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?” [Genesis 4:8-9 (ESV)]
The story is told of a Sunday school teacher who was teaching her class about the Ten Commandments. “What is the commandment about parents?” she asked. “Honor thy father and mother,” was the quick reply. “Is there a commandment about brothers and sisters?” the teacher queried. One little boy shouted, “Thou shalt not kill!” While we know we’re not supposed to kill them, how should we treat them?
When we look at sibling relationships in the Bible, we don’t see a lot of good examples. Starting with Cain and Abel, Cain’s anger over God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering led to the Bible’s first homicide. When Ishmael teased his younger half-brother Isaac, he and his mother were evicted from Abraham’s home. Then we have sisters Leah and Rachel who continually competed for Jacob’s attention. The twins Jacob and Esau were at odds from birth and, after stealing his brother’s birthright, Jacob had to flee for his life. Resentment and jealousy caused Miriam and Aaron to complain about Moses’ leadership, jealousy led Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery, and after Jehoram became king, he killed all six of his brothers. David’s brothers didn’t respect him, Martha and Mary had disagreements about priorities, and Jesus’ brothers failed to believe in Him at first. Among the disciples, Peter and Andrew were brothers as were James and John, but we know that the disciples argued about which of them was the greatest! Clearly, sibling rivalry, jealousy, and conflict has a long history in mankind.
Siblings can be one of the greatest blessings in life but they also pose one of the greatest challenges of childhood. Even as adults, sibling relationships can be difficult to navigate. We know each other’s weaknesses and fears; we know what upset our siblings in the past and what buttons to push to annoy them now. We often know each other’s deepest secrets and most embarrassing moments and, unfortunately, can wield that information like a sword. Siblings easily can be tactless, rude, and cruel with one another in a way they’d never be with their friends. When we’re with siblings, we may even revert to old roles and behaviors from our childhood days.
While siblings share parentage and history, true brothers and sisters share far more than genetics and memories. If we want to have brothers and sisters, instead of just siblings, we might look to the example of Joseph who saved the lives of the same brothers who betrayed and abandoned him! He literally became his brothers’ keeper.
In spite of whatever happened in the past, if we want brothers and sisters, we need to relinquish any long-buried resentment and practice forgiveness (along with a fair amount of forgetfulness). When siblings disappoint as they inevitably will (as will we), our love will keep us from despairing in or giving up on them. An accident of birth may give us siblings but there’s nothing accidental about choosing to love and it is choosing to love that turns a sibling into a brother or sister.
When Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the Hebrew word was hashomer. From the root word shamar, it meant protector, guardian, defender, and caretaker. What do you think God’s answer was?