After leaving the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve have their first two sons: “Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain (קין; qayin), saying, ‘I have gotten (קניתי; qaniti) a man with the Lord. And again, she bore his brother Abel” (Gen 4:1-2a). Cain gets his name because it sounds like the Hebrew word for “to get” or “possess” (קנה; qanah). The astute reader might ask: Why does the Bible explain the rationale for Cain’s name, but not Abel’s? The reason is that the almost immediate death of Eve’s younger son will tell the reader why Abel gets his name.
In Hebrew, Abel (הבל; Hevel) means “vapor” or “breath” – something that is here today and gone tomorrow. According to Proverbs, “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor (הבל; hevel) and a snare of death” (Prov 21:6). Lamenting the brevity of a human life, the psalmist says to God, “My lifetime is nothing before you. Surely all humanity stands as a mere breath (הבל)” (Ps 39:5 cf. 39:11; 78:33; 94:11; 144:4). Similarly, Job states, “I loathe my life; I will not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are but a breath (הבל)” (Job 7:16).
In light of the meaning of Abel’s name, readers should not be shocked to see that a mere six verses after Abel’s birth, “Cain rose up against his brother Abel and murdered him” (Gen 4:8). Those who can read the Bible in its original language don’t need an explicit explanation for why Abel gets his name; when we hear that Eve has a son named הבל we know that, like a vapor, he won’t be around for long! Despite this tragedy, God’s love has the last word. Soon after Abel’s death, “Adam again knew his wife Eve and she bore a son and called his name Seth (שֵׁת; Shet), for she said, ‘God has substituted (שַׁת; shat) for me another offspring in place of Abel” (Gen 4:25-26). Although Abel leaves the world like a wisp at the hands of his brother Cain, God reinforces Adam and Eve’s family line by appointing Seth who, according to Jewish tradition, is one of the most virtuous people in all of biblical history.