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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 question is awfully similar to another. Either way, this answer explains that "μονογενής" is a euphemism for "sole heir": An Answer to: What are the translations of the Greek word μονογενής in Ancient Versions?Is it “only” or “only-begotten”? – elika kohen Jul 14 '17 at 5:26
  • @elikakohen - What about the Hebrew word in Gen 22:2? Does it have exactly the same usage as μονογενὴς in Greek? – brilliant Jul 14 '17 at 7:53
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    Brilliant - It is because of the contradiction in Hebrew, (and limited use), that indicates that this is not literal. The question then is, "if it is not literal, then what does the metaphor/euphemism actually mean?" So, at that point you have to chase down the most ancient translations, in Greek, (the Septuagint), and Aramaic, (Targum Onkelos especially, Targum Jonathan, etc), and even other Semitic or Greek literature. Further - he might have legally disowned his other son, by exiling him, (though there does not seem support for this - drawing a blank for another example in corpus). – elika kohen Jul 14 '17 at 18:06
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    Brilliant - There are many places where it is valid to infer metaphorical use, (or exaggeration, or hyperbole), if / when an impossibility is noted, or a contradiction appears within the same exact context. Genesis 1 is the most famous example of this - where the "sun wasn't even set as a sign for days" until the fourth day - leading to the conclusion that the first 3 days - at the very least - must have been reckoned metaphorically, (and most probably the others). – elika kohen Jul 14 '17 at 18:08
  • @elikakohen - "leading to the conclusion that the first 3 days - at the very least - must have been reckoned metaphorically" - Why do you completely rule out the possibility of 3 days being referred to as periods of time, each one of which is equal exactly to any of the following days? After all, God does not need a sign for days to measure out periods of time. (Thanks for other explanations). – brilliant Jul 14 '17 at 18:15

12 Answers 12

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At the time of Abraham's calling to sacrifice his only son Gen. 22:2, Isaac was his only son. In the previous chapter at Gen. 21:9-12, Ishmael had already been cast out; Hagar was raising him. It is in Isaac that Abraham's seed was defined, called, identified, proclaimed, (Strong's H7121).

"Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son. And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called."

To be sure, in Gen. 21:13 Ishmael is also said to be of Abraham's seed, but it is in Isaac that Abraham's seed is called (KJV, YLT), named (ESV, RSV), reckoned (NIV).

EDIT TO ADD RE Heb. 11:17 and only begotten and verse 18 explanation thereof.

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:

EDIT TO ADD re "ONLY BEGOTTEN":

Monogenes has two primary definitions, "pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship" and "pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind".[1] Thus monogenēs (μονογενὴς) may be used both as an adjective monogenēs pais, meaning unique and special.[2] Its Greek meaning is often applied to mean "one of a kind, one and only". Monogenēs (μονογενὴς) may be used both as an adjective monogenēs pais, only child, or only legitimate child, special child, and also on its own as a noun; o monogenēs "the only one", or "the only legitimate child".[3]

The word is used in Hebrews 11:17-19 to describe Isaac, the son of Abraham. However Isaac was not the only-begotten son of Abraham, but was the chosen, having special virtue. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monogen%C4%93s

  • How does the fact that only Hagar was raising Ishmael at that time and the fact that the Abraham's seed would be called in Isaac nullify the fact that Ismael was still Abraham's son? – brilliant Jul 7 '17 at 15:11
  • It was to reinforce the point that Ishmael, though a seed, was not in whom Abraham's seed would be named. – SLM Jul 7 '17 at 19:38
  • But the question was not about in whom the seed would be named, but rather about why the one in whom the seed would be made was called the only-begotten one while there had already been one born prior to him. – brilliant Jul 8 '17 at 1:48
  • Isaac was son of the promise (Gen. 21:1). In Isaac shall thy seed be called. – SLM Jul 8 '17 at 3:18
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    Pretty much it is along the lines as I mentioned. Ishmael was departed. Pulpit Commentary: thine only son - not ἁγαπητὸν (LXX.), but unigenitum (Vulgate), meaning the only son of Sarah, the only legitimate offspring he possessed, the only heir of the promise, the only child that remained to him after Ishmael's departure; Matthew Poole thine only son, not by birth, for so he had another, Ishmael; but this was his only son by Sarah, his first and legitimate wife; who only had the right of succession both to his inheritance, and to his covenant and promises; – SLM Jul 14 '17 at 15:31
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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.


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

  • Why are you saying that "Ishmael" was not a son, "according to promise"? I understand the New Testament argument - but you are not presenting this as a New Testament argument. Does this argument appear in the Old Testament too? "Galatians 4:30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” This is directly contradicted in Jacob, his 2 wives, and 2 porcupines. – elika kohen Jul 14 '17 at 19:00
  • Don't look at born, or son of, etc. Look at 'begat'. Who begat whom? Isaac is the only begotten son of Abraham. – Bob Jones Aug 4 '17 at 2:17
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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.

  • 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
  • @Jas Look at the usage of 'begotten' and to whom they were begotten. Zimram was begotten by Keturah, not Abraham. It does not say Abraham begat Ishmael. Ge 25:19 ¶ ... Abraham begat Isaac: – Bob Jones Aug 4 '17 at 2:13
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In Gershon Hepner's “The Affliction and Divorce of Hagar Involves Violations of the Covenant and Deuteronomic Codes”1 he claims that

the key to Sarah’s demand ostensibly lies in a clause in Lipit-Ishtar where it is stipulated that if the father grants freedom to a slave woman and the children she has borne him they forfeit their share of the paternal property (Judges 11:1-3).

Lipit-Ishtar is a reference to the Code of Hammurabi. From this Lipit-Ishtar clause we can see that, although the Torah identifies Ishmael as the son of Abraham (at his burial); he does not inherit any of Abraham's wealth. Genesis 25:5 In this sense, of inheritance Abraham has only one son he loves enough to give everything he had.


1Hepner, G. “The Affliction and Divorce of Hagar Involves Violations of the Covenant and Deuteronomic Codes,” Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 8 (2002) 192.

  • Hello Yochanan, this is an excellent answer, but it did not follow our formatting recommendations. For example, it wasn't clear where the Hepner quote ended, and I had to look that up. I have edited it to clarify and used our formatting recommendations and I hope this will provide a helpful example of what we hope to see in answers going forward. You can look at the exact markdown I used here. Thanks for this answer! – James Shewey Dec 13 '16 at 18:33
  • Yochanan - 1.) This answer implicitly suggests the two "cases" are analogous - they are not. Jepthah was the son of a harlot, (זָנָה, Judges 11:1 Hebrew Interlinear). B.) Although it is plausible that Abraham observed "Lipit-Ishtar" it becomes probable if and only if you were to provide other clear references that Abraham actually observed this "code". C.) It might be helpful to include: "§25 If a man married his wife and she bore him children and those children are living, and a slave also bore children ..." – elika kohen Jul 14 '17 at 18:45
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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.

  • "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
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The others make great points about Yitshaq being his legitimate son and Yishma'el being less than legitimate. I would like to make a different point, though.

And He said, “Take your son, now, your only son Yitsḥaq, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriyah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I command you.”
~Gen 22:2, TS98 (aka ISR)

Now, I'll admit that my knowledge of Hebrew is limited, but it seems to me that the section in question should be translated as

"Now, get your son, the only (thing) which you (truly) love, Yitshaq…"

The relevant part is made up of yakhid, asher, and aheb, which mean one-and-only (cf. darling, beloved), which (that, whom, what), and love.

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    Rubellite Fae - The translation could be read as: "את־בנך את־יחידך אשר־אהבת", Genesis 22:2, Hebrew Interlinear. "The son-of-you, who is the only one, whom you love." The appositive phrases that are following after are poetic in form, and each modifies the subject/main-idea. – elika kohen Jul 14 '17 at 17:53
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The key word is 'monogenes' appearing only in two instances in the Bible. John 3:16 (and one other verse in an epistle of John) refer to the birth of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is not the 'only begotten son of God' as the KJV would say. In the context we have to use the other legitimate meaning of 'monogenes': 'uniquely born.' Jesus' birth was very unique: A miraculous virgin birth; prophecised since the beginning of humanity (Gen. 3:15-16); God in the flesh (John Chap. 1); born with the filling of the Holy Spirit (Luk. 1:15) etc. Issac's birth was also unique, a miraculous birth (Heb. 11:17, the only other context where 'monogenes' is found in the NT.). Abraham (Abram at the time) was past the point of fathering a child, as was Sarah (Sarai). God had to produce a miracle to allow the progenitor of the chosen Jewish race to begin the line of descent from Abraham down to Jesus Christ. In this way Issac was 'uniquely born' and became the heir - the one through whom would come the eternal savior of all mankind.

  • Great answer, Tim! Indeed, Sarah was made pregnant without Abraham's help just a Mary was made pregnant without Joseph's help (Isaiah 54:1-5). You nailed it. I hope you will return to the site and make many more wonderful contributions. – Ruminator Nov 14 '17 at 18:10
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Simple, the jews change (or add name "Isaac", after words "the only son") when originally that verses meant that the boy was Ishmael. If you revert to the original meaning (Ishmael was to be sacrified) then all going to make sense, including some prophecies which happened to be swapped it seem between them.

  • "If you revert to the original meaning (Ishmael was to be sacrificed) then all going to make sense" - How is it going to make sense when Ishmael was not the only-begotten son either? – brilliant Aug 22 '18 at 2:51
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    Hello and welcome to the site. What evidence do you have that the original meaning referred to Ishmael? – curiousdannii Aug 22 '18 at 12:14
  • Your assertion of an emendation of the text of Hebrews is just that without evidence. It misses the point that that the KJV misunderstood the word and text and so mistranslated it. – user25930 Aug 30 '18 at 21:22
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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
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The only as in mono-generating is a false translation and obviously WRONG as the above asserts.

However Isaac was not the only created son of Abraham, for he had many more documented and undocumented sons/children.

The Isaac matter is unique in that he was begotten solely by his father Abraham alone without a fertile womb at the ready. Pardon me here as I quote from my website:

As for only-begottenness, at the human level it simply means that the father did it all by his lone self not just by engaging in a procreative exercise with a compliant fertile womb with an ovum at the ready, but performing the same said act with an equally compliant but infertile womb with not even a hint of an ovum at the ready.

Jehovah and Abraham are the only individual life givers solely and single handedly responsible for also providing the material along with the life.

Just as Man is in the image of God so is this once-only act of solely producing an only-begotten son.

Life and matter are of course both sourced from God in the production of the only two solely produced sons ever in the entire universe in all of time.

Only Yahweh/Jehovah creates, man creatively fashions. So it is with the begetting of children.

In Abraham’s case, all procreative methodologies and ingredients having already an earthy presence, it was his act of solely producing Isaac on the basis of his implicit faith, that matches Jehovah’s solely producing His only-begotten son, where the only or sole-begetting is about the producer, the father and not the product, the son.

The son simply wears that label as he would family names and ethnic identities some future time.

Abraham had to do it all by himself as the sole human means to produce a son. He did this in the two most significant ways possible:

  1. His absolute faith in God's promise that he would produce a son and

  2. Actually putting that faith into action by having meaningful intercourse with Sarah for that and only that reason and intent alone on that one occasion* on the basis of that faith.

    • since menopausal women can be the best sexually responsive partners a man could wish for, and having mutually satisfying relations with Sarah were to be expected anyway, one could easily conclude that to be the primary motivation for their post-promise sexual intimacy. Not so, because the exclusive focus in their lives was to produce an heir to the promises. Nothing else mattered!

Thus at the human earthly level Abraham, who had no idea of Jehovah's miraculous intervention, begot Isaac solely through his own efforts. Yes, it was exclusively so, because of his implicit faith and subsequent action, that he begot his unique, only solely-begotten by himself son Isaac.

Sarah's faith had nothing whatever to do with it. She had already demonstrated having no faith in Jehovah's promise for her to conceive a son — Genesis 18:12.

Notwithstanding the initial phrase in Hebrews 11:11: ’by faith Sarah’ where that faith is generally interpreted to be Sarah's, it was solely Abraham's faith alone that allowed Jehovah to provide the ovum and Abraham to cause Sarah to conceive.

The type was cast for understanding how Jehovah Himself produced His only-begotten son.

Jehovah created His only solely-begotten heavenly angelic son entirely by Himself without an assistant or medium.

Is there anybody out there willing to understand?

May God bless you all.

Dieter G

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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.

  • Unfortunate that this would get so many downvotes. One doesn't need to be convinced by a given school of criticism to find its approach to a problem interesting and valuable. This is Biblical Hermeneutics, after all! – Luke Sawczak Jan 9 at 13:09

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