Resolving Bible Contradictions – How many sons did Abraham have?



Context

The 3rd contradiction listed on the BibViz website is: “How many sons did Abraham have?”

The alleged contradiction is as follows:

  • Abraham had only one son.
    • “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten [son],” Hebrews 11:17
    • “And he said, Take now thy son, thine only [son] Isaac, whom thou loves, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” Genesis 22:2
  • Abraham had more than one son:
    • “And Hagar bore Abram a son: and Abram called his son’s name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.” Genesis 16:15
    • “For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.  And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac.” Genesis 21:2-3
    • “Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name [was] Keturah.  And she bare him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah.” Genesis 25:1-2
    • “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.” Galatians 4:22.

Argument

The claimed contradiction is that the verses from Hebrews 11 and Genesis 22 contradict with the verses from Genesis 16, 21 and Galatians 4.

Reflection

The first point to note is that Abram and Abraham are the same person in Genesis.  Likewise,  Sarai and Sarah are the same person.  God changes both of their names during the narrative.

In order to review this proposed contradiction, it helps to take the verses used and list them in chronological order:

  • Genesis 16:15 – “And Hagar bore Abram a son: and Abram called his son’s name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.”
  • Genesis 21:2-3 – “For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.  And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac.”
  • Genesis 22:2 – “And he said, Take now thy son, thine only [son] Isaac, whom thou loves, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.”
  • Genesis 25:1-2 – “Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name [was] Keturah.  And she bare him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah.”
  • Galatians 4:22 – “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.”
  • 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],”
In Chronological order in the story, we can observe the following:
  • Abraham certainly has two sons prior to Genesis 22:2, but has other children later in Genesis 25.
  • Hebrews 11:17 is commenting on Genesis 22, and thus it could be argued is not considering what came later in the story.  Rather, Hebrews 11:17 is making a point based on this point of the Abrahamic narrative.
  • Galatians 4:22 (in its context) is likewise speaking on the two sons of Abraham that were born to him prior to Genesis 25 – Isaac and Ishmael.  At this time, there were only two sons to Abraham, the others only coming in Genesis 25.
This indicates that Galatians 4 (which is providing a commentary on the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael) is not incorrect to claim that Abraham had two sons, as at that point in time he did only have two sons.

The question then follows, is it incorrect to say that Abraham had one son?

There are at least three possible solutions:

  1. Isaac is the only son of Abraham via Sarai / Sarah, and is in this sense his only begotten son (by Sarah). 
    • A child to be born by Sarah was prophesied by God, but God explicitly says that Ishmael is not this child (Genesis 17:15-22).
    • The word ‘Only-begotten” used in Hebrews 11:17 (Monogenes) provides the sense of the Hebrew word ‘yacht’ used in the text of Genesis.  ‘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”. [Source: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BAGD, 3rd Edition)].  In this sense, Isaac truly is an only-begotten son, but Ishmael is not.
    • Note: this sense also applies in the event of later children born to Keturah.
  2. Ishmael had been sent away with his mother by Abraham.  It could be that this represents a disownment of him as a son (though this is not explicitly said nor implied).
  3. Since Hagar was a concubine, her son Ishmael may not have been considered a legitimate son (i.e. he was legitimately a bastard, having been born outside of wedlock).  Isaac is therefore at this point in the story the only-begotten son of Abraham, in the sense that he is the only son begotten legitimately in wedlock to Sarah.
In any of these scenarios, Isaac can truly be said to be Abraham’s only-begotten son.


Conclusion
Abraham had both one son (by Sarah) and many sons (by Sarah, Hagar and Keturah).  Isaac, Sarah’s son, is the only-begotten son of Abraham (by Sarah) in a unique sense, but he is not his only son.  The claim that these passages contradict is a false dichotomy.

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