September 9, 2018: "Where Is Your Brother?"

Where is Your Brother?
Genesis 4:1-16

Rev. Rhonda Blevins


Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” 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 your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out 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. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”  Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.  Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.



The story of Cain and Abel is one those stories that has set up camp in our collective conscious. The archetype of fratricide—brother killing brother—is as relatable today as it was in the prehistoric period in which the story was set.

Art and pop culture picks up this ancient story, from Shakespeare’s Claudius and Hamlet to J.R. and Bobby Ewing from the T.V. series Dallas to the popular HGTV show Brother vs. Brother, brotherly conflict is a story that never grows out of style. John Steinbeck reimagined this story in the now classic East of Eden. A pretty common saying about someone who caused a disturbance: “He was raising Cain.” Songs have been written about the story, including a great song by the legendary Louis Armstrong entitled, “Cain and Abel.”

Now have you read of the fable of Cain and Abel?
Once they were in a scandal that shook the town.
Cain became mighty jealous of brother Abel,
So he rose up and smote Abel down.

Now the Lord sure was hopping mad,
And yet he was plenty sad,
to think that he had a man like Cain.

The Lord spoke and showed his wrath,
And Cain walked the path
That led to a life full of pain.

You can’t run from the shadow of retribution.
If you’re bad then you gotta pay for your wrongs.
Let yourself take a lesson from Cain and Abel:

Don’t lament, be content,
Don't resent what the Lord has sent,
And you’ll find that you’re bound to get along.

 Given that this story continues to find expression in myriad ways in contemporary culture, what might we learn from it beyond the obvious don’t kill your brother? As we explore that question, let me begin with a story.

 A young man just out of college landed the job of his dreams at a hot young company. His first day at the job, he met his new colleagues who invited him out for drinks after work. He was thrilled to be included, desperately wanting to fit in with his new co-workers. Once at the bar, a colleague bought him a drink to welcome him to the team. Another colleague paid for the next drink. It was kind of fun seeing the new guy get buzzed. Then someone else bought him another. And another . . . until the young man was quite impaired. When he got up to leave, not one of those same colleagues took the initiative to prevent him from getting behind the wheel. The young man crashed on the way home. He died instantly.

Question: were the colleagues culpable for this young man’s death? Or are they blameless? What is our responsibility for one another? Should we mind our own business? Or do we have a God-given responsibility to ensure the well being of our loved ones and friends, our neighbors, our enemies, and even our world?[1]

Back to Cain and Abel. “Where is your brother?” God asks Cain. Cain replies with a question of his own: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Now that’s a loaded question.

The obvious interpretation of Cain’s words here is that Cain was shirking responsibility for his brother’s whereabouts. A less obvious understanding is held in Cain’s choice of words: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” A “keeper” was one who tended animals. Cain asking if he was his brother’s “keeper” was akin to us asking, “Am I my brother’s pet-sitter?” Cain objectified his brother. He likened him to an animal. When we have the audacity call another human being an “animal,” it makes it easier for us to treat them as less than human.

In a 1975 experiment by psychologist Albert Bandura, PhD, college students were told they’d work with students from another school on a group task. In one condition, they overheard an assistant calling the other students “animals” and in another condition, “nice.” Bandura found students were more apt to deliver what they believed were increased levels of electrical shock to the other students if they had heard them called “animals.”[2]

This is why rhetoric matters. Words get in our heads, becoming part of our internal discourse. Words stir our emotions—our anger and our fear. Words fuel action. Before Cain murdered Abel, he thought him an animal. By dehumanizing his brother, he released the reigns of violence.

Dehumanization is a mental loophole that lets us harm other people.

Princeton University psychologist, Susan Fiske, is a prominent expert on the phenomenon of prejudice. Her research in neuroscience shows that when a person dehumanizes another, the regions of the brain correlated with disgust turn on while the regions correlated with empathy turn off.[3] Dehumanizing others liberates aggression, placing those who are dehumanized outside the moral community.

The traditional interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel holds that Cain was jealous of Abel, which is a sound reading of the text. I want to add that not only was Cain jealous of Abel . . . he was disgusted by Abel.

 Jealousy plus disgust is a lethal combination.

Take for instance the Jewish Holocaust. That Nazis were disgusted by the Jews is not news to us—they called Jews “rats.” A noted German historian suggests that envy fueled the anti-Semitism that unleashed one of the darkest human atrocities known to us.[4] As most Germans struggled economically during the aftermath of WWI and through the tumultuous years of the Industrial Revolution, they looked with envy at the economic successes of the Jews. Enter: jealousy. Add that to the rhetoric of disgust.

Jealousy plus disgust proved a lethal combination.

It’s not a huge leap to violence when we dehumanize the other, placing them outside the rules, the morals that guide human behavior. To Cain, Abel was less than human. Then Abel got something Cain wanted—God’s approval. Jealousy. Disgust. Murder.

So God asks another question of Cain in our pericope:

1.     “Where is your brother?” and

2.     “What have you done?

The first question God asks of Cain, “Where is your brother?”

1.     Seeks response. God wants to know how Cain will respond.

2.     Offers an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for Cain to “come clean.” Will Cain take responsibility for his actions? How might Cain’s story be different if he pleaded guilty?

Once Cain refused to own his actions, God asks Cain, “What have you done?”

1.     Seems rhetorical. God doesn’t allow room for response.

2.     Offers the outcome. There are consequences for his actions. He was placed East of Eden, in the land of Nod, which translated means, “the land of wandering.”

Friends, it seems to me that culturally we, too, find ourselves in the land of Nod. A nation divided from one another, and cut off from a shared set of ideals to serve as our unifying lodestar, our rhetoric has become dehumanizing and dangerous. Hate crimes have been rising; violence against Muslims, for instance, has reached an all-time high. [5]

I wonder if the church is complicit at some level. Has the church given society the keys, enabling folks to drive around drunk on hatred? It’s obvious that some Christians blatantly join the chorus of hateful rhetoric against marginalized people. I think this breaks God’s heart. Less obvious are those of us who remain silent observers from the sidelines. We don’t hand them the keys of hatred, but we don’t try to grab them either. A few push back against the hate through the written or spoken word, art, or protest. I sense that more Christians should join with those who actively push back and take the keys from those drunk on hatred and rhetoric that leads to violence.

Last week we laid to rest a real American hero, John McCain. Decorated war hero, prisoner of war, long time senator, and presidential candidate. I was witness, as were many of you, to one of the most heroic things McCain ever did. In a town hall meeting in the heat of his campaign for president against then Senator Obama, one gentleman took the microphone and said he was scared of Obama. A lady took the microphone and echoing that fear she said, “He’s an Arab.” McCain took the microphone back, shaking his head “no.” “He’s a decent person, a family man, a citizen,” McCain assured the crowd as they booed and jeered. They had been with him until that moment. It would have been so much easier for him to go along with that rhetoric, and perhaps more politically expedient to stoke it. McCain resisted the urge to dehumanize his political opponent. He assured the crowd he had policy disagreements with Obama—to my knowledge he never dehumanized him.

We need more heroes like that—more people willing to push back against hateful rhetoric that dehumanizes the other and eventually fuels violence. What does that look like in our daily lives? Here are some thoughts, from easy to challenging:

·      Easy: Turn off the TV or the talk radio whenever you hear the rhetoric of hate, often in the form of name-calling.

·      Easy: Unfollow people on social media who employ hate language.

·      Easy: Refuse to say things that dehumanize others, minorities, the marginalized, the other party.

·      More difficult: Refuse to see others as less then human. Check your own thinking. Think now—who’s that person or that group of people you find it really difficult to love? Resolve now to see them as fully human despite your differences.

·      More difficult: Like Senator McCain, shake your head “no” when you hear hateful, divisive rhetoric.

·      Challenging: Offer a verbal rebuttal. You’re at a social gathering and a friend throws out dehumanizing language. Say, “I don’t see it that way.”

·      Challenging: Use other means to push back against hate. Write letters to the editor, put a sign in your yard, demand respectful discourse from leaders.

The challenge today is twofold:

1.     We must resist the urge to dehumanize others—then resisting others when they engage in dehumanizing language.

2.     We must recognize that we bear responsibility for one another, for our neighbors, for our world. In ways both large and small, as a part of God’s human family, we must work for a world that works for everyone.

In the words of one of my favorite hymns, we will! 

We will work with each other, we will work side by side,

We will work with each other, we will work side by side,

And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride:

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.


[1] Trevor Hudson, Questions God Asks Us. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2008, pp. 25-26.

[2] Melissa Dittmann, “What Makes Good People Do Bad Things?” Monitor on Psychology/American Psychological Association, October, 2004: Vol. 35, No. 9, p. 68.

[3]  Brian Resnick

[4] Götz Aly, Why the Germans? Why the Jews?: Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust, 2014.


Rhonda Blevins