Problem: Abraham had one or two sons
Verses: Genesis 16:15, Genesis 22:2; Status: Minor

At the time of the Binding of Isaac, when Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, he had two sons - the other being Ishmael. Genesis 16:15 describes the birth of Ishmael:

And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. (ESV)

(Note for the perplexed: God changes Abram's name to Abraham later, at Genesis 17:5.) Despite the existence of Ishmael, when the Binding occurs God says Isaac is Abraham's "only son". This is Genesis 22:1-2:

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." (ESV)

Hebrews 11:17-18 also says Isaac was the only son. Now this seems like an obvious contradiction. Just to be clear, Ishmael outlived Abraham and was therefore still alive at this point. You might wonder how the author of Genesis could contradict himself in this way, but it is by no means clear that there was only one author of Genesis.

I would try and describe how inerrantists explain this, but I can't make head nor tail of it. They seem to argue that Isaac was somehow Abraham's only true son, by virtue of him being a fully fledged predecessor to Jesus himself:

The answer to this apparent contradiction is found in understanding the typological representation of Isaac, Abraham's second born son, as a type of Christ. Abraham had Ishmael by the handmaiden Hagar. But Isaac was the child of promise, not Ishmael.

Regardless of how glorious Isaac is, nothing changes the fact that Abraham had another son. However, there is a simpler way to resolve the problem. Ishmael and his mother Hagar had been sent away in Genesis 21:14 and seem to have basically been outcasts. It's therefore possible to view Isaac as Abraham's only son, in a certain sense. Whether this is too much of a stretch I leave to you.

Updated: Summer 2008

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