Why does the Bible say that Abraham sacrificed his "only-begotten son" (Heb. 11:17, Gen. 22:2) despite the fact that Isaac had a step-brother Ishmael who was 14 years older than Isaac and was in fact the first-born son of Abraham?
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Short Answer: I think there is precedent for considering Isaac Abraham's "only son" in one sense despite the fact that Ishamel was also technically his son in another sense based solely on the fact that Ishmael was born by Hagar the concubine and not by Sarah his wife.
In Genesis 22:2 God said to Abraham:
The difficulty in interpreting this statement is that all throughout Genesis, Ishmael (who was born to Abraham first) is also considered Abraham's son. For example:
So how could Abraham's only son be Isaac if Ishmael was also his son?
Abram vs. Abraham?
Someone might think that Ishmael was Abram's son, but not Abraham's son. But we have passages like the following which disprove this solution:
This means that Ishmael was definitely considered Abraham's son (in some sense, at that particular point in time)... so to call Isaac his only son just a few chapters later must mean that there was some distinction, either:
(This is just the law of non-contradiction applied to this particular challenge. Either the sense is different, or the timing is different, or there is indeed a contradiction.)
Did Ishmael lose his status as "son"?
Someone might think that Ishmael was Abraham's son in Genesis 17, but sometime between then and Genesis 22:2 he lost his status as "son." At first glance this seems plausible, since Ishmael was driven out in Genesis 21. But there are two major problems with this interpretation:
1. The way Abraham and God care for Ishmael in Genesis 21
After they were sent away Hagar ran out of water and her and Ishmael wept. God heard Ishmael crying and told Hagar:
Then God provided water for them, and then it says "God was with the lad".
So we see here that Ishmael was not going to be an heir with Isaac, but he was still counted as Abraham's son / descendant by both God and Abraham, and he is cared for by both God and Abraham. The picture here is of Ishmael losing his inheritance, but he was still Abraham's son.
2. Later references continue to count Ishmael as Abraham's son
This is the smoking gun against this theory. Note that all of the following references to Ishmael's sonship come after Genesis 21:
Could Isaac have been Abraham's "only son" in a different sense of the word?
The last remaining option for reconciling this alleged contradiction is to explore the possibility that Ishmael was Abraham's son in one sense, but Isaac was Abraham's "only son" in another sense. But is there any textual support for considering such a possibility? It would seem that there is. Consider the following example regarding Gideon, his "seventy sons," and that other son, Abimelech, who never seems to get counted with the rest.
Gideon had many sons:
Note that while his concubine "bore him a son," the child was not counted amongst his "sons who were his direct descendants." In other words, the concubine bore a son for him, but the child was not his "son" in the same sense as these "direct descendants" were.
Later, after the death of Gideon, Abimelech goes to the people of Shechem (where his concubine mother was from) and tries to persuade them to follow him instead of the seventy. Listen to how he appeals to them:
Note that even Abimelech himself does not consider himself part of "all the sons of Jerubbaal." What the example from Abimelech's life shows us is that a "son" in one sense can be excluded from the list of "sons" in another sense. In the case of Abimelech it was because he was born of a concubine and not by one of Gideon's wives.
Now, was Ishmael a different kind of "son" than Isaac? It turns out he was, in a number of ways:
So, was Ishmael Abraham's son? Yes! In one sense; according to the flesh.
Was Isaac Abraham's "only son"? Yes! In another sense; according to the promise. Abraham's "only son" came by his only wife, according to God's only promise, and thus, it was only in Isaac that Abraham's descendants would be named. And incidentally, this is exactly the conclusion that a number of esteemed Biblical commentators have come to, e.g.:
This is classic prophetic riddle:
Ishmael was born to Abram, Isaac was born to Abraham. Abraham was a new man and had an only son.
Also Only יחידכ not only means 'only' but 'darling'. Isaac was clearly Abraham's darling son. Hidden in יחידכ is יחי which means 'he shall live'. Isaac was the son of promise and God declared 'he shall live' even as he asked Abraham to sacrifice him.
Genesis 22:2 in the Greek (transliterated from LXX) reads:
labe ton hyon soy ton agapeton hon egapesas ton Isaak
Take the son of you, the beloved whom you love, the Isaac
Why Hebrew 11:17 renders Isaac to be 'ton monogene' remains a good question.
Abraham and Sarah had one son named Issac. This blessed union, shows the inheritance of Issac from Abraham and Sarah. Abraham's only son in this blessed union between he and Sarah. Ishmael could not share this blessing with Issac because he was not of Abraham and Sarah. This blessing was of Abraham and Sarah. Ishmael and his mother, Hagar had a blessing from God in which was their own. Likewise, Issac could not share in Ismael's blessings because they were not Issac's, those blessings belonged to Hagar and Ishmael. Issac could not have inheritance in Ismael's blessings because he was not inherent to that blessing.
In much the same way, Adam is called the son of God, and Jesus is called the "only begotten Son of God". Jesus is called the second Adam. Wherein the first Adam inheritance was lost and the second Adam- Jesus the inheritance was given.
The bible is not in conflict with itself because it says and describes that Abraham had two sons, Ismael and Issac. The only refers to the right of inheritance- From Abraham.
In fact- Abraham recognized Issac as his son, and even according to scripture Hagar and Ishmael were driven away excluded because of internal conflicts between Sarah and Hagar. Sarah was Abraham's wife; but, Hagar was not.
Hagar tried to undermine Sarah's standing and relationship with Abraham, seeing that Sarah was childless, and tried for a role reversal. Sarah was affected by Hagar's action and Abraham became aware Sarah's condition resulting the sending away of Hagar and her son Ishmael. The 'only begotten' refers to the special blessing of a divine inheritence from the Father. He is the only one entitled to this Blessing, this blessing is through him, whom this blessing is given.
Isaac is the Promise made by YHWH- and Ishmael is created out of man's desires not the Promise of God. Next, one should note that this is not about the promise but rather the Promise Maker and Keeper--See, God made a promise pertaining to the descendants of Abraham by His own choosing and not the choosing of man. Hagar/Ishmael are man's work and not divine work--So, here is how 'one, only loved sone' comes into play!
As with all other textual inconsistencies, this is completely resolved by the documentary hypothesis. Chapter 22 is an Elohist narrative, and in this chapter we learn that Ishmael is either absent from the Elohist narrative or is second born. Either that, or as the Muslim tradition upholds, later redactors replaced Ishmael with Isaac in the story, to make the lesson of the story, abolishing child sacrifice, more appropriate for the descendents of Isaac.