A'bel (Heb. He'bel, הֶבֶל, a breath, 1, q. transitory; as Gesenius [Heb. Lex.] thinks, from the shortness of his life or, as Kitto [Daily Bible Illust.] suggests, perhaps i. q. vanity, from the maternal cares experienced during the infancy of Cain; Sept. and N.T. ῎Αβελ; Josephus, ῎Αβελος), the second son of Adam and Eve, slain by his elder brother, Cain (Ge 4:1-16), B.C. cir. 4045. SEE ADAM.
I. History. — Cain and Abel, having been instructed, perhaps by their father, Adam, in the duty of worship to their Creator, each offered the first-fruits of his labors: Cain, as a husbandman, the fruits of the field; Abel, as a shepherd, fatlings of his flock (see Fritzsche, De Sacrificiis Caini et Habelis, Lips. 1751). God was pleased to accept the offering of Abel, in preference to that of his brother (Heb 11:4), in consequence of which Cain, giving himself up to envy, formed the desire of killing Abel; which he at length effected, having invited him to go into the field (Ge 4:8-9; comp. 1Jo 3:12). SEE CAIN. The Jews had a tradition that Abel was murdered in the plain of Damascus; and accordingly his tomb is still shown on a high hill near the village of Sinie or Seneiah, about twelve miles northwest of Damascus, on the road to Baalbek (Jerome, in Ezechiel 37). The summit of the hill is still called Nebi Abel; but circumstances lead to the probable supposition that this was the site, or in the vicinity of the site, of the ancient Abela or Abila (Pococke, East, 2:168 sq.: Schubert, Reis. 3, 286 sq.). SEE ABILA. The legend, therefore, was most likely suggested by the ancient name of the place (see Stanley, Palest. p. 405). SEE ABEL—. (For literature, see Wolf, Curoe in N.T., 4, 749.)
II. Traditional Views. — Ancient writers abound in observations on the mystical character of Abel; and he is spoken of as the representative of the pastoral tribes, while Cain is regarded as the author of the nomadic life and character. St. Chrysostom calls him the Lamb of Christ, since he suffered the most grievous injuries solely on account of his innocency (Ad Stagir. 2:5); and he directs particular attention to the mode in which Scripture speaks of his offerings, consisting of the best of his flock, "and of the fat thereof," while it seems to intimate that Cain presented the fruit which might be most easily procured (Hom. in Genesis 18:5). St. Augustin, speaking of regeneration, alludes to Abel as representing the new or spiritual man in contradistinction to the natural or corrupt man, and says, "Cain founded a city on earth; but Abel, as a stranger and pilgrim, looked forward to the city of the saints which is in heaven" (De Civitate Dei, 15:1). Abel, he says in another place, was the first-fruits of the Church, and was sacrificed in testimony of the future Mediator. And on Psalm 118 (Serm. 30, § 9) he says. "This city" (that is, "the city of God") "has its beginning from Abel, as the wicked city from Cain." Irenaeus says that God, in the case of Abel, subjected the just to the unjust, that the righteousness of the former might be manifested by what he suffered
(Contra Haeares. 3, 23). Heretics existed in ancient times who represented Cain and Abel as embodying two spiritual powers, of which the mightier was that of Cain, and to which they accordingly rendered divine homage. In the early Church, Abel was considered the first of the martyrs, and many persons were accustomed to pronounce his name with a particular reverence. An obscure sect arose under the title of Abelites (q.v.), the professed object of which was to inculcate certain fanatical notions respecting marriage; but it was speedily lost amidst a host of more popular parties. For other mythological speculations respecting Abel, see Buttmann's Mythologus, 1:55 sq.; for Rabbinical traditions, see Eisenmenger, Entdeckt. Judenth. 1:462 sq., 832 sq.; for other Oriental notices, see Koran, 5, 35 sq.; Hottinger, Hist. Orient. p. 24 sq.; comp. Fabric. Pseudepigr. 1:113; other Christian views may be seen in Irenaeus, 5, 67; Cedrenus, Hist. p. 8 (Kitto).
The general tenor of these Eastern traditionary fictions is that both Cain and Abel had twin sisters, and that Adam determined to give Cain's sister to Abel, and Abel's sister to Cain in marriage. This arrangement, however, did not please Cain, who desired his own sister as a wife, she being the more beautiful. Adam referred the matter to the divine arbitration, directing each brother to offer a sacrifice, and abide the result. Abel presented a choice animal from his flock, and Cain a few poor ears of grain from his field. Fire fell from heaven and consumed Abel's offering without smoke, while it left Cain's untouched. Still more incensed at this disappointment, Cain resolved to take his brother's life, who, perceiving his design, endeavored to dissuade him from so wicked an act. Cain, however, cherished his malice, but was at a loss how to execute it, until the devil gave him a hint by a vision of a man killing a bird with a stone. Accordingly, one night he crushed the head of his brother, while sleeping, with a large stone. He was now at a loss how to conceal his crime. He enclosed the corpse in a skin, and carried it about for forty days, till the stench became intolerable. Happening to see a crow, which had killed another crow, cover the carcass in a hole in the ground, he acted on the suggestion, and buried his brother's body in the earth. He passed the rest of his days in constant terror, having heard a voice inflicting this curse upon him for his fratricide. (See D'Herbelot, Bibliotheque Orientale, s.v. Cabil.)
III. Character of his Offering. — The superiority of Abel's sacrifice is ascribed by the Apostle Paul to faith (Heb 11:4). Faith implies a previous revelation: it comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. It is probable that there was some command of God, in reference to the rite of sacrifice, with which Abel complied, and which Cain disobeyed. The "more excellent sacrifice" was the firstlings of his flock; in the offering of which there was a confession that his own sins deserved death, and the expression of a desire to share in the benefits of the great atonement which, in the fullness of time, should be presented to God for the sins of man. By his faith he was accepted as "righteous," that is, was justified. God testified, probably by some visible sign — the sending of fire from heaven to consume the victim (a token that justice had seized upon the sacrifice instead of the sinner) — that the gift was accepted. Cain had no faith: his offering was not indicative of this principle. Although it is doubtful whether we can render the clause in God's expostulation with him — "sin lieth at the door" — by the words, "a sin-offering lieth or croucheth at the door," that is, a sin-offering is easily procured, yet the sin of Cain is clearly pointed out, for though he was not a keeper of sheep, yet a victim whose blood could be shed as a typical propitiation could without difficulty have been procured and presented. The truths clearly taught in this important event are, confession of sin; acknowledgment that the penalty of sin is death; submission to an appointed mode of expiation; the vicarious offering of animal sacrifice, typical of the better sacrifice of the Seed of the woman; the efficacy of faith in Christ's sacrifice to obtain pardon, and to admit the guilty into divine favor (Wesley, Notes on Hebrews 11:4). The difference between the two offerings is clearly and well put by Dr. Magee (On the Atonement, 1:58-61): "Abel, in firm reliance on the promise of God, and in obedience to his command, offered that sacrifice which had been enjoined as the religious expression of his faith; while Cain, disregarding the gracious assurances which had been vouchsafed, or, at least, disdaining to adopt the prescribed method of manifesting his belief, possibly as not appearing to his reason to possess any efficacy or natural fitness, thought he had sufficiently acquitted himself of his duty in acknowledging the general superintendence of God, and expressing his gratitude to the supreme Benefactor, by presenting some of those good things which he thereby confessed to have been derived from His bounty. In short, Cain, the first-born of the fall, exhibits the first-fruits of his parents' disobedience, in the arrogance and self-sufficiency of reason, rejecting the aids of revelation, because they fell not within his apprehension of right. He takes the first place in the annals of Deism, and displays, in his proud rejection of the ordinance of sacrifice, the same spirit which, in later days, has actuated his enlightened followers in rejecting the sacrifice of Christ." SEE SACRIFICE. There are several references to Abel in the New Testament. Our Savior designates him "righteous" (Mt 23:35; comp. 1 John, 3:12). He ranks among the illustrious elders mentioned in Hebrews 11. According to Heb 12:24, while the blood of sprinkling speaks for the remission of sins, the blood of Abel for vengeance: the blood of sprinkling speaks of mercy, the blood of Abel of the malice of the human heart. — Watson, Institutes, 2:174, 191; Whately, Prototypes, p. 29; Horne, Life and Death of Abel, Works, 1812, vol. 4; Hunter, Sacred Biography. p. 17 sq.; Robinson, Script. Characters, i; Williams, Char. of O.T. p. 12; Simeon, Works, 19:371; Close, Genesis, p. 46; Niemeyer, Charakt. 2:37.