This brief study was inspired by a recent post at Heavenly Ascents on the genealogy of Melchizedek. I’ve been wanting to post some of my thoughts on “the blood of righteous Abel” for a while now, so this was a good opportunity to understand that passage a little more clearly.
Abel, son of Adam and in the patriarchal line of the priesthood, is a little-understood figure who seems to have far less folklore and curiosity surrounding his person than other similarly mysterious figures such as Melchizedek and Enoch. A quick perusal of Wikipedia and other sources reveals, first, that most study is around the story of Cain and Abel, and secondly, that the focus is on Cain. There is surprisingly little solid information in the Biblical record, yet this seems to be the only place where that stopped the authors of the apocryphal and gnostic works.
For all this ignorance, we do know a little through latter-day revelation. We read of Abel’s high prominence in the priesthood:
[The holy priesthood was passed] from Enoch to Abel, who was slain by the conspiracy of his brother, who received the priesthood by the commandments of God, by the hand of his father Adam, who was the first man.
Abel has been revered for centuries in his rightful place as the first martyr. Jesus himself acknowledged this status:
From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation.
–Luke 11:51, KJV
His martyrdom constitutes the majority of what we know of him, and what heresies are hinted at seem based on this understanding. Perhaps most interesting is the juxtaposition of Hebrews 11:24 with Joseph Smith’s translation of Genesis 17, where the Lord speaks with Abraham:
But ye are come … to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
–Heb. 12:22, 24, KJV
My people have gone astray from my precepts, and have not kept mine ordinances, which I gave unto their fathers; ∙and they have not observed mine anointing, and the burial, or baptism wherewith I commanded them; ∙but have turned from the commandment, … ∙and have said that the blood of righteous Abel was shed for sins; and have not known wherein they are accountable before me.
I can’t help but wonder if knowledge of this ancient apocryphal apostasy came down to the author of Hebrews, enough for him to point out the vast distinction between martyrdom and Martyrdom. Joseph Smith’s inspiration to include this revelation in his translation underscores the author of Hebrew’s understanding, and casts further light on what exactly he was referring to.
In any case, we know certain things about Abel, such as his righteousness and justified sacrifice:
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.
This is the start of a list including Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and many other important prophets, yet we know so little of this one. Hebrews is the only non-Old Testament source I’ve found that even mentions Abel extensively enough to indicate that the author may have had more information than has survived (barring Jesus’ mention of him in Luke, of course).
Even more intriguingly for what it portends of the early church, this chancel mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna, where Abel offers sacrifice across from Melchizedek, over an altar decorated with gammadions and the seal of Melchizedek (built A.D. 526-530).
Ultimately, I’ve only been able to find shadows and hints in my study of Abel, and, as stated before, most literary and scholarly treatment of him focuses on his death. I hope to discover more about one of the earliest prophets and men of God, but I’ll leave you with some of my burning questions:
Why has there been little speculative folklore around him, as around so many other important but barely-mentioned Biblical figures?
What is his relationship to Seth as the continuation of Adam’s seed (Gen. 4: 25)?