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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
He was the second son of Adam and Eve, and born probably in the second or third year of the world; though some will have it that he and Cain were twins. His name signifies vapour, vanity, and might be given either because our first parents now began so to feel the emptiness and vanity of all earthly things, that the birth of another son reminded them painfully of it, although in itself a matter of joy; or it was imposed under prophetic impulse, and obscurely referred to his premature death. His employment was that of a shepherd; Cain followed the occupation of his father, and was a tiller of the ground. Whether they remained in their father's family at the time when they brought their offerings to the Lord, or had establishments separate from that of Adam, does not clearly appear. Abel was probably unmarried, or had no children; but Cain's wife is mentioned. "At the end of the days,"—which is a more literal rendering than "in process of time," as in our translation, that is, on the Sabbath,— both brothers brought an offering to the Lord. Cain "brought of the fruit of the ground;" Abel "the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof." "And the Lord had respect to Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and his offering he had not respect." As Cain afterward complains that "he should be hid from the face or presence of the Lord," it is probable that the worship of the first family was performed before some. visible manifestation of the glory of God, which thus consecrated a particular place for their services. Some have thought that this was at the east gate of Eden, where "Cherubim and a flaming sword were placed;" but this was a vengeful manifestation, and could only have inspired a dread of God inconsistent with the confidence and hope with which men through the promise of redemption were now encouraged to draw nigh to him. The respect which God was pleased to show to Abel's offering, appears from the account to have been sensibly declared; for Cain must have known by some token that the sacrifice of Abel was accepted, the absence of which sign, as to his own offering, showed that it was rejected. Whether this was by fire going forth from "the presence of the Lord," to consume the sacrifice, as in later instances recorded in the Old Testament, or in some other way, it is in vain to inquire;—that the token of acceptance was a sensible one is however an almost certain inference. The effect of this upon Cain was not to humble him before God, but to excite anger against his brother; and, being in the field with him, or, as the old versions have it, having said to him, "Let us go out into the field," "he rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him;" and for that crime, by which the first blood of man was shed by man upon the earth,—a murder aggravated by the relationship and the "righteous" character of the sufferer, and having in it also the nature of religious persecution,—he was pronounced by the Lord "cursed from the earth."
2. As the sacrifice of Abel is the first on record, and has given rise to some controversy, it demands particular attention. It was offered, says St. Paul, "in faith," and it was "a more excellent sacrifice" than that of Cain. Both these expressions intimate that it was EXPIATORY and PREFIGURATIVE.
As to the matter of the sacrifice, it was an animal offering. "Cain brought of the fruit of the ground; and Abel also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof;" or, more literally, "the fat of them," that is, according to the Hebrew idiom, the fattest or best of his flock; and in this circumstance consisted its specific character as an act of faith. This is supported by the import of the phrase, ωλειονα υσιαν , used by the Apostle in the Epistle to the Hebrews, when speaking of the sacrifice of Abel. Our translators have rendered it, "a more excellent sacrifice." Wickliffe translates it, as Archbishop Magee observes, uncouthly, but in the full sense of the original, "a much more sacrifice;" and the controversy which has arisen on this point is, whether this epithet of "much more," or "fuller," refers to quantity or quality; whether it is to be understood in the sense of a more abundant, or of a better, a more excellent sacrifice. Dr. Kennicott takes it in the sense of measure and quantity, as well as quality; and supposes that Abel brought a double offering of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fruit of the ground also. His criticism has been very satisfactorily refuted by Archbishop Magee. The sacrifice of Abel was that of animal victims, and it was indicative not of gratitude but of "faith:" a quality not to be made manifest by the quantity of an offering, for the one has no relation to the other.
3. This will more fully appear if we consider the import of the words of the Apostle,— "By FAITH Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained WITNESS that he was RIGHTEOUS, God testifying of his gifts; and by it, he, being dead, yet speaketh." Now what is the meaning of the Apostle, when he says that it was witnessed or testified to Abel that he was righteous? His doctrine is, that men are sinners; that all, consequently, need pardon; and to be declared, witnessed, and accounted righteous, are, according to his style of writing, the same as "to be justified, pardoned, and dealt with as righteous." Thus he argues that Abraham believed God, "and it was accounted to him for righteousness,"—"that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness,"—"that he received the sign of circumcision, a seal," a visible confirmatory, declaratory, and witnessing mark "of the righteousness which he had by faith." In these cases we have a similarity so striking, that they can scarcely fail to explain each other. In both, sinful men are placed in the condition of righteous men; the instrument in both cases, is
faith; and the transaction is, in both cases also, publicly and sensibly witnessed, —as to Abraham, by the sign of circumcision; as to Abel, by a visible acceptance of his sacrifice, and the rejection of that of Cain.
Abel had faith, and he expressed that faith by the kind of sacrifice he offered. It was in this way that his faith "pleased God;" it pleased him as a principle, and by the act to which it led, which act was the offering of a sacrifice to God different from that of Cain. Cain had not this faith, whatever might be its object; and Cain, accordingly, did not bring an offering to which God had "respect." That which vitiated the offering of Cain was the want of this faith; for his offering was not significant of faith:
that which "pleased God," in the case of Abel, was his faith; and he had "respect" to his offering, because it was the expression of that faith; and upon his faith so expressing itself, God witnessed to him "that he was righteous." So forcibly do the words of St. Paul, when commenting upon this transaction, show, that Abel's sacrifice was accepted, because of its immediate connection with his faith, for by faith he is said to have offered it; and whatever it might be, which made Abel's offering differ from that of Cain, whether abundance, or kind, or both, this was the result of his faith. So evident also is it from the Apostle, that Abel was witnessed to be "righteous," not with reference to any previous "habit of a religious life," as some say, but with reference to his faith; and to this faith as expressing itself by his offering a more excellent sacrifice."
4. If, then, the faith of Abel had an immediate connection with his sacrifice, and both with his being accepted as "righteous,"—that is, justified, in St. Paul's use of the term,—to what had his faith respect? The particular object of the faith of the elders, celebrated in Hebrews 11, is to be deduced from the circumstances mentioned by St. Paul as illustrative of the existence and operation of this great principle, and by which it manifested itself in them. Let us explain this, and then ascertain the object of Abel's faith also from the manner of its manifestation,—from the acts in which it embodied and rendered itself conspicuous.
Faith, in this chapter, is taken in the sense of affiance in God, and, as such, it can only be exercised toward God, as to all its particular acts, in those respects in which we have some warrant to confide in him. This supposes revelation, and, in particular, promises or declarations on his part, as the ground of every act of affiance. When, therefore, it is said that "by faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death," it must be supposed that he had some promise or intimation to this effect, on which, improbable as the event was, he nobly relied; and in the result God honoured his faith in the sight of all men. The faith of Noah had immediate respect to the threatened flood, and to the promise of God to preserve him in the ark which he was commanded to prepare. The chapter is filled with other instances, expressed or implied; and from the whole, as well as from the nature of things, it will appear, that when the Apostle speaks of the faith of the elders in its particular acts, he represents it as having respect to some promise, declaration, or revelation of God.
This revelation was necessarily antecedent to the faith; but it is also to be observed, that the acts by which the faith was represented, whenever it was represented by particular acts, and when the case admitted it, had a natural and striking conformity and correspondence to the previous revelation. So Noah built the ark, which indicated that he had heard the threat of the world's destruction by water, and had received the promise of his own preservation, and that of his family, as well as that of a part of the beasts of the earth. When Abraham went into Canaan at the command of God, and upon the promise that that country should become the inheritance of his descendants, he showed his faith by taking possession of it for them in anticipation, and his residence there indicated the kind of promise which he had received. Thus these instances show, that when the faith which the Apostle commends exhibited itself in some particular act, that act had a correspondency to the previous promise or revelation which was the ground of faith. We must therefore interpret the acts of Abel's faith so as to make them also correspond with an antecedent revelation. His faith had respect to some previous revelation, and the nature of the revelation is to be collected from the significant manner in, which he declared his faith in it.
Now that which Abel did "by faith," was, generally, to perform an act of solemn worship, in the confidence that it would be acceptable to God. This supposes a revelation, immediate or by tradition, that such acts of worship were acceptable to God, or his faith could have had no warrant, and would not have been faith, but fancy. But the case must be considered more particularly. His faith led him to offer "a more excellent sacrifice" than that of Cain; but this as necessarily implies, that there was some antecedent revelation to which his faith, as thus expressed, had respect, and on which that peculiarity of his offering, which distinguished it from the offering of Cain, was founded; a revelation which indicated that the way in which God would be approached acceptably, in solemn worship, was by animal sacrifices. Without this, the faith to which his offering, which was an offering of the firstlings of his flock, had a special fitness and adaptation, could have had no warrant in Divine authority. But this revelation must have included, in order to its being the ground of faith, as "the substance of things hoped for," a promise of a benefit to be conferred, in which promise Abel might confide. But if so, then this promise must have been connected, not with the worship of God in general, or performed in any way whatever indifferently, but with his worship by animal oblations; for it was in this way that the faith of Abel specially and distinctively indicated itself. The antecedent revelation was, therefore, a promise of a benefit to be conferred, by means of animal sacrifice; and we are taught what this benefit was, by that which was actually received by the offerer,—"He obtained witness that he was righteous;" which must be interpreted in the sense of a declaration of his personal justification, and acceptance as righteous, by the forgiveness of his sins. The reason of Abel's acceptance and of Cain's rejection is hereby made manifest; the one, in seeking the Divine favour, conformed to his established and appointed method of being approached by guilty men, and the other not only neglected this, but profanely and presumptuously substituted his own inventions.
5. It is impossible, then, to allow the sacrifice of Abel, in this instance, to have been an act of FAITH, without supposing that it had respect to a previous revelation, which agreed with all the parts of that sacrificial action by which he expressed his faith in it. Had Abel's sacrifice been eucharistic merely, it would have expressed gratitude, but not faith; or if faith in the general sense of confidence in God that he would receive an act of grateful worship, and reward the worshippers, it did not more express faith than the offering of Cain, who surely believed these two points, or he would not have brought an offering of any kind. The offering of Abel expressed a faith which Cain had not; and the doctrinal principles which Abel's faith respected were such as his sacrifice visibly embodied. If it was not an eucharistic sacrifice, it was an expiatory one; and, in fact, it is only in a sacrifice of this kind, that it is possible to see that faith exhibited which Abel had, and Cain had not. If then we refer to the subsequent sacrifices of expiation appointed by Divine authority, and their explanation in the New Testament, it will be obvious to what doctrines and principles of an antecedent revelation the faith of Abel had respect, and which his sacrifice, the exhibition of his faith, proclaimed: confession of the fact of being a sinner,—acknowledgment that the demerit and penalty of sin is death,— submission to an appointed mode of expiation,—animal sacrifice offered vicariously, but in itself a mere type of a better sacrifice, "the Seed of the woman," appointed to be offered at some future period,—and the efficacy of this appointed method of expiation to obtain forgiveness, and to admit the guilty into the Divine favour.
"Abel," Dr. Magee justly says, "in firm reliance on the promise of God, and in obedience to his command, offered that sacrifice which had been enjoined as the religious expression of his faith; whilst Cain, disregarding the gracious assurances that had been vouchsafed, or at least disdaining to adopt the prescribed mode of manifesting his belief, possibly as not appearing to his reason to possess any efficacy or natural fitness, thought he had sufficiently acquitted himself of his duty in acknowledging the general superintendence of God, and expressing his gratitude to the Supreme Benefactor, by presenting some of those good things which he thereby confessed to have been derived from his bounty. In short, Cain, the first-born of the fall, exhibits the first fruits of his parents' disobedience, in the arrogance and self-sufficiency of reason rejecting the aids of revelation, because they fell not within its apprehension of right. He takes the first place in the annals of Deism, and displays, in his proud rejection of the ordinance of sacrifice, the same spirit which, in later days, has actuated his enlightened followers, in rejecting the sacrifice of Christ."
Abel was killed about the year of the world, 130.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Abel'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/a/abel.html. 1831-2.