The Eloquent Blood of Abel: How Does Abel Speak in the Epistle to the Hebrews?

The Epistle to the Hebrews represents a particularly rich appropriation of Jewish Scripture. In addition to figuring in the exhortatory sections of the letter, Jewish Scripture serves as one of the primary means by which the author of Hebrews elaborates the complex Christology of the epistle. A key hermeneutical stance adopted by Hebrews is the conviction that Scripture "speaks" to the contemporary auditors of the author’s first century audience. A compelling example of such scriptural speech appears in Hebrews’ enigmatic references to the biblical figure of Abel. Twice in Hebrews the author refers to the “speech” of Abel. In Hebrews 11:4 it is Abel's faith that speaks, while in Hebrews 12:24 Jesus' blood is understood to speak "better than the blood of Abel." While it seems clear that the figure of Abel connects in some way with Hebrews’ overall sacrificial assessment of Christ, the precise manner in which Abel’s faith and sacrifice “speaks” remains a crux of interpretation. Commentators frequently attempt to resolve this exegetical problem by recourse to a theory of superior atonement achieved by Christ’s high priestly sacrifice in comparison with Abel’s sacrifice. By contrast, this paper will demonstrate that the references to Abel encountered in Hebrews cohere both with the figure of a righteous Abel treated in various second temple Jewish texts as well as with the epistle’s frequent references to the faithful response of Jesus. Of particular importance in this regard is Hebrews 5:7, where Hebrews affirms that Jesus was “heard” on account of his reverence or piety.