Abel (Heb., הבל, Vanity, "probably so called from the shortness of his life"—Gesenius; Gr., Ἄβελ, whence Eng. form) was the second son of Adam. Vigouroux and Hummelauer contend that the Assyr. aplu or ablu, const. Abal, i.e. "son," is the same word, not a case of orthographic coincidence, especially as Hebrew and Assyrian are closely related tongues. Some, with Josephus (Ant., I, ii), think it means "Sorrow", as if written אבל i.e. "Lamentation'. Cheyne holds that "a right view of the story favours the meaning shepherd, or more generally herdsman"; Assyr. ibilu (Ency. Bib., s. v.) "ram, camel, ass, or wild sheep."
Cain, the first-born, was a fanner. Abel owned the flocks that lived upon the soil. The two were, therefore, doubly brothers, by birth and by calling. Abel is not mentioned in the Old Testament except in Gen., iv. St. Augustine makes him a type of the regenerate, and Cain of the natural, man. "Cain founded a city on earth, but Abel as a stranger and pilgrim looked forward to the city of the saints which is in heaven" (De Civ. Dei, XV, i). The descendants of Cain were wicked, but, as nothing is said about those of Abel, it is supposed that he had none; or at least that no son was alive at the birth of Seth, "whom God has given me for Abel", as Eve expressed it (Gen., iv, 25). The Abelians, or Abelites, a sect in northern Africa mentioned by St. Augustine (de Hær., lxxxvii), pretended that they imitated Abel by marrying, yet condemned the use of marriage. They adopted children who also married and lived in the same manner as their foster-parents. The biblical account of the sacrifices of the brothers and of the murder of Abel states that Cain offered "of the fruits of the earth", Abel "of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat". Cain's offerings are not qualified, Abel's show that he gave with generosity and love, and therefore found favour with God. Josephus says (Ant., I, ii), "God was more delighted with the latter (Abel's) oblation, when He was honoured with what grew naturally of its own accord than He was with what was the invention of a covetous man, and gotten by forcing the ground." St. John gives the true reason why God rejected Cain's sacrifice and accepted that of Abel: "his own works were wicked; and his brother's just" (I John, iii, 12). God said later, "I will not receive a gift of your hand" (Mal., i, 10). The love of the heart must sanctify the lifting of the hands. Cain offered dans Deo aliquid suum, sibi autem seipsum (de Civ. Dei, XV, vii), but God says to all what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "I seek not the things that are yours, but you" (II Cor., xii, 14).
In Hebrew, Christian, and Arabic traditions and legends it is said that God showed his acceptance of Abel's sacrifice by sending fire to consume it, as in III Kings, xviii, 38. Cain thereupon resolved to kill his brother, thinking the latter would supplant him as Jacob did Esau later; or because he thought the seed of Abel would have the honour of crushing the serpent's head (Gen., iii, l5.-Hummelauer, Curs. Com. S. Sac.). St. Jerome (Com. in Ezech., VIII, xxvii, no. 316), following Jewish tradition, makes the plain of Damascus the scene of the murder, and interprets the name of the city sanguinem bibens (blood-drinking) as if from שׁקה and דם. A traveller quoted with approval by the Rev. S. Baring-Gould (Legends of the Old-Testament Characters) places the scene half a mile from Hebron; but there is no such local tradition in the neighbourhood of Hebron. The Damascus referred to is certainly the Syrian city. The Koran (Sura v, 30, etc.) agrees with the Bible in the main facts about the sacrifices and murder, but adds the legend that God sent a raven which by scratching in the earth showed Cain how to bury his brother. According to Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were taught by the raven how to bury their son, and God rewarded the raven by granting three things: (1) his young were to be inviolable,(2) abundance of food, (3) his prayer for rain should be granted (Pirke Rab: Eliezer, XXI).
In the New Testament Abel is often mentioned. His pastoral life, his sacrifice, his holiness, his tragic death made him a striking type of Our Divine Saviour. His just works are referred to in I John, iii, 12; he is canonized by Christ himself (Matt., xxiii, 34, 35) as the first of the long line of prophets martyred for justice' sake. He prophesied not by word, but by his sacrifice, of which he knew by revelation the typical meaning (Vigouroux); and also by his death (De Civ. Dei, XV, xviii). In Heb., xii, 24, his death is mentioned, and the contrast between his blood and that of Christ is shown. The latter calls not for vengeance, but for mercy and pardon. Abel, though dead, speaketh (Heb., xi, 4), Deo per merita, hominibus per exemplum (Piconjo), i.e. to God by his merits, to men by his example. For a rabbinic interpretation of the plur. דמים word meaning "bloods", in Gen., iv, 10, see Mishna San., IV, 5, where it is said to refer to Abel and to his seed. The Fathers place him among the martyrs, Martyrium dedicavit (St. Aug., op. cit., VI, xxvii); he is associated with St. John the Baptist by St. Chrysostom (Adv. Judæos, viii, 8); others speak in similar terms. In the Western Church, however, he is not found in the martyrologies before the tenth century (Encycl. théol., s.v.).
In the canon of the Mass his sacrifice is mentioned with those of Melchisedech and Abraham, and his name is placed at the head of the list of saints invoked to aid the dying. The views of radical higher criticism may be summed up in the words of Cheyne: "The story of Cain and Abel is an early Israelitish legend retained by J as having a profitable tendency" (Encycl. bib., s.v.). The conservative interpretation of the narrative differs from that of the radical school of critics, because it accepts the story as history or as having at least a historic basis, while they regard it as only one of the legends of Genesis.
Patristic references in P.G. and P.L.; Geikie, Hours with the Bible; Id., The Descendants of Adam; Id., Creation to Patriarchs (New York, 1890); Hummelauer, Cursus Scrip. Sac. (Paris 1895); Palis in Vig., Dict. de la Bible. For legends See: The Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud, tr. from the Germ by Weil (London, 1846), 23–27; Stanley, Sinai and Palestine; Id., Legends about Cain and Abel, 404, sqq.; Baring-Gould, Legends of the Old Testament Characters (London 1871) I, 6; Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis (tr., Chicago, 1901). For a strong presentation of the Historicity of the Old Test., against the claims of the critical school, consult Orr, The Problems of the Old Testament (New York, 1906); Driver, Genesis (1904).