“And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain. . . And she again bare his brother Abel.” (Genesis 4:1-2)
Genesis 4 details the interaction between these brothers. Abel was righteous (4:4), and Cain was wicked (4:5-7). Consequentially, Cain murdered Abel (4:8). God interrogated Cain, and Cain feigned ignorance (4:9), though God saw the entire event (4:10). At this point, the story takes an unexpected twist.
The rest of the narrative (Genesis 4:11-15) sets up a dilemma, which is never resolved in the rest of the Old Testament. Abel’s murder demanded justice–either vindication for him or capital punishment for Cain. Yet neither occurred. Cain lived, and God made no mention of Abel’s fate either in this passage or in the rest of the Old Testament.
The words of Genesis 4 make this dilemma all the more acute. Though Abel does not personally appear in the rest of the Old Testament, the word for his name does: “Vanity of vanities . . . all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The word for “vanity” in Hebrew is the same as the word used for “Abel.” Thus, both the details of the passage and the word used for Abel’s name raise the question: Was Abel’s life lived in vain?
In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews holds up Abel as an exemplary model of living by faith (Hebrews 11:4). How can Abel’s short-lived life encourage us to walk by faith?
The answer is found in two stunning events that take place between Abel’s life and the writing of the book of Hebrews: Christ’s death and resurrection. Like Abel, Christ was murdered. Unlike Abel, He rose again! Now we, with Abel, can be justified together. God did not forget justice. Instead, He delayed it, “having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:40).
The account of Cain and Abel sets up a tension to point us to the glory of Christ.
by Nathaniel T. Jeanson, Ph.D.