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.:
The text in Genesis does not say "only-begotten" but does say "only". The beginning of the verse is:
My literal translation:
This is clearly a problem, as Avraham has two sons. So "only" can't mean "only existing".
Only remaining son?
The word translated "your only [one]" is יְחִידְךָ , which is also the word used in later Hebrew for (temporary) seclusion with one other person. (This is not attested in Strong's entry for the word; this is later usage.) In this context I think this means "only" in the sense of "only son remaining" -- Yishmael has been banished already; he is no longer part of Avraham's household or day-to-day life. Clearly Avraham does have another son, acknowledged repeatedly by the text, but this leaves room for "only", referring to Yitzchak, to mean something more localized and perhaps temporary.
Only one you love?
The proximity of "only" to "whom you love" suggests another possibility -- that while Avraham had two sons, he loved one and not the other (by the time of this event). The rabbis recorded an aggadah (midrashic story) about this that appears to argue against this interpretation, with the conversation going roughly like this
God: Take your son.
(Babylonian talmud, Sanhedrin 89b.)
The straight reading of this is that "only" doesn't mean "only one he loved" (so we fall back to "only one still here"). However, it is possible to read this aggadah differently: perhaps Avraham had written off Yishmael, and God in this text is challenging that by saying "only", testing whether Avraham really believes that -- and Avraham realizes he doesn't. The wonderful and frustrating thing about aggadah is that it's not always clear. It's also not text, so it can inform interpretation but not replace it.
But what about concubines?
Another answer suggests that Yishmael's status as the son of a concubine (Hagar) affects his status as a son of Avraham. However, the four sons of Yaakov's concubines -- Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher -- are all treated by the text as equal in all respects to their eight brothers, the children of Rachel and Leah (Yaakov's wives). The text refers to all of Yaakov's twelve sons as his (Gen 33, Gen 49), they all receive deathbed blessings from him (Gen 49), their tribes all receive land according to the same rules (Num 34) (save Levi, but that's unrelated), and they are otherwise treated as equals. In fact, Yaakov even gives Yosef a double share (normally due the firstborn) by adopting his two sons, and he didn't father them at all.
That Yishmael and Avimelech are treated differently than their brothers must be for other reasons, not maternal status. Children can become estranged from or rejected by fathers and siblings for all sorts of reasons.
"Only" can't mean that Avraham really only has one son; he doesn't. At the time of this divine command, however, Avraham has only one son in his life and in favor. Alternatively, an argument can be made that Avraham only loved one of them.
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.
It's a translation issue. A better translation would say his "only-begotten male heir". Ishmael had been sent away and was illegitimate, and so was not in line to inherit anything from Abraham after his death.
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.
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.