As I did for both Jubilee and Evangeline, I wanted to write a brief explanation of the meaning of Abel’s name.

As with both his older sisters, Abel’s name, as you probably know, comes from the Bible. His middle name (like Jubilee and Evangeline’s as well) is that of one his great-grandparents. William (more commonly known as “Bill”) is my maternal grandfather.

Abel William is due January, 2020.

Abstract: Abel is the first in the long history of examples of faithful worshipers of God who suffer and die on account of their righteousness. His account reveals to us a God who champions the victimized, avenges evil, and ensures that injustice will not go unanswered. According to the book of Hebrews, Abel is held up as the earliest example of those who put their faith in God and “preserve their souls,” despite all appearances to the contrary (e.g., suffering and death). Christ’s death, however, overshadows Abel’s, as Christ fills the role as the pinnacle righteous one who suffers death. In fact, Christ’s death “speaks a better word than Abel’s.” Whereas Abel’s blood cried out to God for vengeance, Christ’s blood speaks to the satisfaction of God’s just vengeance against unworthy sinners. Additionally, the name Abel matches the word “vanity” in Ecclesiastes. This word, which encapsulates the message of the entire book, describes the futility of looking to the things of this fallen world, and instead redirects our eyes to the fear of the Lord, wherein we can experience lives of true joy.

In scripture, Abel is the second son of Adam and Eve, and the first victim of murder—killed at the hands of his elder brother, Cain (Gen 4:1-16, 25). The name Abel (הֶבֶל, hevel) matches a word most notable for its prolific use as a repeated refrain in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity!”(הֶבֶל, hevel). In its literal sense, this word means breath or vapor. Additionally, at times it comes to describe that which is transitory, fleeting, transient, and ephemeral. In scripture, a character’s name often reflects or conveys something about that individual. This is especially the case in Genesis (e.g., Cain’s name sounds like the Hebrew word for “gotten,” as Eve proclaims, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord”; see also the names of Isaac [=“he laughs”], Jacob [=“he takes by the heel”], Israel [=“he strives with God”], etc.). Although Abel’s name is not explicitly explained in the Genesis narrative, given this phenomenon, many surmise that his name reflects the fleeting, transitory nature of his life. Just as his name indicates, his life would be cut short.

As noted above, the word הֶבֶל (hevel, often translated “Vanity”) plays a central role in the message of Ecclesiastes. It is the Preacher’s (Qohelet) refrain—“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!—and it both introduces (1:2) and closes out the book (12:8). All in all, it occurs a total of 38 times in Ecclesiastes. In short, one might say that the word הֶבֶל (hevel) summarizes the entire message of Ecclesiastes: vanity!

In the book’s opening poem, after issuing the refrain, “All is vanity!” (1:2) the following lines explain, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3) The answer, of course, as we read the rest of the poem, as well as the rest of the book, is “nothing!” Nothing is gained. And this is what the word means. When Ecclesiastes describes something, or even all things, are “vanity,” it means nothing of ultimate worth is gained in such things. We might translate it with a more familiar word: “futility.” A phrase that often accompanies this word (“vanity”) and parallels its meaning is “striving after wind” (see 1:14, and elsewhere). You want to know what vanity means? It’s like chasing the wind and trying to catch it. You never will. You can’t. Try to grab the wind and it will just slip right through your fingers. In fact, to try to catch the wind is the errand (and error) of a madman. If we saw someone trying to catch the wind, we would assume such a person is crazy!

Ecclesiastes, then, wants to convince us of this reality by taking us on a journey to discover it for ourselves. We meet our tour guide, the Preacher, who, using his superlative wisdom and prime privileges, sets out on his quest “to seek and to search … all that is done under heaven” (1:13, cf. 1:12-18), and “what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life” (2:3). In the end, all he finds is vanity, i.e., “nothing is to be gained.” He can neither gain anything worthwhile in his toil (2:1-6:9), nor can he gain satisfactory understanding about any of it all (6:10-12:7).

This message of “vanity,” however, is surprisingly—likely counter-intuitively—a good one for us to hear. Although “all is vanity” initially sounds negative, dark, and dreary, it’s actually quite a liberating reality once we come to grips with it. And the Preacher wants us to realize the vanity that characterizes this fallen world in order that we might avoid its pitfall and instead experience joy. For it’s only when we realize the vanity of the things in life that we are liberated from looking to them for our ultimate meaning, value, and significance. When we look to them as ultimates, we spoil them by looking to them to be something they were never designed to be and to do something they are not able to do. But when we embrace the fear of God, we experience the joys of life as what they are—gifts from God.

Returning to the individual Abel himself, Abel emerges in Genesis 4 as the victim of Cain’s murder. Abel is characterized as one who is righteous (1 John 3:12) and offers the best of his flock when making his offering to the Lord (“the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” – Gen 4:4). But not only does he attract the favor of God (Gen 4:4), he also attracts the lethal envy of his brother. His brother, Cain, acts evilly (1 John 3:12); and, in contrast to Abel, God does not regard Cain’s offering (Gen 4:3-7). Cain responds in anger by slaying his brother (Gen 4:8-16).

Abel, therefore, represents the first (Exhibit A, you might say) in a long string of faithful worshipers of God who die on account of their righteousness. In Matthew 23:35 (parallel Luke 11:51), Jesus speaks of “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah….” This expression, “from Abel to Zechariah” forms something like a set of canonical bookends, an A-Z so to say, of those martyred as worshippers and prophets of God. And, of course, Christ says this knowing he himself will become the pinnacle expression of that righteous sufferer. He is the only one who is fully righteous, having no sin of his own. And yet he suffers for unrighteousness—not his own unrighteousness, of course; but that of his people (1 Peter 3:18).

In Genesis 4, when God confronts Cain after Abel’s murder, God declares, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” The story of Abel reveals to us, in other words, a God who avenges evil, champions the victimized, and ensures that injustice will not go unanswered. Abel’s blood cries out; and God hears. So too across scripture and across church history, God’s people have been able to find solace in the fact that God—in his timing—promises to execute justice and answer evil (cf. Rev 6:10).

As we come to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Abel is held up as the earliest example in a long line of those who put their faith God and his promise of coming redemption (Heb 11:4)—the righteous who live by faith (Heb 10:38). Abel is first in the roster (this “cloud of witnesses” – Heb 12:1) of those who demonstrate “faith and preserve their souls” (Heb 10:39). And he does so, he “preserves his soul,” even though he is violently killed—that is, despite all appearance to the contrary (a common theme in Heb 11). And thus, through this example of faith, Abel still speaks to believers today (Heb 11:4).

Alluding to Genesis 4:10, Hebrews 12:24 tells us that Jesus’ blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” In other words, whereas Abel’s blood cries out to God for just retribution, Christ’s blood enters before God (Heb 9:11-12) to satisfy God’s righteous vengeance and purchase our pardon (Heb 9:15). Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant. And although we, like Cain, deserve God’s condemnation for our evil deeds, Christ’s blood obtains the salvation of all who trust in him (Heb 8:6; 9:15; 12:24).