The younger brother of Cain and the second son of Adam and Eve. He was the first shepherd, while Cain was a tiller of the soil. The writer of Gen. iv. tells us that when the brothers came as a matter of course to present their offerings to God, the sacrifice of Abel—the first-lings of his flock—was preferred to that of Cain, who gave of the fruits of the earth. The acceptance of Abel's offering aroused the jealousy of Cain, who, in spite of the warnings of God, wreaked his vengeance upon the favorite by murdering him.
Abel was regarded as the first innocent victim of the power of evil, represented by Cain; the first martyrsaint, with the title the Just. In Enoch, xxii. 7 the soul of Abel is the chief of the martyr-souls in Sheol, crying to God for vengeance until the seed of Cain shall be destroyed from the earth. In the vision of the bulls and lambs (Enoch, lxxxv. 3-6) Abel, whose death is deeply mourned by Eve, is the red bull pursued by Cain, the black bull. In the Testament of Abraham (recension A, chap. xiii., and recension B, chap. xi.) Abel is described as the judge of the souls:
"an awful man sitting upon the throne to judge all creatures, and examining the righteous and the sinners. He being the first to die as martyr, God brought him hither [to the place of judgment in the nether world] to give judgment, while Enoch, the heavenly scribe, stands at his side writing down the sin and the righteousness of each. For God said: I shall not judge you, but each man shall be judged by man. Being descendants of the first man, they shall be judged by his son until the great and glorious appearance of the Lord, when they will be judged by the twelve tribes [judges] of Israel [compare Matt. xix. 28], and then the last judgment by the Lord Himself shall be perfect and unchangeable."
Josephus ("Ant." i. 2, § 1) calls Abel "a lover of righteousness, excellent in virtue, and a believer in God's omnipresence; Cain altogether wicked, greedy, and wholly intent upon 'getting' ."
According to the Ethiopic Book of Adam and Eve (ii. 1-15) and the Syrian Cave of Treasures, both works of half-Jewish, half-pagan (Egyptian) character (see Gelzer, "Julius Africanus," ii. 272 et seq.), the body of Abel the Just, after many days of mourning, was placed in the Cave of Treasures. Before this cave, Adam and Eve and their descendants offered their prayers; and "by the blood of Abel the Just" Seth and his descendants adjured their children not to mingle with the seed of the unrighteous.
It is, therefore, an awful curse hurled against the Pharisees when Jesus is represented as saying: "Upon you may all the righteous blood shed upon the earth come, from the blood of the righteous Abel [compare Epistle to the Hebrews, xi. 4, and I John, iii. 12] unto the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom ye slew between the sanctuary and the altar" (Matt. xxiii. 35). From Josephus ("B. J." iv. 5, § 4) it appears that this murder took place thirty-four years after the death of Jesus.
Abel, according to Midrash, protested against Cain's denial of a divine judgment and of a future retribution, and declared for the existence of a divine judgment and a judge, a future world with reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked. "With the first produce of the field the Lord blessed all the saints from Abel until now," says Issachar (Test. Patriarchs, p. 5). According to Pirḳe de-R. Eliezer (chap. xxi.), Abel's dog watched by his corpse to keep off the beasts of prey; and while Adam and Eve were sitting there, weeping and mourning, a raven came and buried a bird in the sand. Thereupon Adam said, "Let us do the same"; and he dug up the earth and buried his son.
Regarding the mourning over Abel, compare the Book of Jubilees, iv. 7, with the strange interpretation of Abel as "Mourning" (as if the name were written ). Compare Philo, "De Migratione Abrahami," xiii., and Josephus, "Ant." i. 2, § 1.
God's favorable attitude toward Abel's sacrifice (Gen. iv. 4) is shown in the fact that it was consumed by fire from heaven. This is a haggadic idea known to Theodotion, accepted by the Christians, and found in the works of many Church Fathers, such as Cyril of Alexandria, Jerome, Ephraem Syrus, and Aphraates. In midrashic literature, however, it is found only in later works (Midrash Zuṭṭa, p. 35, ed. Buber, Berlin, 1899).
Woman was at the bottom of the strife between the first brothers. Each of the sons of Adam had a twin-sister whom he was to marry. As Abel's twin-sister was the more beautiful, Cain wished to have her for his wife, and sought to get rid of Abel (Pirḳe R. Eliezer, xxi.; Gen. R. xxii. 7, according to Ginzberg's emendation; Epiphanius, "De Hæresi," xl. 5, "Schatzhöhle," ed. Bezold, p. 34; compare, too, "The Book of the Bee," ed. Budge, pp. 26, 27).
Abel, stronger than Cain, overcame him in a struggle between them, but mercifully spared his life. Cain, however, took Abel unawares and, overpowering him, killed him with a stone (Gen. R. xxii. 18)—some say with a cane, or even that he choked him with his fingers (compare Ginzberg, cited below, pp. 229, 230, 298, 299).
The place where Abel was killed remained desolate forever, never producing vegetation (Midrash Canticles, ed. Shechter; "Jew. Quart. Rev.," 1894-95, vii. 160. Jerome, "Commentary on Ezekiel," xxvii.18, supported by Jewish tradition, held it to be Damascus (Heb. : blood; drink). According to another version, the earth refused to take up Abel's blood (Apocalypsis Mosis, xl.).
Since man had no knowledge of burial, Abel's corpse remained unburied for some time. At God's command, two turtle-doves flew down; one died; the other dug a hollow place and moved the dead one into it. Thereupon Adam and Eve did likewise to Abel's body (Tan., Bereshit, § 10; Pirḳe R. Eliezer, xxi., see also Gen. R. l.c.; compare "Denkschrift d. Wiener Akademie," xx. 52, and Ginzberg, l.c. 295).
- Ginzberg, in Monatsschrift, 1899, 226-230, 294-298.
The story of Cain and Abel is thus told in the Koran (sura v. 30 et seq.): "Recite to them the story of the two sons of Adam: Truly, when they offered an offering and it was accepted from one of them, and was not accepted from the other, that one [Cain] said, 'I will surely kill thee.' He [Abel] said, 'God only accepts from those who fear. If thou dost stretch forth to me thine hand to kill me, I will not stretch forth mine hand to kill thee; verily, I fear God, the Lord of the worlds; verily, I wish that thou mayest draw upon thee my sin and thy sin, and be of the fellows of the fire; for that is the reward of the unjust.' But his soul allowed him to slay his brother, and he slew him, and in the morning he was of those who perish. And God sent a crow to scratch in the earth and show him how he might hide his brother's shame; he said, 'Alas for me! Am I too helpless to become like this crow and hide my brother's shame?' And in the morning he was of those that did repent " (compare Pirḳe R. El. xxi).
No further mention is made of Abel; and the absence of his name here causes the commentator Baidawi and the historian Tabari to say that the two mentioned here were not sons of Adam, but "children of Adam" or merely descendants. The Arabic historians (Ya'ḳubi, Tabari, Ibn al-Athir, etc.) call Abel "Habil"; and, following Jewish tradition, they say that to each one of the brothers a sister or sisters were born. Adam wished that each should marry the sister of the other; but Cain's sister was the handsomer of the two and had been born in paradise; while Abel and his sister had been begotten outside of the garden. Adam suggested that the question should be settled by each one bringing an offering. Abel brought of the best of his flock, but Cain of the worst of the products of the ground. Fire fell from heaven, and consumed only the offering of Abel. The sister of Abel is called Kelimia; that of Cain, Lubda (compare Lebuda and Kelimat in the Syriac "Schatzhöhle," ed. Bezold, trans., p. 8; and in the "Book of the Bee," ed. Budge, trans., p. 25; in the Ethiopic Midrash the names are Aklemia and Lubuwa; see Malan, "Book of Adam and Eve," pp. 93, 104). According to an another tradition, Adam's height shrank considerably through grief at the death of Abel.
- Weil, Biblische Legenden der Musulmänner, p. 30;
- Grünbaum, Neue Beiträge zur Semitischen Sagenkunde, pp. 67 et seq.
The Biblical account of Abel comes from one writer (J) only, and is so brief and fragmentary that much is left to speculation when we try to get the original form of the story. The name itself can not be satisfactorily explained, as it is only clear that the narrative comes from a very old tradition. The Assyrian word for son is hablu, and the derivation from a Babylonian source seems to be quite probable (Stade's "Zeitschrift," 1884, p. 250). The story is intended to set forth: First, the superiority of the pastoral over the agricultural occupation. This prejudice naturally inhered in the nomadic life. The fact confirms the antiquity of the original story. Secondly, it emphasizes the peculiar value of the choicest animal sacrifices as developed later in the ritual system. Thirdly, it shows how deep-seated was the jealousy and rivalry between people of different occupations, who in ancient times formed separate communities and were continually at war. Fourthly, there also lurks in the story a consciousness that certain people are more pleasing to God than others, and that the difference is, in part at least, connected with modes of worship and sacrifice. Neither Abel nor Cain is referred to in later Old Testament books. The New Testament has several references.