Brothers of the Bible Essay
The Old Testament sibling rivalries between Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers were similar in some ways and different in others, but they all hold lessons for us today, for brothers today still face many of the same problems in life that challenged brothers thousands of years ago.
Cain and Abel were in a situation much more unique than Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers faced, for the society they lived in was extremely small, and they each had a direct relationship with God. As the book of Genesis tells us, Cain was the first born son of Adam and Eve.
Their next son was a boy whom they named Abel. As Cain and Abel grew up both took responsibilities for making a living. Abel took care of the sheep and Cain became a farmer. (Genesis 4:7) Both brothers in the space of time began to offer sacrifices unto God. Cain, being a farmer, offered the produce of his fields, and Abel offered the first-born sheep with its fat.
God had respect for the offering of Abel but rejected the offering of Cain. It thus comes as something of a surprise that God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. Two puzzles emerge: (1) We are not told how Cain discovered that neither he nor his offering was accepted. Given God’s way of responding in the story, Cain may have told directly. (2) No rationale is given, hence God’s action appears arbitrary (Abingdon, 373).
The biblical text gives no explicit reason for God’s preference for Abel’s offering. This has given rise to speculation. (Doubleday) And envious of his brother so angered Cain that he killed him. Cain’s response the downcast face reveals more the idea of dejection, feelings associated with rejection, than anger. Cain must care about what God thinks of him and his sacrifice.
But the basic issue becomes not that Cain acts in a dejected fashion, but how he responds to God’s interaction with him about his dejection. That God responds at all reveals a divine concern for Cain. (Abingdon, 373) When God confronted Cain with what he had done and asked, “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:15)
The answer is yes, and relates to Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and to us today, for we are all our brother’s keeper. We live our lives in close relation to our family, neighbors, friends, and even people we only casually meet.
We are responsible for how we treat them, and should act towards them as though they were our brothers or sisters. Cain takes the road of denial rather than hiding from God; even more, he turns the question back to God implying impropriety in God’s question.
“Keeping” is not something human beings do to one another in the Old testament; only God keeps human beings; hence God should know the answer to the question. (Abingdon, 373) Another unique element of the Cain and Abel rivalry and its tragic aftermath is that God personally punished Cain for the murder of Abel, and sent him into exile. But God also showed some mercy to Cain which protected him from harm at the hands of others by putting a mark upon him.
The narrator leaves him as one who has been placed under the very special care of God. Hence, the story ought not to be interpreted in basically negative terms, but rather as the activity of one who lives under divine protection and care. (Abingdon, 375) The sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau didn’t result from envy due to God’s reaction to their sacrifices, but from envy over parental favoritism. In addition to this, the rivalry also involved a number of other factors and began even before they were born.
As God explained to Rebekah when the twins were still in her womb, “the two children inside you will become the fathers of two nations. Just like the two are fighting with each other now, the two nations will struggle with each other.
One will be stronger than the other. and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 33) God explains to her the reason for the painful pregnancy and interprets this as a sign of the future relationship between them and their descendants; the struggle itself does not result from divine action. (Abingdon, 521)
As noted briefly above, the rivalry was heightened even more because their father Isaac liked Esau better than Jacob for the wild game Esau brought home from hunting, while their mother Rebekah liked Jacob better because he learned to cook and to do other things to help her around their home. The simmering rivalry came to a head when Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright, and then tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing he’d intended to give Esau.
Enraged, Esau vowed to kill Jacob. When they finally met again Jacob was ready to completely submit to Esau, but when they saw each other, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” (Genesis 33:4) Esau comes across as callous and uncaring, easily outwitted regarding what might “naturally” be his, desiring more a satisfied present than a secure future.
And on the other hand, Jacob is presented as a clever and opportunistic individual, who knows what he wants. He takes advantage of a brother in need. (Abingdon, 522) Essentially, the story of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau is one in which the Scriptures show the importance of forgiveness. Esau forgave his brother, and they were reconciled.
This relates to many families today, for children are often competitive, especially brothers, and should heed the example set by Esau. The sibling rivalry of Joseph and his brothers is interesting, for Jacob makes the same mistake his own parents did by favoring his youngest son Joseph over his brothers.
Just as Isaac favoring Esau and Rebekah favoring Jacob led to a terrible rivalry between the brothers to such a degree that Esau vowed to kill Jacob, the same treatment angered Joseph’s brothers so much they sold him into slavery. Jacob, Joseph’s father, was bound up in this child of his old age.
He loved Joseph more than all his children. But even this affection was to become a cause of trouble and sorrow. Jacob unwisely manifested his preference for Joseph, and this excited the jealousy of his other sons. (smith, 1793) But there is more involved than just envy of Joseph because he was Jacob’s favorite. Joseph reinforced his brother’s resentment by telling them the content of two dreams that he had, which revealed his arrogant nature.
The dreams were obviously divinely inspired, and it is significant that there were two dreams. We find that the brothers response to each dream was different. The first dream concerned bundles of wheat. The brothers response to this dream was continued hatred. The second dream concerning the constellations evoked a different response.
The brothers were jealous that their father Jacob heeded this dream. (Chait) The difference between the dreams is that the first dream reflected that Joseph would rule his brothers physically. The bundles of wheat represent physical sustenance. Because of this the brothers hated Joseph even more, for they resented that they would be physically subservient to him. The second dream reflected that Joseph would be their mentor, and that he would lead them spiritually as well.
“As the lad stood before his brothers, his beautiful countenance lighted up with the Spirit of inspiration, they could not withhold their admiration; but they did not choose to renounce their evil ways, and they hated the purity that reproved their sins.
The same spirit that actuated Cain was kindling in their hearts.” (White) His brothers were jealous of Joseph, but they did not act upon mere jealousy. They disliked Joseph’s vanity and narcissism and felt that he did not deserve to rule them physically or lead them spiritually.
They didn’t think it was right that he constantly told their father derogatory things about them. Joseph revealing his dreams to them reinforced their opinion that he was arrogant, unworthy, and vain. Jacob, however, realized Joseph’s intellectual abilities and conviction and realized in time he would mature and mold his character as a wise man. As time passed Jacob’s assessment of Joseph’s abilities and nature was proven accurate. (Chait)
The story of Joseph and his brothers is similar to the tale of Esau and Jacob, for they both end in forgiveness and reconciliation. They differ from the experience of Cain and Abel, in that no one committed murder, and God was not directly involved with any of the brothers.
In conclusion, besides these stories from Genesis showing us that when the ancient Israelites got involved in sibling rivalries they didn’t fool around, they also illustrate for modern day readers how harmful parental favoritism can be.
Today’s parents should make every effort to treat their children equally, for the psychological consequences may be severe if they don’t. Finally, these Old Testament stories demonstrate to us today that sibling rivalries can be controlled if brothers or sisters make efforts to treat one another fairly. They show us as well that it is very important for siblings to forgive one another if their rivalries lead to hard feelings or even lengthy estrangement.
Abingdon. The New interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994. Chait, Israel. “Joseph and His Brothers.” Online. Available: http://www.mesora.org/_private/mesora.html. 20 June 2001. Doubleday. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 1. New York: Doubleday Dell Pulbishing group, 1992. Smith, Dictionary of the Bible. London, 1893.
The Holy Bible. New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983.
White, Ellen G. Patriarchs and Prophets. Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958.