Three biblical stories, two in the Old Testament ——specifically in Genesis—— and one in the New Testament, might aid us in trying to understand, however imperfectly and sketchily, the issue of brotherhood in the Bible. The first story is the well-known story of Cain and Abel; the second, the well-known story of Joseph; and finally, the third story, the well-known story of the parable by Jesus of the Lost Son. All three will be presented solely by way of puzzles and questions. In this regard we ask hesitantly: Could it be that the possibility of friendship according to the Bible is very limited in the case of brothers for some very precise reasons? But, why would this be so? Don’t citizen parents actually put all their conjoined strengths into bringing up their children to be good to each other, to love each other?
Story 1: Cain and Abel, Genesis 4
Why provide a second fall immediately following the most foundational of all falls by Adam and Eve? Why indeed are the primary models of brotherhood Cain and Abel? Why is the story so astonishingly short? Why did God not accept Cain’s offering even if it was the first? Why is Cain so wronged and upset by God’s not accepting his gift? Is it because he is the first born? But, what is it that the first born feels entitled to that feeds such angry responses? Moreover, why does he seek to kill his brother? Why not simply punch him a few times? What is the nature of such blinding rage? What is the fundamental importance of Abel’s being a “keeper of flocks” as against Cain’s being “a tiller of the ground”? Is there something about nomadic lives that is more akin to the nature of the divine? Would it be its greater independence from the earthly? Or is it that nomads are much more in need of the presence of the divine as they move around a “homeless” world? Does it have to do with the fact the Abel deals with animals and their care? But then again, why can’t Cain see that God himself actually speaks to him in the story and not to Abel? In the same vein, why is the story about Cain and much less about Abel? Why does it matter so little to know what Abel’s life was like? And furthermore, why does Cain lie to make things even worse? But if Cain knows he is a sinner, and the worst at that as a fratricidal kind of being, why continue to punish Cain with a permanent eternal sign that will mark him permanently to all on the earth? Why punish him beyond his own consciousness of his knowing he has done a terrible, spiritually self-destructive, deed? (See Appendix 1 below.) And dramatically for political philosophy as defended by Athens, why is Cain the one who actually founds the first city of the Bible, the city of Enoch? Why is the Bible so pessimistic about the political from the very start?
Story 2: Joseph, Genesis 37-50
Why is the love of Joseph by his father so connected to the varicolored tunic he gave him in his old age? Does this shed light into the relation of the beautiful and the divine? Why is it also so intimately connected to his actually accompanying his father in old age as the younger one? Does this shed some light into the commandment regarding the honoring of our parents? Is honoring our parents primarily being able to accompany and prepare them for death? But if so, wouldn’t believers also learn much from Socrates for whom philosophy is a constant preparation for dying? And, why does the Bible see it fit to show that now it is not only one brother, but many, who hate Joseph? Moreover, why does Joseph so naively express such complex dreams to his brothers? Didn’t he surmise he would be in trouble? Must faith be necessarily naive (see Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy)? And besides, what is so special about dreams and our connection to the divine in the Bible? How to contrast these presence with Aristotle’s own consideration in his prudential text on dreams? And his brothers, why can’t they appreciate Joseph’s honesty? Would they have rather Joseph not tell them anything at all, that is, not prepare them at all for God’s presence? And very polemically, does Joseph’s being selected by God shed some light on our modern democratic families? And still, why in this occasion do the brothers decide only to fake Joseph’s death? Is it because they are thinking of their father with a certain sympathy? Surely not, for their father would still think Joseph to be dead, wouldn’t he? What is so particularly appalling about Judah’s idea of selling and wreaking profit from his brother’s enslavement? What is it about our desire to have and posses material things than makes Judah lead his own family into utter dislike by God? His future generations, the creations of his creations, are somehow condemned by his avarice, aren’t they? Is this part of the basis as well for Aquinas’ powerful condemnation of usury which speaks little to us nowadays? And what precisely could anger brothers and sisters about one of their own actually being chosen by God? Why wouldn’t this be an occasion for joy? What are brothers particularly so much in competition about? Could it be that at the bottom of their hearts lies a desire to become god-like and to be recognized as such by their kin? Wouldn’t this be what Aristophanes tells us as well in the Symposium? And moving closer to our times, why did Thomas Mann rewrite the story of Joseph in so many pages in our modern context of war? And very importantly, perhaps most importantly, how to understand Joseph’s final words to his fearing brothers:
“But Joseph said to them, “do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore do not be afraid: I will provide for you and your little ones” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis, 50: 20-21)
What exactly does Joseph mean by saying that God “meant it for good”? Was Joseph at all times aware that things would end so? Wouldn’t one apply the words “all ‘s well that ends well “ here? Is this last question simply a reflection of one’s pride? And why does he not suffer as much as Job does? What is it about Joseph that gives him such strength?
Story 3: Parable of the Lost Son, Luke 15: 11-32
Why does this parable follow the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Why are they so ordered? Why one must speak of losing oneself in parables? Is it because we are moving in a particular direction? And crucially, why does the lost son wish to become a migrant risking his own life? Is it because he is more like Abel than Cain, the tiller of the land? Why wish to get lost? For surely, we know what is at stake in leaving our families, don’t we? And once again, why does the brother get so angry? Why is the love of his own recognition so important to him if he has lived right beside his father all his life? Wasn’t that enough? What more could he be looking for? And again, who would be envious of one’s brother’s having suffered and despaired in solitude? Which of these two brothers would actually be better prepared to honor his parents, as is our duty according to the 10 Commandments? Would the adequate honoring of one’s parents be a compromise between the two? But wouldn’t such a compromise involve a certain strange kind of anger that is not to be seen in the noblest of honorings and loves?
For a much more developed puzzling presentation of the Bible, one can turn to Professor Thomas Pangle’s difficult, yet engaging and puzzle-creating, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham where he touches on the life of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac. In particular, see pages 93-96 ‘The Puzzle of Divine Foreknowledge” which are three complete pages made up only of puzzles and questions. Or later on, in the chapter on “Guilt and Punishment” where Pangle writes in crucial relation to the above questions:
“But this last formulation brings close to us a final troubling question. However we are to understand criminal responsibility, what are the intelligible grounds for the overwhelming conviction that the guilty deserve to suffer for what they have done; and what are the intelligible grounds for the concomitant hope that they –that even we ourselves— will suffer the punishment that they, and we, deserve. For guilt betokens sin or vice; and sin or vice are either genuinely and severely harmful, in the most important respect, to the very soul of the criminal; or else they betoken an alienation of the criminal from the source of meaning for him as a being designed to devotion. Why, then, is it appropriate, why is it sensible, that such a crippled and or alienated being receive, in addition to and as a consequence of his corruption or alienation, further harm or suffering. Why is it so terribly important for us that to the suffering and mutilation of the spirit that is entailed in being unjust there be added extrinsic bad consequences for the perpetrator?” (PPGA, p. 101)
Pangle keeps alive, in critical contrast to modernity, the enriching yet tense debate between Athens and Jerusalem.
For a striking story of how Socrates views, at least minimally, the relation between brothers see Memorabilia 2.3 where one finds an astonishing conversation with Chaerecrates who has fought with his older brother. To begin to even try to understand this story, one would have to reconsider what Socrates considered to be a philosophical life and its relation to the citizens who inhabit the agora. Without such a perspective, the story seems merely to involve a strange naivety. And we know for certain that Xenophon, a general, was anything but naive.
But perhaps the true nature of brotherhood is best exemplified in The Republic where Glaucon and Adeimantus —both Plato’s brothers— encounter Socrates dialogically on the question of justice and reveal dramatically to the reader their unique and differing characteristics as regards the political and philosophical life. Perhaps it is by looking at the question of justice that at least some healthier brotherhoods may come about.