I once had a hostile person call me and attack the Bible by saying it was full of contradictions. So I kindly asked him to name one. At that point, he fumbled for an answer for a while (I think he had to find something to reference). Eventually, he said the Bible was in error when Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, because the Bible says it was his only son, Isaac, but that could not be true because of Isaac’s older brother, Ishmael.
I responded, “Let’s look it up, because the way you stated it looks like a contradiction. It is true that Ishmael was Isaac’s older brother [Genesis 16:11], but I would rather see what the Bible actually says.”
At first, he was offended that I didn’t take his word for it. And this is a good lesson in itself. Why trust what someone says God says, when we can easily read God’s Word for ourselves?
So I turned to Genesis 22 and read the following words:
Then He said, “Take now 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.” (Genesis 22:2)
The passage didn’t say exactly what the caller had claimed. There are a number of answers to this alleged contradiction. My initial response was to point out the phrase “whom you love” as a qualifier for “your only son.” In other words, Isaac was the only son Abraham loved.
So I told the caller that there was no contradiction here, since the Bible says Abraham had only one son that he loved. The caller replied, “You Christians are clever!”
When I look back on this conversation, I realize that I could have given him a stronger response. Perhaps I should have studied the issue a little more before responding. Since then, I have considered other relevant passages such as the following:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. (Hebrews 11:17–19)
The passage in Hebrews qualifies the “only son” concept as well. Isaac was the only begotten (i.e., unique, special) son of Abraham. Isaac was indeed unique and special in that he was the promised son through whom Jesus Christ, the Messiah, would come (Genesis 17:19–21).
Similarly, Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16), even though others are called the sons of God (e.g., Adam in Luke 3:38 and Christians in Galatians 3:26). Jesus is the only unique and special Son of God—God who became a man.
The Hebrew clarifies that Isaac is indeed the special, unique, only begotten son of Abraham.
This brings up another answer to the alleged contradiction. The Hebrew word used for “only” is yachiyd, which means “unique” or “only begotten” (special). So the Hebrew clarifies that Isaac is indeed the special, unique, only begotten son of Abraham. Isaac was the son of promise. So this answers the alleged contradiction.
Sometimes we miss the obvious answer as well. In the previous chapter (Genesis 21), Ishmael was sent away. So in chapter 22, Isaac was Abraham’s only son, for his other had gone away, presumably never to return under Abraham’s household. So this is another plausible solution to the alleged contradiction. Also, once Isaac had grown and Sarah had died, Abraham married Keturah, and they had six sons together (Genesis 25:1–2).
Let’s briefly go back to my initial answer. Did Abraham not love Ishmael? It’s true that he listened to Sarah and sent Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, away. But Abraham was originally distressed by this plan. God told him, “
Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called. Yet I will also make a nation of the bondwoman, because he is your seed” (Genesis 21:12–13). This was the second time God had promised Abraham that Ishmael would be blessed. In the first instance, Abraham asked God to make Ishmael the son of promise (Genesis 17:18–20). So it seems very likely that Abraham did love Ishmael and that my initial response was inaccurate.
This answer highlights two important practices in dealing with the alleged contradictions in Scripture. First, make sure you take the time to read the relevant passages to make sure the one making the charge is accurately quoting the Bible. I did that in this instance. Second, remember that you don’t have to answer right away, especially if you haven’t studied the subject before. This is a little more difficult during a phone conversation, but it is crucial to take the time to explore the Scriptures so you can give an accurate response. I confess that I didn’t follow this guideline during this call. Nevertheless, there is no contradiction about the number of Abraham’s sons.
An Important Side Note
Some see this passage and think God is rather inhumane because He asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. For those unfamiliar with the passage, Abraham was about to kill Isaac when the Lord stopped him. The Lord tested him, and Abraham demonstrated his tremendous faithfulness in that he would not withhold from God his only begotten son, whom he loved.
Abraham’s faith in the Lord was extraordinary (Hebrews 11:17) because he knew that the Lord would fulfill His promises about Isaac and his descendants (Genesis 17:19). He knew the Lord had power over life and death. For example, he rhetorically asked in Genesis 18:14, “
Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Referring to himself and Isaac, Abraham told his servants that “
we will come back” from the sacrifice (Genesis 22:5). He also told Isaac, “
God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8). So Abraham trusted that the Lord could bring Isaac back to life, if necessary.
Many believe this event served as an incredible foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The Lord God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, whom He loved (Luke 3:22) to die for us sinners (Romans 5:8). God raised Him from the dead on the third day (Acts 10:39–40). Jesus does indeed possess the keys to death (Revelation 1:18).
Interestingly, the Lord sent Abraham to a mountain in the land of Moriah to sacrifice his only begotten son, Isaac (Genesis 22:2). Approximately 1,000 years later, Solomon built the temple on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3:1), which is the very city where Jesus Christ was sacrificed on the Cross.