Saturday, January 22, 2011

Who Is My Brother?


But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? (Matthew 12:48)

Recently I posted an internet link to an article where “Alabama governor, Robert Bentley apologized … for proclaiming to a Baptist church audience that only Christians were his brothers and sisters and vowed to work for people of all faiths and colors.”[1] In commenting on the post, I stated, “He shouldn't apologize. He spoke the truth. For the Christian, only Christians are brothers and sisters by blood -- the blood of Christ. We shouldn't feel the need to apologize for that!” It was not long before I was attacked as a purveyor of hate, and that by a Christian brother. The critic argued that we, members of the human race, are all brothers, and to make a claim like Governor Bentley is somehow un-Christian. However, Governor Bentley was not out of line in making such a comment. In context, he was in a Baptist church, and his audience was Christian (the percentage of which only God knows). Furthermore, his statement was factual.

To a point, my critic is right. We are, after all, all descendants of the first human couple, Adam and Eve, so in a sense we all are brothers and sisters. (This, by the way, is why Christians should not be racists. God only recognizes one race – the human race. Notice how the Bible talks about nations, tongues, people and tribes, but never races. But I digress.) However, my argument is that the relationship among Christian brothers and sisters is superior to, and supersedes that of all human relationships because such a relationship is eternal; human relationships are temporal. My critic was a hard sell (in fact, a no sell), so I put myself to the task of searching “the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life” (John 5:39).

“Brother” (Hebrew: awkh) is “used in the widest sense of literal relationship and metaphorical affinity or resemblance: another, brother (-ly), kindred, like, other (Strong’s Concordance). Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions defines it: (1) brother of same parents; (2) half-brother (same father); (3) relative, kinship, same tribe; (4) each to the other (reciprocal relationship); (5) (figuratively) of resemblance. In the Greek “brother” is adelphos – brother (literally or figuratively) near or remote (Strong’s Concordance). I think we all understand the rule of dictionary definitions: the first definition is the main definition of the word. Subsequent definitions are related to the main definition, albeit in a lesser sense and subject to context, inference, implication, etc. So, with this rule in mind, "brother" is a sibling who shares common parentage.

There are at least 978 occurrences of “brother” or “brethren” in the King James Bible; 630 times in the Old Testament and 348 times in the New Testament. Surely with so many occurrences there should be plentiful evidence that the word “brother” can be applied to man (humanity) in general. At the same time, we would expect to find that in most cases the main sense of the word is used (i.e., someone with biological ties).

In the study and interpretation of Scripture, there is the “Principle of First Mention” which sets the tone for how a word will be used generally throughout Scripture. In Genesis 4:2, brother is mentioned for the first time: “And she again bare his brother Abel … ” Following the principle of first mentions, we can establish that the word implies a close relationship or kinship, primarily that of biological siblings. My search confirmed that in most instances, “brother” refers to a sibling or a close relative. In Genesis 12:5 we read, “And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.” One might find such a translation awkward; however there is no Hebrew word for nephew, niece, uncle, aunt, grandfather/son, grandmother/daughter, etc. Bible critics often take this as a point of contention citing various kings whose fathers were actually great-grandfathers (i.e., Daniel 5 where Nebuchadnezzar is cited as Belshazzar’s father). But the translators of the King James Bible did well to maintain a strict literal translation and challenge the reader to “study” the Scripture.

Another example can be seen in Genesis 13:8: “And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren.” Lot is Abram’s nephew, not his brother; therefore in this context, he is referring to him as a close relative. Lot is Abram’s brother’s son, hence Lot is considered his brother too.

Some passages clearly indicate that not all men are considered brothers, contrary to my critic’s well-meaning idealism. Consider God’s promise for Ishmael in Genesis 16:12: “And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. Ishmael would live in the presence of his “brethren” (i.e., his relatives), but “every man’s hand” would be against him. These “men” are NOT Ishmael’s brethren. A further distinction is made when the children of Israel built and worshiped a golden calf in the desert. God was not pleased: “he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor” (Exodus 32:27). Here a distinction is made, even within the camp of Israel, between a brother, a companion and a neighbor. So, even in Israel’s camp not all were “brothers.”

With the multiplication of Abraham’s progeny, the term was expanded to include anyone descending from him, but never to include people from the surrounding nations (i.e., Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Amorites, etc.). When God calls Moses to go and rescue His people, Moses goes to his father-in-law to request leave. “And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive … ” (Exodus 4:18). Already the relationship had expanded beyond the familial to the national. Of course the original meaning of “brother” has not been discarded: “And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet” (Exodus 7:1). Aaron, as we know, is Moses’ older sibling (Exodus 4:14).

There are many examples of the term “brother” being applied in a nationalistic sense. In Leviticus 10:8, Aaron’s sons had offered “strange fire” (v. 1) before the LORD, and God killed them (v. 2). Aaron is instructed not to mourn over the death of his sons (v. 6), “but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail . . .”(v. 8). In Deuteronomy 2:4 the “nation” of Edom (Esau) is considered a brother because Esau and Jacob (Israel) were brothers: “And command thou the people, saying, Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau …” This is akin to the U.S. and England being brethren. Again, “Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite; for he is thy brother: thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian; because thou wast a stranger in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:7). Note that the Edomite is considered a “brother” whereas the same distinction is not applied to the Egyptian. Further distinctions are made in business dealings. Consider Deuteronomy 23:20: “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury [interest]; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.” Note that there is a different standard for dealing with a “stranger” and dealing with a (national) brother.

This national brotherhood continued into the kingdom age and beyond, as demonstrated by David’s call to national unity in bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. “And David said unto all the congregation of Israel, If it seem good unto you, and that it be of the LORD our God, let us send abroad unto our brethren every where, that are left in all the land of Israel, and with them also to the priests and Levites which are in their cities and suburbs, that they may gather themselves unto us” (1 Chronicles 13:2). During Babylonian exile, the Jews were in danger of extermination, yet they maintained a sense of national brotherhood and identity. “Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed” (Esther 10:3) After the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, Nehemiah was tasked with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Part of the task required that he instill a sense of national pride into the broken nation: “fight for your brethren” (Nehemiah 4:14).

The definition of brother as a sibling or a compatriot is maintained throughout the New Testament with the addition of the brotherhood of believers. This distinction is first made when Jesus is made aware of the presence of His mother and siblings outside while He taught in the synagogue (Matthew 12:46-50). “But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?” (v. 48). Not leaving the question open for discussion “he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (vv. 49-50). Jesus elevated brotherhood to a much higher level – above the familial, above the national. As such, Christ has founded a new and eternal nation. “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). “For both he that sanctifieth [i.e., Christ] and they who are sanctified [i.e., Christians] are all of one: for which cause he [i.e., Christ] is not ashamed to call them [i.e., Christians] brethren” (Hebrews 2:11). Recall that “sanctify” means to set apart, to make holy. Christ has set us apart from the rest of the world. As such, we should consider ourselves set apart, not in an arrogant sort of way, but in humility knowing that such a privilege is through no feat of our own, but through the precious blood of Christ. If one is truly of the brotherhood of Christ, there should be no shame; there should be no need for apology in making that claim!

Our brotherhood is eternal. Without going into the multitude of verses that promise eternal life to the believer, we come to the final book of the Bible where we see the Apostle John overwhelmed by all that has been revealed to him that he falls prostrate in worship before the angel. “And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10). The angel affirms that he is a “fellow servant” along with John and John’s “brethren.” This affirms the eternal relationship that we have with Christian brothers and sisters.

I have shown that the term “brother” is not broadly defined in scripture to include the so called “brotherhood of man.” In my study, I found only three passages that might support this idea. First, in Genesis 19 where two angels visit Lot in Sodom to rescue him and his family from the coming destruction. The men of the city come to Lot’s house to rape the two visitors. Sadly, Lot had sunk so low as to refer to these men as brothers: “I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly” (Genesis 19:7). At this time, there was no national Israel, and Lot was not kin to these people, yet he called them brothers. Apparently, Lot had become “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). If anything, this speaks against the “brotherhood of man.” A second use of the word brother outside of the familial or national is when Jacob went looking for his uncle, Laban. He comes upon a group of sheep herders: “And Jacob said unto them, My brethren, whence be ye? And they said, Of Haran are we” (Genesis 29:4). It is difficult to tell from the context, but apparently Jacob did not recognize these men and addressed them as “brethren” much like we do when greeting each other. As it turns out, he was related to them, so the Bible is accurate in recording that they were his brethren. A third and perhaps the strongest argument for the “brotherhood of man” is found in Malachi 2:10: “Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?” Obviously, this traces our common bond all the way back to creation and our common parents Adam and Eve. “All men are natural children of God by the fact of creation (Acts 17:24-29), but become spiritual children of God only by regeneration (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8). However, the primary thrust of this verse is the unity of the children of Israel, all of whom have the same father, Jacob. In fact, Israel also is said to have been “created” by God as a special people (Isaiah 43:1, 7).”[2] So, even this verse is not a strong enough argument for the “brotherhood of man.”

In conclusion, Governor Robert Bentley was not wrong in his assertion “that only Christians are his brothers and sisters.” As Christians, our brotherhood is superior to any human relationship. As Christians we have a familial relationship through the blood of Christ. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). We have a national kinship as citizens of the eternal kingdom of God. “But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom” (Hebrews 1:8). “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Governor Robert Bentley has nothing for which to apologize and neither do we.

End Notes:

[2] Morris, Henry M., The New Defender’s Study Bible, (Nashville, Word Publishing, 2006), p. 1372.

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