Abel’s name has its origin in a Hebrew word meaning ‘breath’ (Job 7:1; James 4:14). Perhaps, this points to his short life, since he died while still young, having not been married or begotten offspring.
Although little is mentioned in the scriptures about Abel, his image vividly portrays a man who lived by faith which was reflected in his deeds, not only in offering to God an acceptable sacrifice, but in his practical life as well, so that he deserved the recognition of our Lord Jesus who called him ‘righteous Abel’ (Mat 23:35), and referred to him as one of the prophets (Luke 11:50). According to the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:4), Abel offered to God a better sacrifice …through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts.
Unlike his brother, Cain, who represents evil, Abel is viewed as the representative of righteousness in humanity. This difference between the two brothers, who were brought up in the same environment and inherited the fallen nature from Adam and Eve, portrays the state of all human beings after the fall of man.
Whereas Christians in the West (Catholics and Evangelicals) were influenced to a large extent by the teachings of St. Augustine who in the 5th century propagated the responsibility of all humanity for the original sin that transformed man into a mass of corruption, putting an end to his free will, so that evil became part and parcel of his very nature (a teaching still adopted by the followers of Calvin), the Orthodox Churches follow the tradition of the early fathers that God’s image in man was not destroyed but rather it was distorted, according to St. Athanasius. After the Fall, man did not lose his freedom; despite his fall, man still has the power to respond to the working of God’s grace in him, or to refuse such grace, following the path of good or the path of evil, that of life or death, blessing or curse (Dt 30:19). Without this, Abel, who was born of flesh, would not have been able to follow the road of righteousness. It was only after the Advent of the Savior that man was born of God with a renewed nature (Jn 1:12;13).
Since the dawn of history, the offering of a sacrifice was known as a basic component of worship in most religions and in all ancient civilizations. In the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis, sacrifice is mentioned for the first time, represented in Abel’s offering “of his flock and of the fat thereof,” whereas Cain did not offer a sacrifice of blood but “brought of the fruit of the ground” which has been cursed (Gen 3:17). He offered it as the fruit of his own sweat and human toil (Gen 3:19).
Through faith, Abel’s sacrifice to God was better than Cain’s, and Abel realized that he could approach God through blood only. His human righteousness and own efforts could not remove the barrier of sin between man and God, since “without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin” (Heb 9:22). It is clear, however, that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb 10:4), and that God does “not eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats (Ps 50:13; Isaiah
1:11). The only significance of all sacrifices in the old testament was their reference to the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross, who “neither by the blood of the goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption”(Heb 9:12).
Cain paid no attention to the issue of the sacrifice of blood. This is evident in the Septuagint translation of the Lord’s words to Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? (Gen 4:14), being rendered as “If you are making an offering and you do not correctly divide it into pieces, would you not be sinful?” For this, the Lord did not accept this sacrifice. On the other hand, Abel’s accepted offering was an exemplary model of all offerings accepted by God and this is why we are often reminded of it in the old liturgies as well as the liturgy of St. Cyril, “As you accepted the offerings of righteous Abel, our Patriarch Abraham and the poor widow’s two mites, likewise, O Lord, accept the vows of your servants.”
The First Martyr
Christ considered Abel the first of the martyrs whose blood the Lord seeks (Mat 23:35). The origin of the word martyr means ‘witness’. Abel was a witness through his faith, so that his name comes first on the list of men of faith (Heb 11). He testified (witnessed) also through his righteous works, which were the direct cause of his death (1Jo 3:12), and through his acceptable sacrifice.
In all this, Abel was the silent witness, whose shed blood was heard to speak: “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10), “He died, but through his faith he is still speaking” (Heb 11:4). The life of creatures was known to exist in the blood, “for the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev 17:11-14). Since man’s life ensued from the breath of God (Gen 2:7), the shed blood, therefore, cries out to its creator; a fact provided throughout the Holy Bible, where we learn of the souls of martyrs who had been slain for the word of God asking Him to avenge their blood (Rev 6:9,10).
Abel, the symbol of Christ
But Abel was a witness of a different kind, being a symbol and an emblem of the Lord Christ whose blood was shed on the cross. We have seen how Abel’s offering of the oblation (which is the task of a priest) symbolizes Christ’s priesthood as He offered his full sacrifice on the cross. In his death, Abel refers to Christ in his sacrifice. But, like any other symbol of the Lord, there is a clear asymmetry between the symbol and the Lord himself. Whereas we hear Abel’s blood crying for revenge (Gen 4:10; Rev 6:10), leading to despair (Gen 4:13), the blood of Christ speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24). On the cross, the Lord grants forgiveness to those who crucified Him (Luke 23:24) and becomes a conciliator for peace between God and all men (Co 1:20).
Cain lived, built a city and became the father of those who have cattle and dwell in tents ; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe, and the forgers of all metal instruments (Gen 4:17-26). Notwithstanding, he was the role model for those who follow the path of evil, “Woe to them; for they have gone the way of Cain” (Jude 11). On the contrary, Abel got nothing on earth, but he was an exemplary model of one who “was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people ….although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth .(Isaiah 53:7-9)