Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Am I My Brother's Keeper?"

It’s the first question asked by a human in the Bible, and one of the most resonant questions of all time. God is a veritable question box in the early chapters of Genesis (he seems far from omniscient in these stories), and the serpent famously asks Eve a challenging question about her allowed diet. But not until Cain defensively poses this question to God has a human made an inquiry of any sort.
God’s response to Cain comes in the form of banishment for the murder of Abel. The answer is essentially that if you don’t consider yourself the protector of your sibling, you can no longer be considered part of the family. However, Cain’s sentence is tempered not only by the mark of protection he places on him but the opportunity to create his own family and to understand the protective relationship from a different perspective. Where that wife of his came from is never answered, but Cain does become a husband and father. God teaches Cain a lesson, but one that gives him the opportunity for redemption, for a new life in a different setting.
And the sibling relationship becomes one of the great themes of the Bible. It is explored over and over again both in the literal sense – in the stories of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Abimelech and his 69 brothers, Amnon and Absalom, Adonijah and Solomon, and others – and in a broader sense through the fact that all of the nations with against which Israel goes to war are shown to come from a common ancestry, generally well documented. Not until we hit the Romans in the New Testament does a culture seem truly alien (the story of Rome’s integration into the family is post-biblical but certainly no less stunning than the Bible’s stories of familial/cultural relationships).
Many have noted that throughout the Bible, it is the younger son – usually one perceived as physically weaker – who receives God’s favor. Certainly the nation of Israel is perpetually portrayed as weaker than its enemies but stronger in its relationship to God (in the story of Gideon, for example, the Israelite army is forced through a selection process into a position of physical weakness over which it prevails).
As the stories of warring siblings and warring nations unfold, a related topic is brought into play: Our responsibility to care for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. “Widows and orphans” is the shorthand most often used.
Here is God laying down the law to Moses in Exodus 22: “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict them in any way and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; you wives shall be widows and your children orphans.”
In Deuteronomy, Moses repeats and elaborates on the requirement, insisting that the Israelites have an obligation to feed not only widows and orphans, but resident aliens and the homeless (the Levites, descendants of Israel who were not given a portion of the Holy Land). In addition, debts are to be forgiven every seven years, and failure to honor this obligation is considered a serious offense:
If there is among you a poor man of your brethren within any of the cities in your land the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother; but you shall surely open your hands to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a hidden thought in your heart, a transgression of the law, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it be a great sin among you. You shall surely give him and loan him as much as he needs, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in everything to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore, I commdn you to do this word which says, ‘You shall surely open your hands to your brother, to your poor and needy in your land.’

In Job, Eliphaz the Temanite poetically speculates that failure to care for the needy is one of Job’s sins (although we certainly can’t be sure about the veracity of Job’s supposed friends): 

For you have taken pledges from your brethren for no reason

And taken away the clothing of the naked.

Neither have you given the thirsty water to drink,

But have even withheld a morsel from the hungry.

You have also admired the personality of some

And have transplanted those already settled on earth.

Your have sent widows away empty

And have have mistreated orphans.

Therefore snares are all around you,

And a serious war has troubled you.

The light has turned to darkness for you,

And water has covered you as you fell asleep.

In Psalm 68, David calls God “the father of orphans and the judge of widows,” and in Psalm 82 we are told to, “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; rid them out of the hand of the wicked.”
In all, we are instructed more than 40 times in the course of the Bible to care for those who are least able to care for themselves: The widows, orphans, resident aliens and homeless who live among us. Because “widows and orphans” is the shorthand most often used, some may be tempted to identify them as a special class, but the inclusion at key times of resident aliens and the homeless Levites should make it clear that what the Bible is talking about are the most needy and vulnerable among us.

Given that this message of familial responsibility toward all of humanity is so explicit and so often repeated, it has been more than a little disturbing in the past few weeks to hear people in the audience at political debates here in the United States cheer for the idea of letting an uninsured 30-year-old die if he has no insurance, whoop at the notion that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,”  and boo at the thought of respectful treatment  for a homosexual soldier defending this country in a theater of war. That these reactions came from political factions that loudly self-identify as Christians makes the behavior even more disturbing.
While I try not to make this blog too overtly political, neither my political beliefs nor my moral ones are ever far from me. And when behavior like this erupts at political events, I often wonder whether these supposed believers use the Bible as anything more than a hard surface upon which to thump.

There are many topics upon which the Bible is internally contradictory. But the obligation to care for the neediest in society is not one of these. David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Malachi, James and many of its other authors repeat the message and reinforce it. And lest anyone try to argue that the Bible extends this charity only toward like believers, get over it. The Bible argues that we are all of common descent; charity is extended without requirement of a test of belief.
“All men are brothers” may be viewed by some as a trite and sentimental statement, but the Bible is quite clear in laying out the idea (through its descriptions of the genesis of nations and societies) and even more clear about our obligations toward each other.

I’ll end with the simple words of the prophet Isaiah: "Learn to do good. Seek Judgment and redeem the wronged. Defend the orphan and justify the widow."

1 comment:

  1. After I posted this, I realized that in identifying the Levite tribe only as "homeless" I may have misled some readers who do not also know that the Levites were named as the priestly caste. While that is true -- and thus it is also true that they occupied a place of honor -- it is nevertheless true that in biblical exhortations to care for the needy, Levites are often named alongside widows, orphans and resident aliens. This happens because, like the latter categories,Levites had little protection from those who would take advantage of them.