Abel Still Speaks, But Are We Listening?
Though he was murdered at the hand of an envious brother, and even though there is not a recorded word from his lips in the Old Testament narrative, nonetheless, over more than six millennia Abel has “spoken,” and continues yet today.
The following words are recorded in the book of Hebrews.
“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had witness borne to him that he was righteous, God bearing witness in respect of his gifts: and through it he being dead yet speaks” (Heb. 11:4).
The verb rendered “speaks” [“speaketh” — older versions] is a present tense, active voice form. It suggests that, in some sense, Abel’s influence and the lessons associated with him are reverberating across the centuries of biblical history — even to our own day.
In order to get a more complete picture, it will be helpful to combine the Old Testament information regarding Eve’s second child, with the quotation introduced above.
“And the man knew [i.e., was intimate with] Eve his wife; and she conceived, and gave birth to Cain, and said, I have gotten a man with the help of Jehovah. And again she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto Jehovah. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And Jehovah had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he did not have respect. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance [expression on his face] fell. And Jehovah said unto Cain, Why are you angry? And why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, shall it not be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door: and it will desire you, but you must rule over it. And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and killed him” (Gen. 4:1-8).
Lessons from the Life of Abel
With these complementary texts in front of us, what lessons does the careful Bible student learn from the brief biographical data regarding Abel?
What is faith?
The case of Abel defines the nature of valid “faith.”
“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4).
The verb “offered” reflects an act of obedience (cf. Heb. 11:8). The lad did not simply “believe” that a sacrifice would be acceptable. He accessed the divine blessing by means of obedience to a prescribed method.
It is commonly believed in the religious community that "faith is merely a willingness to accept facts regarding the Lord, combined with a disposition to trust him. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Faith is not validated as faith until it responds in doing what God requires. That is why James can challenge:
“Show me your faith apart from works [obedience], and I, by my works [obedience] will show you faith” (Jas. 2:18).
The action verbs, connected to the expression “by faith,” in Hebrews chapter 11 are vivid testimony to the nature of genuine faith.
Throughout the eleventh chapter of Hebrews as noble Old Testament characters come into view, it becomes clear that the “by faith” phrase is the equivalent of saying that the believer yielded to divine instruction.
W. E. Vine observed that Abel’s “by faith” sacrifice “was based on a revelation which God had made” (Vine, 129). Compare the principle set forth in Romans 10:17.
God Is Watching
The case of Abel reveals that God is observing the lives of those he has created. This is true of our entire sphere of activity in general, and of our worship in particular. We are not free to live as we please, accountable to no one but ourselves.
“The eyes of Jehovah are in every place, keeping watch upon the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3; cf. Heb. 4:13).
A consideration of the biblical narratives clearly demonstrates that worship involves more than sincerity alone. It entails substance as well.
True worship embraces: the proper object, a genuine disposition of mind, and adherence to the proper format (cf. Jn. 4:24).
There is no word of censure in the sacred text that would indicate an initially insincere attitude in Cain. When he brought the “fruit of the ground,” there is no textual reason that suggests he was less than honest in his attempt to worship God as he saw fit.
Rather, his error obviously was that he believed in the principle of “substitution,” i.e., it mattered not as to what he brought, so long as he brought something. He felt that he could engineer a plan as well as anyone. He was the prototype of Jeroboam the son of Nebat who crafted his own religious system, and in so doing, “made Israel to sin” (1 Kgs. 12:25ff; 14:16).
Thus, whereas Abel offered his gifts “by faith,” Cain brought his by “sight” (emotion, personal judgment, etc.). There is a vast difference between the two approaches.
The claim of some theologians, that Cain’s problem was rooted in the fact that he did not have a pure heart but that his offering was as valid as Abel’s is an assumption without sufficient evidence (see: Sailhamer, 61).
Cain’s subsequent anger does not prove that his offering was disingenuous initially. Moreover, the writer of Hebrews specifically says that it was Abel’s “sacrifice” that was “more excellent” than his brother’s — not his “disposition.” Add to this the fact that John declares Cain’s “works” were evil (1 Jn. 3:12).
Obedience Condemns Disobedience
Another significant lesson illustrated in the record regarding Abel is that genuine obedience, by way of contrast, condemns disobedience. Frequently, obedience draws a reactionary animosity, if not outright persecution.
The writer of Hebrews, in connection with Noah’s “by faith” preparation of the ark, asserted that by his obedience Noah “condemned the world” (Heb. 11:7b). The patriarch’s obedience, by its stark contrast, condemned the disobedience of his contemporaries.
Similarly, Cain, by some means, learned that the Lord had accepted his brother’s offerings, but rejected his. He thus became angry (Gen. 4:5-6). He was then warned that his anger was on the verge of escalating into even a deeper level of sin.
When his anger “conceived,” it “brought forth” murder (cf. Jas. 1:15). An inspired apostle comments on this matter in the following fashion:
“For this is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another: not as Cain was of the evil one, and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because his works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn. 3:11-12).
Influence Lives On: For Good or Bad
We learn from the case of Abel that one’s influence lives beyond the parentheses of his brief sojourn upon the earth. Think of the evil that has followed in the wake of Darwin, Nietzsche, Lenin, and Stalin. We are reminded of Adam’s influence each time we deposit the body of a loved one beneath the soil of our planet (cf. Rom. 5:12).
By way of contrast, reflect upon the influence of Jesus of Nazareth, and his disciples — men like Paul.
Albert Barnes has argued, with some force, that the influence of good people survives much longer than that of those who are evil (Barnes, 257). There was a precious moment during the ministry of Jesus that wonderfully illustrates this principle.
Not long before his crucifixion, Christ was in Bethany, the city where Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived. During a special occasion, Mary came and anointed both the Lord’s head and feet with a precious ointment.
Judas (and likely under his influence the disciples as well) complained about the matter, charging the devoted lady with “waste.” But Christ commended the act, suggesting that it symbolized his approaching burial (cf. Mt. 26:6-13; Mk. 14:3-9; Jn. 11:55-12:11).
Then the Savior said regarding Mary:
“Verily I say unto you, wherever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mt. 26:13).
A seemingly rather insignificant act has been forever enshrined in the “Memorable Deeds Hall of Fame.”
What will be said regarding our legacy — by our actions, teaching, and the influence through our children, grandchildren, etc. — in ages yet to come?
There is Something After Death
Finally, the fact that Abel’s obedience is applauded even centuries after his voice was but an echo from bloodstained soil (Gen. 4:10) constitutes subtle evidence that, upon death, he did not fade into the oblivion of an eternal nothingness, as materialists would have one believe.
Every detailed nuance of the biblical data argues for ultimate accountability and the administration of divine justice.
Abel is still speaking. Are we listening?
- Barnes, Albert. 1955. Commentary on Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Baker.
- Sailhamer, John. 1990. “Genesis.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- Vine, W. E. 1952. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.