My Brother’s Keeper
Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 17, 2015
It was October 20, 2010 and President Barack Obama was at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. The President was there to address a crowd anxious to hear him speak. At one point in his speech, he shouted:
So we believe in a country that rewards hard work and responsibility. We believe in a country that prizes innovation and entrepreneurship. But we also believe in a country where we look after one another; where we say, I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. That’s the America I know. That’s the choice in this election.
When the idiom my brother’s keeper is used, it implies that you are responsible for what someone else does or for what happens to that person. It’s been an idiom that’s been discussed in literal, figurative, and metaphorical terms for centuries, and has led to a great many philosophical debates.
The Prescott Evening Courier newspaper of September 16, 1965 published an editorial that began with discussing an accident near Stanfield, Arizona where a truck driver burned to death while a passing motorist ignored his cries for help. The editorial then discussed that, according to psychiatrists, society was moving towards developing a shell of non-involvement that set people at ease when they chose not to involve themselves in helping those in need. The editorial was titled, “My Brother’s Keeper.”
A little more than thirty years earlier, G.R. Ingram, Secretary of the Nelson County Farmers Union (in North Dakota) wrote and published a poem in the Mouse River Farmers Press on November 30, 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression. The poem entitled, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” ended with this stanza:
To each of us upon this earth
God sets a task:
To aid and cheer our fellow man
His hand to grasp.
To show to him, as best we can
The way to save his home and land,
That Faith in God means faith in man —
This is our task.
Almost a hundred years before that, in the “Church of England Magazine” edition of June 5, 1841 (Volume X, No. 287) the subject and idiom were discussed at length in the article, “The Social Feelings Enlisted and Hallowed by Christianity.” While the author isn’t credited, his article includes this passage:
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” was once the language of a conscience-stricken criminal. But the words may issue from our lips in a different spirit. Am I, indeed, my brother’s keeper? Is it true that God hath committed to my keeping the soul of a brother for whom Christ died, and whom he desires to bring to glory? Is it true that we are joined more closely and more mysteriously than limb to limb? Is it true, in the thousand ways that I can see, and in a multitude of ways which I cannot see, that we touch and affect each other, so that no little act of either of us can be sure to end with himself?
In 1703, Laurence Clarke compiled a complete history of the Christian Bible that was printed by Princeton University. It was entitled, “A Compleat History of the Holy Bible: Contained in the Old and New Testament In Which Are Inserted the Occurences That Happened During the Space of Four Hundred Years, From The Days of the prophet Malachi, to the birth of our Blessed Saviour.” The title is actually longer than this, however, the gist of the subject matter is obvious in the portion of the title that’s been shared here. The idiom is found in this passage in the book:
And as if he had been affronted by being questioned about his Brother, he surlily answered, “Am I my Brother’s Keeper?” But the Lord not only charged him with the Murder of his Brother, but convicted him of it too.
Based on this, it’s obvious that the idiom is from the Old Testament.
In Genesis 4:9 God asks Cain where Able is and Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to hide the fact that he does know where Able is and what has happened to him. For those of my readers who aren’t familiar with the Christian Bible, Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer while Abel was a shepherd, and in a fit of jealousy, Cain murdered Abel. Afterwards, he denied having any knowledge of where his brother could be found. In other words, he tried to hide the fact that he had murdered his brother by claiming no responsibility for his brother.
The idiom therefore dates back to the Old Testament of the Bible and Idiomation is unable to find an earlier version of it as this idiom dates back to a time when papyrus was in use.