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Does the subjective or objective genitive appear in the following verse?

Hebrews 12:24 (NASB)
24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.

In other words, is this verse speaking of the blood sacrifices of Abel (objective genitive) or is this verse actually talking about the blood of Abel, which cried from the ground in Genesis 4:10 (subjective genitive)?

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    I think this is a really interesting question, but it's not a genitive (not explicitly anyway -- though there is a text variant to that effect). :-) προσεληλύθατε....αἵματι ῥαντισμοῦ κρεῖττον λαλοῦντι παρὰ τὸν Ἅβελ, (woodenly) "you have come....to the blood of sprinkling, speaking better than Abel." All translations seem to accept the expansion "than the blood of Abel" (as if: .... παρὰ τὸ τοῦ Ἅβελ) but the Greek is some sort of metonym (I guess?) rather than a genitive relationship. The question about the referent remains, though.
    – Susan
    Mar 25 '16 at 4:40
  • 1
    This interesting question seems to have gone stale. Maybe you should start a bounty.
    – user10231
    May 29 '16 at 23:58
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    Why would anyone think that it was helpful to apply the labels of subjective/objective to these interpretations??
    – curiousdannii
    May 30 '16 at 9:42
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+500

Twice elsewhere the author of the epistle to the Hebrews uses a genitive construct wherein he does not precede the proper name by a definite article:

  • Heb. 9:4: ἡ ῥάβδος Ἀαρὼν ("the rod of Aaron")
  • Heb. 11:30: τὰ τείχη Ἰεριχὼ ("the walls of Jericho")

Likewise, in Heb. 12:24, τὸν Ἅβελ could stand for τὸν αἷμα Ἅβελ, where Ἅβελ is an indeclinable proper name functioning as a genitive. But, you might say that τὸν αἷμα is impossible since αἷμα is a neuter gender noun, thus requiring the definite article τὸ, and you would be right. Fortunately, as noted by Constantin Tischendorf, there are several witnesses that support the readings τὸ and τὸ τοῦ.1

Constantin Tischendorf,  Novum Testamentum Graece, Vol. 2, p. 833

If indeed «τὸ Ἅβελ» or «τὸ τοῦ Ἅβελ» are the original readings, then they would stand for the expression «τὸ αἷμα τοῦ Ἅβελ», "the blood of Abel."

On the other hand, «τὸν Ἅβελ» could very likely be the legitimate reading (and one that I support), since: (1) it seem to be the more difficult reading; (2) it is supported by weightier witnesses; and, (3) it is supported contextually by Heb. 11:4. With this reading, the author could be using «Ἅβελ» to represent his blood via the figure of speech synecdoche (whole for part),2 for in Gen. 4:10, it was Abel's blood that cried out from the ground when Abel was dead. Furthermore, in Heb. 11:4, it is Abel who speaks while yet dead.

Georg Konrad Gottlieb Lünemann commented,3

Georg Konrad Gottlieb Lünemann, Commentary on Heb. 12:24, p. 411 (German text), p. 719 (English translation)


Conclusion: "The Bloody Sacrifices of Abel," "Abel's Blood," or "Abel" (Himself)?

The original question asked if τὸν Ἅβελ, "Abel," referred to the bloody sacrifices of Abel, or Abel's blood which cried out from the ground after Cain murdered Abel.

In other words, is this verse speaking of the blood sacrifices of Abel (objective genitive) or is this verse actually talking about the blood of Abel, which cried from the ground in Genesis 4:10 (subjective genitive)?

Contextually, it would seem far-fetched to understand τὸν Ἅβελ as referring to Abel's bloody sacrifices, for in Heb. 11:4, the author refers to those same sacrifices of Abel as a (collective singular) θυσίαν, from the lemma θυσία, a feminine gender noun. However, neither τὸν (nor τὸ if we accept the variant reading) is declined in the feminine gender; rather, they are masculine and neuter, respectively. Therefore, the context seems to suggest that the author is referring to either Abel himself (τὸν Ἅβελ) or to Abel's blood (τὸ [αἷμα] Ἅβελ) which cried out from the ground.

Again, if we accept «τὸν Ἅβελ» as the reading, which seems most probable, then "Abel" could just as easily be understood as "Abel's blood" via synecdoche of the whole for part. Hence, as Lünemann commented,4

Georg Konrad Gottlieb Lünemann, Commentary on Heb. 12:24, p. 411 (German text), p. 719 (English translation)


Footnotes

1 Vol 2, p. 833

2 Bullinger, p. 635-640

3 p. 411 (German text); p. 719 (English translation)

4 loc. cit.; The adverb "better" would be a translation of κρεῖττον, typically understood and translated as a comparative (adjective) declined in the accusative case, neuter gender, and singular number. However, here, κρεῖττον functions as an adverb with the same spelling. Note BDAG on κρεῖττον (=κρεῖσσον), p. 566:

BDAG, p. 566, κρεῖττον

Note: κρεῖττον (singular number) is the reading in NA28, while the TR has κρείττονα, which is declined in the plural number.

References

Bullinger, Ethelbert William. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible: Explained and Illustrated. London: Messrs; New York: Messrs, 1898.

Huther, Johann Eduard; Lünemann, Georg Konrad Gottlieb. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, and to the Epistle to the Hebrews. Trans. Hunter, David; Evans, Maurice J. New York: Funk, 1885.

Lünemann, Georg Konrad Gottlieb. Kritisch exegetischer Kommentar über das Neue Testament, Dreizehnte Abtheilung, Kritisch exegetisches Handbuch über den Hebräerbrief. 3rd ed. Vol. 13. Göttingen: Vandenboeck and Ruprecht, 1867.

Tischendorf, Constantin. Novum Testamentum Graece. Vol. 2. Lipsiae: Giesecke, 1872.

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  • The selection of best answer was based on the following. First, the narrative of the Book of Hebrews makes no comparisons to sacrifices made before the Law of Moses (for example, sacrifices of Noah and Abraham are not mentioned). The narrative instead confines comparisons to the blood sacrifices of the Mosaic Law. Thus the sprinkled blood appears to be the blood of Abel.
    – Joseph
    Jun 5 '16 at 23:03
  • Second, the sprinkled blood of Jesus in heaven cleans the conscience of the sinner, whereas the sprinkled blood of Abel on earth condemns the conscience of the sinner. In this regard, the narrative of the Book of Hebrews makes several "better than" comparisons between the superiority of the heavenly over the earthly. In fact, the context immediately following Heb 12:24 continues along these lines comparing the superior heavenly to the inferior earthly.
    – Joseph
    Jun 5 '16 at 23:03
  • Third, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin, Folio 37A & Folio 37B) the rabbis believed that the literal sprinkled blood of the body of Abel was in view in Gen 4:10 because the word is not blood (singular), but bloods (plural). That is, the rabbis indicated that the murder of Abel was a bloodbath, because Cain had slit the throat of Abel which caused the sprinkling of his "bloods" (plural) throughout the immediate area of the murder scene to include stones and trees. This Jewish oral tradition (if extant in the First Century) would explain the "sprinkled blood" of Abel in this verse.
    – Joseph
    Jun 5 '16 at 23:03
  • Finally, Abel speaks through blood after his death (Gen 4:10), but the Book of Hebrews indicates he speaks through faith after his death (Heb 11:4) "because of the testimony of God." This nuance concerning the medium of speaking helps to unclutter the confusion between Gen 4:10 (blood) and Heb 11:4 (faith).
    – Joseph
    Jun 5 '16 at 23:04
  • @Joseph: Thank you for explaining the bounty selection. Of course as my answer reflects, I still disagree with your analysis: #1 (your objection is circumstantial; Abel's was the first sacrifice by faith and the only other reference to Abel clearly is a reference to his sacrifice), #2 (wrong comparison on what was contrasting as better), and #4 arguments (he speaks through the sacrifice made by faith, not simply "through faith"); and I consider #3 good for rabbinical views on Gen 4:10, but foreign to Heb 12:24 when 11:4 explains Abel's speaking role in Hebrews. Still, thanks for the Q&A.
    – ScottS
    Jun 6 '16 at 17:30
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The Greek name Abel (Ἅβελ) is one of the indeclinable proper names in the NT. So it can have a nominative, genitive, dative, or accusative idea with the same form.

Other NT mentions of Abel in context of his blood have it in a genitive relationship, but clearly as part of a construction using the genitive article and in one case a genitive apposition:

  • Mat 23:35 τοῦ αἵματος Ἄβελ τοῦ δικαίου
  • Luke 11:51 ἀπὸ τοῦ αἵματος Ἄβελ (but the τοῦ is not in some texts)

More significant, I think, is that the other NT references to the "blood of Abel" are to the blood he shed (i.e. his death), as those two references noted above are to that. So that appears at first to lean heavily to the idea of your second point: that it refers to "talking about the blood of Abel, which cried from the ground in Genesis 4:10." That is, the "blood of Abel" appears to be a concept known and discussed in broader Hebrew thought that is about his death. But is the blood of Abel what is being referred to in Heb 12:24?

To determine this, the function of the accusative "παρὰ τὸν Ἅβελ" must be determined. Both the majority text and NA28 agree that it should be τὸν (masculine), not τὸ (neuter), the latter being testified to in an extreme minority of manuscripts; but as will be shown, it must be masculine for another purpose.

  1. Case: It is only the accusative case with παρὰ that is used of comparisions (so BDAG, s.v. παρά C.3). So this alone is why the article is in the accusative and not the genitive.

  2. Gender: It is in the masculine τὸν rather than the neuter τὸ because it is not paralleling to anything previously in the text, but in fact defining the declension of Ἅβελ. Because of the use with παρὰ, the object of that preposition must be distinguished. If the passage had been simply παρὰ Ἅβελ, the reader does not know at all what way to take Ἅβελ, since παρὰ takes genitive, dative, and accusative objects, with different meaning based on declension. So the article is necessary because Ἅβελ is indeclinable, but its declension needs to be known for that particular preposition, specifically to clue the reader that a comparison is intended with παρὰ. This puts Ἅβελ specifically in the accusative case, and so the whole idea of subjective/objective genitive is made void by the fact that it is not a genitive case at all that is under consideration here.

So the rendering more literally of the last part of the verse is such:

αἵματι       ῥαντισμοῦ     κρεῖττον λαλοῦντι                   παρὰ τὸν Ἅβελ
to the blood of sprinkling *>>      speaking *a better [thing] than Abel

The word κρεῖττον is singular accusative, the direct object of the participle λαλοῦντι, so the English translation is best to add the idea of "thing" and push the translation after the participle. This leaves an elided idea then:

the blood of sprinking speaking a better [thing] than Abel [is speaking].

What is Abel speaking? Heb 11:4 answered that (NKJV; emphasis added):

By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.

In the context of Hebrews, 11:4 declares Abel spoke of righteousness through his sacrifice by faith to God. The "through it" translates δῖ αὐτῆς; the "it" is in the feminine singular, which is a reference back to the nearest feminine singular referent, the word "sacrifice" (θυσίαν), which sacrifice was offered by faith. So the blood of Abel himself is not in view in Hebrews, especially in a speaking role, as the grammar in 11:4 is clearly saying Abel spoke via the sacrifice he made. That sacrifice testified that "he was righteous" by the faith shown in that sacrifice.

Abel's sacrifice is contrasted in Heb 12:24 to the sacrificial offering by the Mediator Jesus that supplied the blood for sprinkling of the new covenant (v.24; paralleling Exo 24:5-8). As the following verse declares, it is "Him who speaks" (v.25), that is, the Mediator Jesus who speaks through the blood of His sacrifice to institute the new covenant.

This creates a better than comparison—Abel's sacrifice only testified to his own righteousness by faith that delivered himself, whereas better than this is the blood of the new covenant sacrifice of Christ that testifies to a deliverance and gathering of many, namely that group of those noted in v.22-24, who have come:

  • to that sacrificial blood,
  • to the Mediator who shed it,
  • to the place of just men (like Abel, Heb 11:4) made perfect,
  • to the Judge of all (without fear of being unrighteous)
  • to the general assembly and church of the firstborn
  • to the company of angels
  • to Mount Zion, city of the the living God, the New Jerusalem

The "better" contrast is that Christ's work through His sacrifice testifies to all this, to this great gathering of righteous individuals to this place. Without the new covenant sacrifice, sinful men could not have joined into this company. Whereas Abel's sacrifice testifies only to showing he had faith in God and was thus himself deemed righteous by that, but it brought no other person together to God.

In both cases the person is the speaker, but speaking by means of the sacrifice each made.

It is the sacrifice Abel made (Heb 11:4) that speaks well of himself, but not as well as the sacrifice Jesus made (Heb 12:24), that declares so much more.

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OK. SO sorry to have joined this party so late. First, to the idea that the Epistle to the Hebrews mentions no sacrifices before the Sinaitical Legislation I say "foul!" Melchizedek certainly wouldn't have been singled out as the founder of Jesus' High Priestly Order (Ps 110:4), had he not had a sacrifice to offer, which was in the text of the Epistle being highlighted. In the immortal words of the athlete being praised for a great play: "That's what I do!" That's what the priest does! A solid argument in favor of the bread and wine Melchizedek proffered to Abraham can certainly be made, no matter what critical biblical theorists say; perhaps we'll make this argument another time. And no matter, the objection is overcome once we understand that the recognition of Abel's offering could very well be the other lone instance of pre-Mosaic priestly offering referred to in the Epistle. But I say the author of Hebrews MAY VERY WELL have meant to highlight THAT VERY ASPECT of Abel's portfolio.

The author of Hebrews is famous for finding an OT text and "bending" (interpolating, re-interpreting, redacting) it to his NT purposes, in a scheme some have called a "sensus plenior" (a fuller sense). Experts disagree, but none deny he treated the OT in a unique fashion. Here we must remember we have an ancient tradition that puts the words on Yahweh's lips that it is the blood of Abel that cries out to Him from the earth (and yet nowhere in that story does Yahweh explicitly praise verbally Abel's sacrifice in audible words, even though Heb. 11:4 ends up portraying Abel's sacerdotal gifts as approved! Thus the "blood that [approvingly] cries out from the earth" may well be that of his priestly offering, rather than of his corpse, because Yahweh says he hears--approves of--this blood.). Naturally enough, while we assume Yahweh refers here to Abel's blood spilled as his brother Cain murders him, there is nothing to prevent our author from reinterpreting the story as evidence that Yahweh is pleased with the sacrifice Abel offered, which "cries out from the ground" (in praise; as in "for my name is great among the Gentiles -- Mal 1:11.). In fact, when we think of Calvin and the classic "biblical" objection to a specifically Eucharistic Sacrifice of the NT, the situation is eerily played back: are we only talking about his physical death AS VICTIM, or his offering AS PRIEST?

But our Hebrews author exploits that Gen 4:10 text to indicate that Abel's sacrifice, in which he offered blood and not just plant matter, is that which, compared with the sprinkling of Jesus, cannot speak as eloquently. So now consider what we have:

-- Jesus offers a sprinkling of blood that inaugurated the New Covenant in a way perfectly correspondent, while infinitely superior, to that of Moses (Ex 24:8).

--Jesus offers a sprinkling that, consisting of blood, must therefore still come into physical contact with the believer (for if that of bulls and goats was thought good enough for personal contact, how much more necessary was that of the blood of the savior?

--Jesus offers a sprinkling that -- in a biblical novelty typical of the way our author bends OT texts to his own NT purposes -- contacts the "book of the law" (i.e., contacts the interior of believers because under the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah, the "Law" was now understood as no longer external, but rather as internal, to the believer, since it was "within them" (Jeremiah 31:33; "I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds).

--Jesus offers a sprinkling that thus is his very own blood that is drunk as his very own words aver. This is the blood of sprinkling drunk at the Last Supper (thus sprinkling the book of the law inside every believer) and in obedience to his command then, done in remembrance of him at every Eucharistic Sacrifice.

__Jesus offers a sprinkling that (given the typology of Abel) still today and til the end of time will "cry out to Yahweh from the earth", because it is a perfect oblation, offered everywhere, that still speaks from the earth.

The Eucharistic Sacrifice offers to God, from earth, a sacrifice pleasing to Yahweh, because it consists of the sprinkling of Yahweh's only Son. That sprinkling is blood that must be consumed, so as to obey the Law of the New Covenant.

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