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In Hebrews 11:17

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

The "his only begotten son" reminds me of John 3:16

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

In both cases, the term monogenēs is used.

Considering Isaac carrying out wood for his sacrifice can relate to Jesus carrying out His cross AND Isaac's submission to Abraham parallels with Jesus' submission to His Father, is this term usage aiming to convey more than just "single of its kind"?

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    The word is quite common for a one and only son/daughter, so I see no reason for the word in and by itself creating any link. But there are clear parallels between Jesus and Isaac in other ways as you have mentioned. The death of an only son/daughter was naturally more serious than if there are many children, I think the word is used to emphasize that aspect. Jan 11, 2021 at 9:51
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    As edited, the possibility arises that it could mean "single of its kind" as being "his only begotten son/Son of promise". In that manner, the linkage between the two could very well also be considered reasonable Jan 12, 2021 at 2:49
  • Such a speculation is non sequitur or irrational
    – Michael16
    Sep 13, 2023 at 6:51

3 Answers 3

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A reference from John to Genesis based on the Tanakh?

It is curious to consider whether there may be an intended link here. In the LXX the term 'μονογενὴς' only appears in a handful of Psalms, and once in Judges:

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his μονογενὴς; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. (Judges 11:24, ESV / LXX)

So going with the general assumption that the LXX was widely known/referenced in Jesus' day, I'd rule out that the recipients (Nicodemus, or the recipients of John's Gospel) would commonly take the term μονογενὴς as an explicit call-back to Abraham and Isaac based on the Tanakh alone. The term is so otherwise rare that there's no clear link inferred purely by Jesus' use of this phrase in his discourse with Nicodemus.

A reference from Hebrews to John based on the New Testament?

Assuming an understanding of John to have been written/circulated earlier, I'd say it's more likely that there was an intended reference here. With Jesus having used the term earlier it would then be more likely the author of Hebrews who could have intended a linked usage, or observed a clear parallel with Abraham and Isaac.

If Hebrews 11:17 was the only verse to go on here, I'd perhaps be asking whether there was an intended link to Jesus at all, as the author of Hebrews does not commonly draw parallels to Jesus in the text. However, verse 19 follows the verse rather explicitly:

Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:19)

At face value, in the telling of Abraham and Isaac - where nobody actually died, it seems almost a touch strained to suggest that Abraham's faith was in God resurrecting Isaac rather than saving or replacing him. The author seems to be invoking the raising of the dead as an explicit reference to Jesus, in which case it should not surprise us that they should also use μονογενὴς to reference Jesus' own phraseology about himself. A link here seems possible.

Conclusion

I'd suggest that this Question orders the passages incorrectly, asking whether Jesus was intending to use the term in light of a parallel with Abraham. More likely, the author of Hebrews was drawing the parallel between the cases, and may have drawn on the phraseology used by Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus.

This passage is part of a sequence of patriarchal stories, in which the author does not tend to draw explicit parallels with Jesus, despite the significant number of contemporary parallels many interpreters have since recorded. The author does not seem to prioritise the drawing of such parallels, but here in v17-19 between the usage of μονογενὴς and the resurrection reference, there seems to be sufficient cause to suggest there was an intended parallel.

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There are more in the NT that are described with the word monogenes.

Monogenes is a word of the Greek New Testament that occurs 9 times, whose meaning is contentious because of the Arian vs Trinitarian controversy. The contention is best illustrated by its translation in the earliest version, Jerome’s Vulgate of 400 AD.

  • 3 times it applies to a parent’s only child (Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38) and is translated “unicus”, unique.
  • once it is used to describe Isaac (Heb 11:17) and is translated “unigenitus”, only begotten.
  • 5 times it is used to describe Jesus (John 1:14, 18, 3:16, 18, 1 John 4:9) and is translated “unigenitus”, only begotten.

Thus, the Vulgate (both Jerome and Clementine texts) adopted an uneven practice when rendering monogenes which was followed by Tyndale, the KJV, NKJV and many more until the late 20th century. Many modern versions since the late 20th century including NIV, NRSV, ESV, etc, uniformly translate this word as “only”, “unique” or equivalent.

The point at issue here is the cognate root of the second part of the word – is it related to gennao (beget, bear), or to genos (class, kind)? Modern linguistic analysis (eg, see BDAG) is firmly of the view that the latter is correct. Indeed, if the New Testament writers had intended “only begotten” then they would have used the word, monogennetos; but they did not. This conclusion is further shown in other instances of monogenes in the LXX such as Ps 21:21 (LXX), 22:20 (NASB), Ps 24:16 (LXX), 25:16 (NASB) where the meaning cannot be “only begotten”.

Lastly, the correct meaning of monogenes is clear from its use in Heb 11:17. Isaac was neither Abraham’s first nor only child; however, Isaac was, by virtue of his miraculous conception and birth, and being a progenitor of Christ, unique among Abraham’s numerous children.

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  • Did Abraham have any other sons by Sarah, his only legitimate wife? Sep 7, 2023 at 20:46
  • @MikeBorden - Abraham had a second legitimate wife in Keturah (Gen 25:1) by whom he had six sons, Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.
    – Dottard
    Sep 7, 2023 at 21:22
  • In verses 5-6 Keturah is referred to as a concubine and her children are separated from Isaac. "Wife" sometimes indicates no more than an agent of procreation. Ref. Genesis 16:3 and 25:12, 1 Chronicles 1:32. Sep 8, 2023 at 14:32
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    @MikeBorden - Hagar was Abrahams wife - which makes her legitimate - normal practice to have more then 1 wife them days, especially when one wife was barren. Gen 16:3 - amusing that people cant accept this. Sep 14, 2023 at 9:09
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    @MikeBorden - that doesn't really assist, see might have been subordinate, but Ishmael would enjoy the right of the firstborn. 'Only son' - cannot be Isaac no matter how much twisting you do. By the time Ishmael was sent away he must have been 15/16 (not a little boy) as implied in Genesis 21:15 Hagar puts him under a bush to look for water. he was 13 by the time Isaac was born. He would be considered a man in them days (clearly inconsistent as are so many issues). These are mere attempts to promote Isaac lineage and to dismiss Ishmael lineage. Sep 14, 2023 at 13:20
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Isaac Typology in the New Testament
The writer of Hebrews describes Isaac using μονογενῆ, monogenēs. This term is used four times in the LXX (cf. Judges 11:34, Psalm 22:20, 25:16, 37:17). However, nowhere in the Hebrew or Greek Old Testament is Isaac described as an only-begotten:

He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love... (Genesis 22:2 ESV)
And He said, "Take your beloved son Isaak, whom you love... (LXX-Genesis 22:2 NETS)

Isaac was your only son...whom you love which the LXX interpreted as your beloved son...whom you love. Using monogenēs to describe Isaac is unique to Hebrews.

Leroy A. Huizenga contends Matthew often described Jesus with language resembling Isaac:

In general, the Matthean Jesus and the Isaac of Jewish Scripture and tradition resemble each other to a remarkable degree: both are promised children conceived under extraordinary circumstances, beloved sons who go obediently and willingly to their redemptive deaths at the hands of their respective fathers at the season of Passover. It is my contention that when read rightly as a coherent narrative in the first-century cultural setting, the Gospel of Matthew presents a significant Isaac typology.1

Beloved son is one of many verbal and syntactic similarities with Jesus' baptism and transfiguration and Abraham offering of Isaac:

...the simplest solution to the allusive riddle of Matthew 3:17 is Genesis 22:2, 11-12, and 15-16. These texts have much more verbal, syntactical correspondence with each other than Matthew 3:17 does with either Psalm 2:7 or Isaiah 42:1...If all this is correct, we may indeed have the beginning of a significant narrative typology: the Matthean story of God and Jesus may parallel the story of Abraham and Isaac, thus revisioning God in the image of Abraham.2

Matthew uses the correct Old Testament language to describe Jesus. This forms the basis of comparing Jesus to Isaac. The writer of Hebrews used μονογενῆ and in so doing, reverses the comparison, comparing Isaac to Jesus.

Huizenga focuses on tradition and intertextuality to show the Isaac typology and so does not consider the letter to Hebrews. However, his thesis would explain why monogenēs was used; it makes the comparison with Jesus and Isaac explicit:

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son; 18 (To whom it was said: In Isaac shall thy seed be called.) 19 Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable. 20 By faith also of things to come, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. (Hebrews 11 DRA)
17 πίστει προσενήνοχεν Ἀβραὰμ τὸν Ἰσαὰκ πειραζόμενος καὶ τὸν μονογενῆ προσέφερεν ὁ τὰς ἐπαγγελίας ἀναδεξάμενος 18 πρὸς ὃν ἐλαλήθη ὅτι ἐν Ἰσαὰκ κληθήσεταί σοι σπέρμα 19 λογισάμενος ὅτι καὶ ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγείρειν δυνατὸς ὁ θεός ὅθεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἐν παραβολῇ ἐκομίσατο 20 πίστει καὶ περὶ μελλόντων εὐλόγησεν Ἰσαὰκ τὸν Ἰακὼβ καὶ τὸν Ἠσαῦ

The two key terms are μονογενῆ and παραβολῇ, monogenēs and parabolē.3 The letter not only described Isaac in a new and unique way, it calls the Akedah a parable.

The Akedah as Parable
A parable is "the putting together of one thing along side of another by way of comparison or illustration," it is simply an analogy.4 D.E. Nineham explains their use in Gospel times:

Parables were constantly used by the rabbis at and after the time of Our Lord, and the very numerous examples of their parables which have been preserved make it clear that they used them for the sole purpose of clarifying and driving home their teaching. When we observe the very close similarity of many of these rabbinic parables to Our Lord's - both in form and subject matter - it seems natural to suppose that he used parables in the same sort of way, and with the the same purpose, as the rabbis. That is to say, his general purpose in using parables was to make the truth as fully understood as possible; he may well have used parables, as the rabbis did, to provoke reflection and so bring his hearers to a recognition of the truth.5

As suggested by the OP, identifying Isaac as monogenēs invites a comparison with Jesus which goes beyond carrying the wood. In fact, when the offering of Isaac and Jesus are compared side-by-side there are more similarities:

Jesus Isaac
Beloved Son [Only-begotten] Beloved son [Only-begotten]
Carried cross Carried wood
Bound to the cross Bound to the wood
Willing participant Willing participant
Was the Lamb of God Asked for the lamb
In the tomb after Missing from the narrative after

The last point in particular, explains a curious aspect of the Genesis account:

So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba. (Genesis 22:19)

After the offering, Isaac "disappears" from the narrative. The omission of Isaac on the trip back to Beersheba is done to parallel the crucifixion. Since the trip from Beersheba took 3-days (22:4), the return would take 3-days. Undoubtedly Isaac was present, but his absence from the narrative foreshadows the absence of Jesus for 3-days after He was offered.

The post-crucifixion parallels in Genesis continue after the Akedah event. The next mention of Isaac is when Abraham's servant returns with Rebekah:

Now Isaac had returned from Beer-lahai-roi and was dwelling in the Negeb.
(Genesis 24:62)

After being offered, Isaac "reappears" to see his bride-to-be. He returns from beer-lahai-roi, באר לחי ראי which means, "well of the Living One seeing me. This is the place Isaac lives after Abraham dies (25:11), and points to similarities in the Akedah in which Jesus compares with Abraham:

Jesus Abraham
Obedient Obedient
Arrived riding a donkey Arrived riding a donkey
Went to the Temple Mount Went to Mount Moriah
Died with two others Brought two servants
Was the Lamb of God Knew God would provide Himself a Lamb

These agree with John's Gospel where Jesus claims unity with the Father:

I and the Father are one. (John 10:30)

John's also begins with Jesus in Jerusalem, the place where He would later die. This parallels the life of Abraham who was instructed to offer Isaac to go "lekh-lekha" which otherwise only occurs in Genesis 12:16:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)

Just as Abram was sent from his father's house; Jesus was sent from His Father's house to the place Abram first went and would return to offer Isaac.

Conclusion
The term monogenēs as used in Hebrews does convey more than a "single of its kind." It confirms a New Testament Isaac typology by comparing Isaac with Jesus. In addition, by calling the Akedah a parable the events of Abraham offering Isaac are to be compared with Jesus being offered. Not only does the offering have more comparisons than carrying the wood, the description of Isaac after the offering foreshadows the resurrection and return of Christ Jesus.


1. Leroy A Huizenga, The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew, Brill, 2012, p.2.
2. Ibid., p. 185
3. Only Wycliffe and Doughy-Rheims translate παραβολῇ as parable. Most English translations opt for figure or figuratively speaking. The avoidance of what is without question parable is likely due to the extensive use παραβολῇ in the synoptics where it describes hypothetical or fictitious events. Since Abraham offering Isaac was an actual event, it should not be called a parable. However, παραβολῇ does not exclude real events.
4. D.E. Nineham, The Gospel of St. Mark, The Seabury Press, 1963, p. 128
5. Ibid.
6. Jon D. Levenson, The Jewish Study Bible, Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 45

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