Old Testament: Genesis 4:1-15 (Pentecost 20: Series C)

Reading Time: 6 mins

Jesus is the only one who is His brothers’ keeper on behalf of all of humanity and the only one who answered the rhetorical question fully and correctly for you.

This chapter in Genesis confronts the preacher with a number of possible directions for the sermon. However, we are only going to focus on two areas for one sermon. First, we cannot preach on this text without seeing the relationship of chapter 4 to chapter 3. Of all the possible places we can begin with, this account lets us focus on Cain and Abel and their offerings to the Lord. To create a preachable understanding of what is going on, we need to see chapter 4 “as a natural and legitimate continuation of chapter 3.”[1]

Cain brings an offering of “the fruit of the ground” (4:3) which mirrors the curse God has put on humanity in Genesis 3:17-19. His offering is a presentation of the evidence that he has been working the cursed ground. He asks God to accept his offering to demonstrate he is working the curse. Abel’s offering, though, is “brought of the firstborn of his flock” (4:4), which mirrors God’s first sacrifice to cover over the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:21. He does this to ask by his offering that what he saw and believed of what God did for his parents, God would do for him. In other words, he offered up a covering for his sins because he believed God alone can do this and have mercy on him. So, Cain offers up his works in hopes God will accept them while Abel pleads for God to have mercy on him and to cover his sins the same way God alone provided for his parents. This connection is only accomplished from reading Genesis 3 and 4 together.

This connection does not draw any conclusions about the mind of God, but it does show a relationship between the types of offerings and their contextual meaning. The second part of the text we have to draw on will get you to Christ. If the offerings show a need, then the next area gives a savior. The second connection comes by way of a rhetorical question.

After Cain slew his brother Abel, he has a dialogue with God which may serve us homiletically. In Genesis 4:9 it says: “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” This rhetorical question is great homiletically. Of course, God knows where Abel is and, of course, Cain knows the answer to his question. Cain is his brother’s keeper and now he is his brother’s killer. This firstborn son was not the man Adam and Eve were looking for to save them. This particular question in Genesis 4:9 actually serves as a sub-theme for the rest of the book of Genesis; a sub-theme as they search for the zerah (זֶ֫רַע) promise from Genesis 3:15. Was Abraham his brother’s keeper? Yes and no. He kept Genesis 4:9 for Lot but certainly not for Sarah his wife when his life was on the line (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-16). Was Jacob his brother’s keeper to Esau? Well, he was supposed to be, but he proved himself a trickster when it came to familial relations. It all comes down to Joseph in the end. Can he answer the question correctly? Is Joseph his brother’s keeper? The answer is affirmative. He is his brother’s keeper.

This miraculously born (of a barren mother) child who is loved by his father is hated by his brothers (Genesis 37:3). His brothers would reject his revelations from God (Genesis 37). His brothers would gather around him with murderous intent. His brothers would sell him into the grave of Egypt where he was falsely accused (Genesis 39). He was imprisoned though innocent (Genesis 39-40) and exalted after suffering to a place of power and authority (Genesis 49:22-26). He would not use his position to take revenge or kill his brothers. Instead, he was his brothers’ keeper and answered the rhetorical question from Genesis 4:9 correctly. He forgave his brothers (Genesis 50:15-21) and, instead of taking their life justly as punishment for their crimes against him, he had mercy and through forgiveness saved them and blessed them.

Even more, the “whole world” (which had come to Egypt because of the famine) was blessed through him. The question is answered and the promised fulfilled in Joseph, but only partially. Because even though Joseph was a “good guy” who was wronged in the story, so to speak, and though he answered the question correctly (Genesis 4:9) and though he partially fulfills the promise God made through Abraham (Gen 12:2-3), he is not the brother’s keeper you and I need. This Joseph could only save his immediate family from hunger. He could not save the whole human race. He is not the savior we are looking for.

We need a better Savior and the only one is Jesus, our brother’s keeper who is greater than Joseph.

No, we need the promised one (Genesis 3:15) who would atone for all our sins and cover over all our trespasses before God (1 John 2:2). We need a better Savior and the only one is Jesus, our brother’s keeper who is greater than Joseph. Here, homiletically, the typological parallels are quickly seen.

  • Jesus’ miraculous birth (of a virgin mother).
  • Beloved of the Father (Matthew 3:17) is hated by His brothers (John 1:11).
  • His brothers would reject His revelations from God (John 6:66).
  • His brothers would gather around Him with murderous intent (John 11:53).
  • One of His own disciples would sell Him into the grave (Matthew 26:15).
  • Jesus was falsely accused (Mark 14:55-56).
  • Jesus was imprisoned though innocent (John 18:1-19:16).
  • Jesus was killed by Cain’s kin (Acts 5:30-32).
  • Jesus is exalted after suffering to a place of power and authority (Philippians 2:6-10).

Jesus is the only one who is His brothers’ keeper on behalf of all of humanity and the only one who answered the rhetorical question fully and correctly for you. He forgave us all (Luke 23:34 and John 20:19-21:19), and instead of allowing the just wrath of God to come upon us as punishment for our crimes against God’s Law, Jesus took the wrath for us and from His sacrifice we receive mercy through forgiveness of our sins, and we are blessed by His grace eternally (1 Peter 3:18-22). Jesus stands between us and the just wrath of God for our sins and by His shed blood He pleads for the mercy of God (Genesis 4:10) which He receives for us through His atoning death and resurrection. By doing this for us, Jesus “keeps us” from receiving the penalty due for our sins. We are marked in our Baptism not by Cain’s curse, but by Christ’s life. By the righteous sacrifice of the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18-20), He has become for us the true lamb of God (John 1:29), offered up on the altar of calvary. When we approach the altar for the Supper, unlike Abel, we receive the lamb in, with, and under the bread and wine and are accepted by God in Christ. We are saved by God’s kept promises in Christ. This reminds me of the words from the old hymn (Lutheran Service Book, 433): “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; But the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.”

I have a friend named Muluneh Taye who shared a powerful story of when he was a young boy in Ethiopia. At the time, Muluneh was living with his parents and his four siblings in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. He relates how one day his father left the key for their Volkswagen at home while he was gone for the day. The temptation was simply too great for this young man. He wanted to take the car for a quick spin. Now I need you to imagine the scene. Muluneh was short and he struggled to make the manual car work for him. Between the mock shifting and steering while trying to work the gas and the break with his brother outside attempting to give him directions like a traffic controller, something was bound to go wrong. Somewhere in the midst of this “pretend driving,” he accidentally put the car into gear and commenced with “real driving.” He smashed the car into the kitchen leaving both the vehicle and the kitchen significantly damaged, to say the least. There was one thing he knew: When his father found out what he did, he was in big trouble.

Around 5:30 pm, Muluneh’s dad arrived home and learned what had happened. He then set out to teach his son a very “hard lesson.” When Muluneh saw his dad, he ran as fast as he could to his neighbor’s house. They all grew up together and the neighbor was more like family than an acquaintance. His neighbor Ato (the way you say “Mister” in Ethiopian) Kebede, was a big man. So, when Muluneh came running to him crying out, “Save me! Save me!” he was actually able to be completely hidden from sight behind this larger man. Ato Kebede stood in between the two of them. He understood what happened. He knew Muluneh was guilty, but he pleaded with Muluneh’s father saying: “Brother, don’t do this!” He kept saying that until Muluneh’s father changed his attitude toward his son, granting him mercy, grace, and forgiveness instead of the penalty his transgressions deserved. Despite the damage Muluneh caused, the father would pay the price for the repair, and he would not take it out on his sinful child because of the one who stood between them and kept the father from taking out his wrath on his son.

Ato Kebede covered over Muluneh when he needed mercy for his sins, and he kept him from receiving the punishment he deserved. We rejoice and celebrate that Christ has done the same for us. He has become our brother’s keeper.


Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Genesis 4:1-15.

Concordia Theology- Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Genesis 4:1-15.

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 219.