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?”
“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?