“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering.” – Genesis 4:2-4
When we think of the story of Cain and Abel, we often think of it as the story of Cain. Abel is frequently overlooked. There is good reason for this. We don’t know much about Abel and the Scripture itself focuses on Cain.
Abel’s name is the Hebrew word ‘hebel”, which is the word found throughout The Book of Ecclesiastes that is translated “meaningless” or “vanity”. “Hebel” means vapor, or mist. In Ecclesiastes it represents the difficulty in grasping something enigmatic, like a mist that’s here for a moment then gone.
Abel does everything right, as far as this story goes. He works the flocks and offers a sacrifice to God that consists of firstborn and fat portions. It is a pleasing sacrifice.
What is important about Abel in this story is that his faithfulness does not keep him away from terrible circumstances. The Lord’s favor is on Abel, but it does not keep him from death. This fits how Ecclesiastes uses “hebel”, to say that even when we do what we are supposed to, our circumstances can be tragic, understanding is elusive, and death is inevitable.
Our obedience is not a way to manipulate God into giving us favorable circumstances. The reward is God’s favor not an avoidance of pain or discomfort. This is the great legacy of Abel. He does what is right. He exercises his character. He receives the favor of God. Hebrews chapter 11 includes Abel as an example of faithfulness, in the Bible’s “Hall of Faith”.
We cannot control outcomes but we can control the choices that shape our character. We can choose to trust God, to listen to what he says, to love one another, and to follow the ways of wisdom. Doing so may not create desirable circumstances. But wisdom and the favor of God are much greater rewards.
The story of Cain and Abel is a classic narrative rich with insights and invitation. This is part one in a five-part devotional series from Yellow Balloons that explores the journey of Cain (and Abel) as he struggles to hear and perceive the ways of God. All along the way, the Lord stays near to Cain and offers us hope for redemption, no matter how great our sin.