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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
    
Related: Why is Isaac called Abraham's only son? –  Gone Quiet Jan 9 '13 at 17:22

7 Answers 7

up vote 4 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.

Conclusion

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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Thanks for adding the Gills quote. I wonder how much that's about the divine promise rather than other factors -- Yitzchak is the only son who will carry on the divine mandate and promise and that's huge. But it seems to be a little different from your main point, so I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on that. Thanks. –  Gone Quiet Jul 10 '13 at 2:16

The text in Genesis does not say "only-begotten" but does say "only". The beginning of the verse is:

וַיֹּאמֶר קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק

My literal translation:

And he said: please take your son, your only [one], whom you love, Yitzchak

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.
Avraham: I have two sons.
God: Your only one.
Avraham: Each is the only child of his mother.
God: The one you love.
Avraham: I love both my sons.
God: Yitzchak.

(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.

Conclusion

"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.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Most people I've talked to don't realize there is humor in the Talmud. I have had literal LOLs at times (like the above). –  Frank Luke Mar 13 '12 at 13:37
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@Frank: Religion is SERIOUS! DON'T JOKE ABOUT GOD! (I kid, but I think that's the mentality that people bring to the Bible sometimes.) –  Jon Ericson Mar 14 '12 at 18:23
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@JonEricson, I know people like that. But God's humor is everywhere. So is Jesus'. I once estimated the amount of money owed by the unjust steward in Matt 18:24ff. He owed multiple times more money than the entire region paid in taxes to Rome in a year. And Jesus says (with a perfectly straight face, I imagine), "and as he could not pay..." Snort! Chortle! Leg slap! Then there's the rabbinic idiom for "dumbfounded" I found in Genesis Rabbah. A Samaritan challenges R. Jonathan with a dumb question. "And at that moment, all of R. Jonathan's learning in law left him." –  Frank Luke Mar 14 '12 at 20:35
    
@FrankLuke, thanks for that laugh -- "if he could not pay". :-) BTW, one of my favorite humorous passages in talmud, which depicts God as laughing, is Bava Metzia 59b. –  Gone Quiet Mar 15 '12 at 1:17

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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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. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 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
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@Jas3.1: Ishmael was born 10 yrs before Isaac. –  Ron Maimon Jul 13 '13 at 4:17
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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

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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It's clear that Isaac is the path through which God's promise to Avraham will be fulfilled, but since he does have a brother, if Heb 11:17 says "only-begotten" then something's not right there. Can you address that? –  Gone Quiet Sep 1 '13 at 4:20
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I don't see how this answers the question. No matter what led to Ismael's birth, how is he not also Avraham's son? –  Gone Quiet Dec 22 '13 at 3:17

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 at 22:13

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