Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means (5)

The majority of times the word “brother” is used in scripture, it denotes a male sibling, a family relation, someone swimming very close to another in the gene pool, a son of the same mother, father or both. In Hebrew, the word “brother” is 'ach, in Greek it is adelphos.

In this literal sense, Cain and Abel were brothers, Isaac and Ishmael were brothers, James and John were brothers. Little more need be said about that.

What is much more interesting is to explore the various levels at which the term “brother” is used metaphorically in the word of God. Certain relationships in this world have features similar to being siblings. Contrary to the immoral and unnatural impulses of Cain, we are in fact our brother’s keepers. In ancient cultures, the merest suggestion of either literal or metaphorical brotherhood carried with it the idea of closeness, obligation, loyalty, mutual support, shared values and experience, much as it does today. To say that anyone is “my brother” is to say, in the words of the Hollies, that “he ain’t heavy”; that my responsibility toward him is something I accept joyfully, not as a burden.

9. “Brother” ['ach]

Let’s get this little caveat out of the way first: the word “sister” occurs slightly less than one-third as frequently as “brother” in scripture. In its figurative sense the Hebrew 'achowth (“sister”) refers to things which are joined, as in the tabernacle’s boards and curtains or the wings of the cherubim that touched one another in Ezekiel. There is no concept of “sisterhood” in scripture, but if there were, it would by its very nature exclude males. The concept of “brotherhood” is not quite so exclusionary: more often than not it includes the female as well as the male. (For example, when Moses speaks of Edom as Israel’s “brother” nation, he is not singling out the Edomite men.) The frequency of use of masculine nouns and pronouns in scripture does not for a moment imply that women are anything less than an integral part of extended fraternities like families, tribes and nations.

We might compare the various figurative uses of “brother” in the Bible to a series of hierarchical levels or to the layers of an onion. Our responsibilities to one another radiate out from their center to the world beyond. If circumstances force us to make a choice about where our obligations lie, all else being equal it is the innermost layers of the “onion” that demand the greatest displays of fraternal affection, care and loyalty. That is not to minimize our responsibilities to those with whom we have indirect relationships, but it does mean that first things must always come first: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives (in Greek, idios, meaning “his own”), and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

Here are the observable levels of fraternity scripture distinguishes from one another.

Layer 1: Sympathetic Brotherhood

If we say that the heart of the onion is genetic brotherhood, there is still a metaphorical variant on that relationship in the word of God that lies even closer to the center. After all, not all genetically fraternal relationships are precisely equal. Jacob and Esau were twins, and yet they could not have been more different. They were not true “brothers” in every sense. Their characters and destinies were markedly different. Jacob prized the heritage of his grandfather, while Esau despised his birthright.

On the other hand, Simeon and Levi were true brothers in every sense. That wasn’t a compliment when their father observed it. He said, “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords.” Here it is not mere genetics that made them brothers: in their violence, they were kindred spirits. They shared a bond that was more intense than the one they shared with their other ten siblings. Not only were they sons of the same father, but they were united in their vision of what family meant and the lengths they were prepared to go to avenge themselves on anyone who humiliated a family member.

We might find a more positive example, but to the extent that brothers in the flesh are also joined in spirit, their fraternity is not made less significant but more so.

Layers 2 and 3: Brotherhood of Immediate and Extended Family

We don’t have to read far into scripture to discover a not-quite-literal use of 'ach. In this metaphorical brotherhood there is still a genetic link between the parties, but it is slightly more distant. Abraham uses the term this way in Genesis 13:8 when he tells his nephew Lot, “we are kinsmen” (literally, “brothers”), and Laban invokes the same closeness with his nephew Jacob: “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing?” (Of course, Laban would go on to use and manipulate Jacob repeatedly, so we must recognize that calling someone “brother” is often at best a mere platitude, and at worst the means of lulling him into complacency the better to take advantage of him later.)

But there are two distinct layers of metaphorical usage to be observed in scripture among these larger groups of relatives. Laban called Jacob his brother, but that relationship between uncle and nephew was still at one extra remove. There was a closer fraternity. In Genesis 31, Laban gives chase to his “brother” Jacob to get back the household idols he believes he has stolen. Jacob is irate, and says to Laban:
“For you have felt through all my goods; what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two.”
Here a slightly-more-distant genetic relationship is intentionally distinguished from an immediate one. Jacob speaks of “my kinsmen” [lit. “brothers”], by which he means his own male children and their growing families. Laban had his own “brothers” as well, and his family members were lined up on opposite sides of this disagreement. So then, Jacob and Laban may have had a certain bond between them that Laban referred to as brotherhood, but when push came to shove, the immediate interests of each nuclear family had to be considered on a higher level than either man’s responsibilities to one another.

Layer 4: Brotherhood as Tribalism

In Numbers 16, Moses tells Korah that God has “brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you”. Now we find the word being used in its exclusionary sense at the tribal level: members of the tribe of Levi were brothers in the sense that members of other tribes of Israel were not, even though all were descended from Jacob. 1 Chronicles also makes mention of “Saul’s brethren of Benjamin”, as distinct from the men of other tribes.

Layer 5: Brotherhood as Nationalism

At the beginning of Exodus a division along ethnic lines is observable: Egyptians vs. Hebrews. Israel’s children had lived in the land of Egypt for hundreds of years, and yet they had not become Egyptian by osmosis. They were a distinct people group with a level of fraternal relationship that doesn’t exist even among close allies. Moses had been raised by Egyptians and had lived a life of affluence and privilege, but the moment he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he identified with the victim, not the victimizer. The Hebrew, it says, was “one of his brothers”. The bond was not merely tribal or familial, it was national.

God himself speaks of the same level of fraternal connection when he distinguishes between a “brother” and a “foreigner” with respect to the matter of the Sabbath release of debt. There were to be no poor in the Israelite nation, but exacting a debt from a foreigner was perfectly acceptable. The higher level of obligation was owed to the person closer to the center of the brotherhood “onion”. The same principle applied to the release of slaves. Apparently the “brotherhood of man” didn’t translate into the world of higher finance.

Then there is God’s command to Rehoboam that “you shall not go up or fight against your brothers”. He was referring there to the ten tribes which had just seceded from Israel. So there is a distinct sense in which an ethnically-homogeneous group of people are called “brothers” that is not true in the same sense (or at the same level) of relationships with people from other nations.

Layer 6: Brotherhood of Related Nations

In returning from Egypt, Moses at one point sent messengers to the king of Edom. His message began this way: “Thus says your brother Israel ...” Here Moses is appealing to the fraternal relationship between Jacob and Esau, though hundreds of years had passed and their descendants probably numbered in the millions at that point. His appeal was rejected, but God ultimately held that rejection against the people of Edom. They had committed a violation of their fraternal obligation to Jacob, and shame would cover them accordingly.

Likewise, in Deuteronomy, God refers to “your brothers, the people of Esau”. That special historic relationship demanded the Edomites be left alone when the land of other people living nearby was fair game for Israel.

Fellow Man as Brother?

Layer 6 is as big as the concept of fraternal obligation gets in scripture. There are almost no references which might be taken be taken to refer to the fraternity of humanity, the so-called “brotherhood of man” to which globalists are so fond of appealing. The single rather remote possibility, which we find in Genesis 9, occurs before nations even existed, when the entire “brotherhood of man” was made up of precisely eight people all living in the same area and all speaking the same language, and “brotherhood” was at its most literal and least conceptually abstract. When God began requiring the lifeblood of men from one another by way of law, that law was always locally administered by men whose relationships were only a few removes from immediate family.

Two Unusual Cases

Two further usages of 'ach in our Bibles appear to fall outside the scope of our rather artificial “onion” model, and need to be discussed separately:

1. Rhetorical or Pseudo-Brotherhood

Appealing to brotherhood to get what you want is a classic device that goes all the way back to Laban and Jacob. There doesn’t have to be a legitimate basis for the claim. Hiram king of Tyre referred to Solomon as “my brother”. Ahab referred to Ben-Hadad king of Syria as “my brother”. Neither reference seems especially sincere or reflects any essential truth we need to get a handle on. Both speakers had political ends in view. They were making attempts to introduce the obligations of brotherhood where none existed and, arguably, none should exist.

2. Brotherhood of Spirit

There is one other sort of Old Testament metaphorical brotherhood we should take seriously. David referred to “my brother Jonathan”, whose “love was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women”. David and Jonathan agreed about everything, including that David should become king, though Jonathan was heir-apparent, and even though they came from different tribes in Israel that competed vigorously for the same prize.

Thus, long before any New Testament references to Christian brotherhood, we get a sense that true fraternity is not merely a matter of genetics.

Putting on the Brakes

I’m going to stop here before this gets too lengthy, but I’ll come back to this subject in tomorrow’s post. There is much more that needs to be said about the Bible’s hierarchy of fraternal relationships, why we need to distinguish each layer of personal responsibility to our “brothers” of various sorts, and how the concept of brotherhood changes in the New Testament.

Stay tuned.

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