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Meaning and etymology of the Hebrew name Abel

Abel Abel

Abel is the second son of Adam and Eve; brother of Cain and Seth (Genesis 4). He holds the dubious honor of being the first person to die, to die due to a violent act, to die as the result of a crime, and to die childless. His brother and murderer Cain has seven generations of offspring, but his whole lineage dies just like his brother Abel, in the flood of Noah (Genesis 6).

The name Abel comes from the Hebrew verb habal (habal) meaning act emptily, become vain. The noun hebel hebel (463a) is spelled the same as Abel, and means vapor, breath, in the negative sense of having no substance and being something very close to nothing. The famous Ecclesiastes saying, "vanity of vanities; all is vanity," (1:2) uses these same words.

The names of important characters in Genesis are usually explained while they are given, but not Abel. Here is an individual who is named Whiff, who is not even worthy of an name-explanation, and who has himself done in by his brother Cain, before he can even say a word! If God hadn't accepted his offering (Genesis 4:4) and Jesus hadn't proclaimed him righteous (Matthew 23:35) Abel would make for a very sad character. Which at once raises the question of what he is doing there so early in the narrative, as well as the meaning of this entire nonpareil scene.

Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names reads Vanity. NOBS Study Bible Name List reads Breath. BDB Theological Dictionary, strict as ever, reserves for the name Abel a whole separate root but can't give a tranlation. Perhaps, says BDB, Abel has to do with the Assyrian word ablu, meaning son. J. Wellhausen too derives of the root treated above but BDB deems this "not probable. It is, however, most probably that no one in a classical Hebrew audience would be aware of BDB's objections or thought that Abel might mean anything else than Breath or Vanity, also because Abel's mother, father and two brothers have names that are recognizable common Hebrew words.



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