Abel (Ἄβελ) has the first place in the roll of ‘the elders’ (οἱ πρεσβύτεροι, He 11:2), or men of past generations, who by their faith pleased God and had witness borne to them. It Is recorded of him that he offered unto God a more excellent Sacrifice (πλείονα θυσίαν) than his older brother (He 11:4). In the original story (Gn. 4:1–7) his offering was probably regarded as mere pleasing on account of the material of his Sacrifice. It was in accordance with primitive Semitic ideas that the occupation of a keeper of sheep was more pleasing be God than that of a tiller of the ground, and accordingly that a firstling of the flock was a more acceptable offering than the fruit of the ground. The ancient writer of the story (J) evidently wished to teach that animal sacrifice alone was pleasing to God (Gunkel, Genesis, 38; Skinner, 105). The author of Hebrews gives the story a different turn.
The greater excellence of Abel’s sacrifice consisted in the disposition with which it was offered. The spirit of the worshipper rather than the substance of the offering is now considered the essential element. Abel’s sacrifice was the offering of a man whose heart was right. Through his faith he won God’s approval of his gifts, and through his faith his blood continued to speak for him after his death.
In a later passage of Heb. (12:24) that blood is contrasted with ‘the blood of sprinkling,’ by which the new covenant is confirmed. The blood of Abel cried out from the ground for vengeance (cf. Job 16:18, Is 26:21, 2 K 9:26; also Rev 6:9, 10): it was such a cry as is sounded in Milton’s sonnet, ‘Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints’; but the blood of the eternal covenant intercedes for mercy.
St. John (1 Jn 3:12) uses the murder of Abel by his brother to illustrate the absence of that spirit of love which is the essence of goodness. The writer indicates that the new commandment, or message (ἀγγελία), which has been heard from the beginning of the Christian era, was also the fundamental law of the moral life from the beginning of human history. Cain was of the evil one (ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ), and slaughtered (ἔσφαξεν) his brother.
Literature.—Besides the artt. in the Bible Dictionaries, see W. G. Elmslie, Expository Lectures and Sermons, 1892, p. 164; J. Hastings, Greater Men and Women of the Bible, vol. i.  p. 53; G. Matheson, The Representative Men of the Bible, i.  45; A. P. Peabody, king’s Chapel Sermons, 1891, p. 317; A. Whyte, Bible Characters, i.  44.