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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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This probably has something to do with Ishmael being the child of Hagar, and not Sarah. – Kyle Willey Mar 10 '12 at 17:35
up vote 9 down vote accepted

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.

The "contradiction"

In Genesis 22:2 God said to Abraham:

Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac -Genesis 22:2

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 Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. -Genesis 16:15

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:

Then Abraham took Ishmael his son . . . -Genesis 17:23

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:

  • between the sense in which Ishmael was his "son" and the sense in which Isaac was his "son," or

  • between the timing in which Ishmael was his "son" and the statement about Isaac being his "only son"

(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

Now Sarah . . . said to Abraham, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed . . . for through Isaac your descendants shall be named. And of the son of the maid I will make a nation also, because he is your descendant.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, putting them on her shoulder, and gave her the boy, and sent her away.

After they were sent away Hagar ran out of water and her and Ishmael wept. God heard Ishmael crying and told Hagar:

“Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad . . . I will make a great nation of him.”

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:

Abraham breathed his last and died . . . Then his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him -Genesis 25:8-9

these are the records of the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son -Genesis 25:12

Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son -Genesis 28:9

The sons of Abraham were Isaac and Ishmael. -1 Chronicles 1:28

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:

Now Gideon had seventy sons who were his direct descendants, for he had many wives. His concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he named him Abimelech. -Judges 8:30-31

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:

And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives, and spoke to them and to the whole clan of the household of his mother’s father, saying, “Speak, now, in the hearing of all the leaders of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that seventy men, all the sons of Jerubbaal, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?’ Also, remember that I am your bone and your flesh.” -Judges 9:1-2

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:

  • Isaac was the child God promised him, while Ishmael was the child he tried to have on his own, to fulfill God's promise himself

  • Ishmael (like Abimelech,) was born of a concubine, and not by his father's own wife

  • As a result, it was in Isaac that Abraham's descendants were to be named. (cf. Gen. 21:12)

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.:

thine only son Isaac; for, though Ishmael was his son, he was a son by his maid, by his concubine, and not by his wife; Isaac was his only legitimate son, his only son by his lawful wife Sarah; the only son of the promise, his only son, in whom his seed was to be called: -Gills Exposition of the Entire Bible

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Ge 16:15 And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son’s name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.

Ge 16:16 And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.

Ge 17:5 Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.

Ge 17:19 And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.

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.

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that's actually quite interesting. never heard that before. – Simply a Christian Nov 19 '12 at 22:12
Just a side note, but Abraham had more than one son (as "Abraham") - the others were just born subsequent to Isaac. (Gen. 25:1-6) – Jas 3.1 Jan 11 '13 at 20:05
@Jas3.1: Ishmael was born 10 yrs before Isaac. – Ron Maimon Jul 13 '13 at 4:17
What do you do with Gen. 17:23 where it calls Ishmael "Abraham's son"? – Jas 3.1 Jul 13 '13 at 19:24

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.

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Hi hannes. Could you provide a bit more detail about your conclusions? As it is, it sounds like you are making a comment. – Jon Ericson Jul 9 '13 at 18:55
Hi Eric. I'm not sure yet what to conclude. It may be the LXX tried to improve what they saw not accurate in the Hebrew text. The way the Letter to the Hebrews renders it obviously supports the reading that excludes Ishmael. – hannes Jul 9 '13 at 19:43
I am also thinking about the Psalm in which God is said to pronounce: You are my son. Today I have generated (gegenneka) you. (2:7) The generating here obviously has a meaning far beyond biological fathering. (Inthronisation and kingship are addressed.) – hannes Jul 9 '13 at 20:01

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.

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"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" - The Only begotten Son of God existed even before He was incarnated and named Jesus. So, instead of saying that Jesus was called the "only begotten son of God", it is better to say that the Only begotten Son of God was named Jesus after His incarnation. Plus, in His divinity He still remains the Only Begotten Son of God and no one else holds this title. – brilliant Mar 27 '14 at 22:13

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!

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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.

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