🔼The name Abel in the Bible
There are two different Hebrew names in the Bible, which transliterated into English both came out as Abel. We'll treat them separately and call them Abel I (הבל, probably pronounced as Habel) and Abel II (אבל, probably pronounced as Abel).
The difference between the two Abels is that Abel I is spelled with the letter ה (he), while Abel II is spelled with the letter א (aleph). These two letters are notorious for alternating, but in the case of the two Abels, both names are derived from common Hebrew words, not one word with two different spellings:
🔼The name Abel II: Summary
- Vanity, Breath
- From the verb הבל (habal), to act emptily or become vain.
🔼The name Abel I in the Bible
There's only one person named Abel (הבל) in the Bible. He is the second son of Adam and Eve; brother of Cain and Seth (Genesis 4:2). 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).
This Abel is mentioned 4 times in the New Testament; see full New Testament concordance.
🔼Etymology of the name Abel I
The name Abel comes from the Hebrew verb הבל (habal), meaning to act emptily or become vain:
The verb הבל (habal), means to act emptily or become vain, and the noun הבל (hebel) means vapor, breath, or something very close to nothing. The famous saying "vanity of vanities; all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2) uses these 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 a 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, spelled Αβελ) Abel would make for a very sad character. And this 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.
The story of Cain and Abel is suspiciously similar to that of Romulus and Remus, and it seems obvious that the two express the same fundamental human truth. Please see our article on the name Quirinius for more details.
🔼Abel I meaning
Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names reads Vanity. NOBSE 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 translation.
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.
That is, of course, unless in the context of the story, the name הבל (Abel I) was understood to be just an alternate spelling of the name אבל (Abel II), and meant Mourning (see below). Since the name of Cain has to do with acquisition, the Abel may have to do with sorrow, and the story of Adam and Eve is overly obvious more allegorical than historical, we can almost hear the words of the Preacher, who not only said "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2), but also, "increasing knowledge [Cain?] results in increasing pain [Abel?]" (Ecclesiastes 1:18).
🔼The name Abel II: Summary
- From the noun אבל ('abel), stream or brook, from the verb אבל ('abel), to drive a stream.
🔼The name Abel II in the Bible
The name אבל is assigned only to locations; most of them with names that are constructions of which Abel is the first part. But there is one town that's called just Abel, or so it seems. The town called Abel occurs first in 1 Samuel 6:18, although most scholars agree that this is probably a text error and should read אבן ('eben), meaning stone. Then there is a town named Abel in 2 Samuel 20:14 and 20:18, but in 20:15 the text speaks of Abel-beth-maacah. So either Abel and Abel-beth-maacah are adjacent and similarly named towns (like, say, Beverly and Beverly Farms in Massachusetts) or they are the same town known by a long, complete and a short, truncated name (like, say, Philadelphia a.k.a. Philly). We really don't know.
🔼Etymology of the name Abel II
The name Abel II comes from the verb אבל ('abel), to drive a stream:
The verb בלל (balal) means to mix something with oil, usually flour products, usually as ritualistic food preparation. The emphasis of this verb lies on saturation and overflowing: to fill something with oil until it can absorb no more and begins to reject an excess of oil. Noun בליל (belil) describes a very rich mix for animals to eat. Noun שבלול (shabbelul) describes a snail, or an animal that looks saturated with oil. Nouns תבל (tebel) describes sexually incompatible partners, and noun תבלל (teballul) tells of insoluble material that obstructs a person's eye.
The verb יבל (yabal) speaks mostly of a flowing along some course, which of course requires the bottom of the course to be saturated and reject any further absorption. Noun יבל (yabal) means water course or conduit, noun יובל (yubal) means stream and noun אובל ('ubal) means stream or river. Adjective יבל (yabbal) means suppurating (discharging pus from a wound). Noun יבול (yebul) denotes produce from the soil and noun בול (bul) means produce or outgrowth. Noun יובל (yobel) or יבל (yobel) describes "a carrier" or "a producer" or "something that drives a flow" (e.g. a trumpet, or the principle of Jubilee). Noun תבל (tebel) refers to the whole world-economy.
Verb אבל ('abel) is like the previous ones in that it describes a drive of liquid or semi-liquid elements along some collective course. It's often used to describe a collective mourning, which either happened in a procession or else contagious enough to drag others along. Nouns אבל ('ebel) and אבל ('abel) both mean mourning, but the latter is also the word for actual water stream or brook. In cognate languages this verb is used to describe the driving of camels. There is even a sporadically used adverb אבל ('abal), which in older texts expresses solemn affirmation (verily, truly, yes indeed I'm totally going along with you there) but later texts appear to put somewhat of a breaking force on the momentum ("yes!... but").
🔼Abel II meaning
For a meaning of the name and name-element Abel II, BDB Theological Dictionary consistently reads Meadow. Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names reads Mourning for Abel, but varies the interpretation of the compound names. NOBSE Study Bible Name List consistently reads Meadow. But if HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament is correct, the name Abel means Stream or Brook.