26, 2012 at 11:18 AM


    I like your notion of having no authority to hurt beyond capacity to heal, but I think more specifically of the NT teaching that the “Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” The good mother lays down her life to preserve the life of her child, as does the good father. In fact, some wag once said that “Greater love hath no man than the mother cat laying down her life to protect her kittens.”

    The cosmos, IMO, is stabilized by the loyalty of the greater to the lesser being primary. Without it, “thou shalt love the Lord thy God…” would be what Satan would have made of it.

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  5. honey on May 26, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    I think that seeing others as our brothers helps take condescension out of relationships. A real problem as we try to minister to others. Seeing ourselves as equals before God helping each other to return to His presence works better for me than coercing or manipulating does. Like Bonnie I see my children as far more belonging to God than mine and the other moms who I had trouble with in raising my kids were always Moms who saw themselves more as keepers.

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  6. Bonnie on May 27, 2012 at 1:38 AM

    FT – are we disagreeing? I can’t tell from your comment. Are you stepping back from the author you quote and redefining a human role of keeping?

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  7. ken on May 27, 2012 at 7:48 AM

    What a beautiful testament to the virtues of libertarianism and pursuing only what serves the individual!!!

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  8. FireTag on May 27, 2012 at 11:13 AM


    I think my comment is trying to build on the excellent point you made about “undershepherds” to define more clearly the boundary point where “brother” shifts to “keeper”. I think it is when our self-loyalty becomes dominant at the expense of others. Clearly, a parent is superior to the child, but a healthy parent is trying to lift the child to adulthood for the benefit of the child, not earning “status points” or living vicariously through restricting the child’s path to where the parent wishes to go.

    In the political realm, there is a pronounced historical tendency for elites to come to see the citizenry as existing to further the prospects of the elites — perhaps because political systems in practice have arisen from dominance of “alphas” in tribes seizing power over their brothers and sisters as the story of Cain at least metaphorically tells.

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  9. FireTag on May 27, 2012 at 11:25 AM


    I agree with you wholeheartedly here. Condescension is a real symptom that we’re getting close to the brother-keeper boundary, and our children ARE God’s more than ours.

    Ken and Bradley:

    I appreciate your comments. “Patronizing” and “patronage” have the same root, and I’ve come over the last year or so to really appreciate how Jesus’ example included helping his disciples to see the necessity of backing away from the patronage (even within the formation of the church!) on which the structures of ancient Eastern Med civilizations had been built.

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  10. Bonnie on May 27, 2012 at 1:42 PM

    Ah, I see FT. My point, however, is that we don’t shift from undershepherds to keepers in this life. We are kept in a place of safety by constantly referring back to God as the Keeper, just as Jesus did (“Why call thee me good – only the Father is good” and “all glory to the father” etc). I think the tendency to think in hierarchies is very human, and a problem. Good parents humbly acknowledge that their children taught them much more about divinity than they taught their children. I actually don’t feel that parents are superior to children, just tasked with temporal responsibilities for them. Keeping those two things in tension is a very important of a humble but powerful life.

    I also heartily agree with shepherding being about lifting another anonymously and freely without earning status points for ourselves. I think this is why Jesus continually warned us about our abuses of one another in all the myriad ways we have within our power. That he washed the disciples feet and reminded them that they were servants of all was what made them powerful. Faith – it’s counterintuitive. That’s why politics will never understand it. Alphas and dominance, meh, the hand that rocks the cradle …

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  11. MUSE on May 28, 2012 at 6:09 AM

    When we take on the role of “keeper” we become enablers. We choke them even as we keep them, strangling them while shielding them.

    Thanks for the post.

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  12. FireTag on May 28, 2012 at 10:04 AM


    Thanks for reading. I think that a lot of current political issues need to be given a second glance with that “choke them while shielding them” perspective in mind.

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  13. Jon on May 31, 2012 at 8:00 AM

    The current system of governance is by its very nature ” a pronounced historical tendency for elites to come to see the citizenry as existing to further the prospects of the elites.” The slave Frederick Douglas outlined this in his autobiography (although I’m it seems unintentional on his part).

    A great book that outlines this is “Healing Our World in an Age of Aggression” that basically applies the second great commandment to all levels at the societal level. A very powerful book.

    On a side note, the best article I’ve read so far on the “render unto Caesar” is this one:

    Where he basically says that Christ is saying that what Christ is saying is “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.”

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