Genesis 22 contains the well known Biblical account of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his “only son” Isaac; and then when Abraham had bound Isaac to the altar and was getting ready to kill him, the “angel of the LORD” told Abraham essentially that God had changed His mind. Since Abraham had demonstrated his willingness to go through with the sacrifice, God would accept the willingness in place of the actual deed.
Now to me, and I would hope to any thinking person, the idea that God would command someone to murder his innocent son is absolutely repugnant. Certainly the later Biblical Prophets frequently denounced the idolaters in the surrounding nations for their practice of sacrificing their sons and daughters; and it wasn’t just because they were making those sacrifices to the “wrong” god. Any “god” who would command such sacrifice was by definition a “false god”. When the Israelites adopted that horrible practice, God is reported to have said that such a thing never entered into His mind (Jer. 19:5). I am sure that if I heard a voice in my head claiming to be “God” – or if I saw a “shining angel” – and the voice or angel commanded me to do murder, I would consider it one of two things. Either it was a “demonic voice” impersonating God (or Satan transforming himself into an “angel of light” [2 Corinthians 11:14]); or I was having a mental breakdown and needed to check myself into a mental institution!
Nevertheless, according to the Biblical story, the God who hates murder and human sacrifice did command Abraham to do murder (human sacrifice), and Abraham accepted this as in keeping with God’s character and was willing to obey.
Another obvious problem with this story is that the son whom Abraham was “commanded by God” to sacrifice was said to be his “only begotten son”; and yet at the same time he was said to be Abraham’s second son, Isaac. Christians and Jews have done mental gymnastics to try to explain how Isaac could legitimately be called Abraham’s “only begotten” son; but for myself – and many others – such attempts just amount to “special pleading” by people confronted with an obvious contradiction, but who can’t accept that their “infallible Scripture” could contain any contradiction.
Isaac was Abraham’s second son, so he obviously was never at any point of time Abraham’s only son. By the standards of Abraham’s day and culture, polygamy and having concubines were legally accepted practices; so the fact that Abraham’s firstborn was the son of a second wife (or concubine) did not make him “illegitimate”. Therefore it is inaccurate to say that Isaac was his only “legitimate” son. Some say that Abraham loved Isaac as if Isaac were his only son; but the Bible itself tells us that is not true. Consider how, when God foretold the birth of Isaac 1 year before his birth, Abraham pleaded with God to just accept Ishmael: And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in thy sight” (Gen. 17:18). That Abraham’s love for his firstborn Ishmael was not diminished or supplanted after the birth of Isaac is shown by his distress and displeasure when Sarah wanted to kick Hagar and Ishmael out of the household: And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son (Gen. 21:11). Or as the New International Version renders it: The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. No, Abraham had not come to love Ishmael any less, despite the fact the he certainly loved his second son Isaac also. He certainly did not think of Isaac as his only son. And even if he did, God certainly knew better!
So that presents at least 2 problems with this story as it stands in the Bible: (1) it is inconceivable that God would command Abraham to commit murder and human sacrifice; and (2) Isaac was never Abraham’s “only begotten” son.
Interestingly, though, both of these problems are solved if we accept the account in the Qur’an. In Sura 37:100-108 this story is recounted, but with some major differences. First, in the Qur’an’s account, the son in question is indeed Abraham’s firstborn (and at the time, his “only begotten”). In this version of the story, Abraham prayed for a righteous son after he left his home in Ur – and God responded by giving him news of the birth of a “gentle” son (Muhammad Asad), or a boy ready to suffer and forebear (Yusuf Ali). Although this son is not named in this passage, it is obviously Ishmael rather than Isaac because Isaac was promised as a reward to Abraham after he attempted to offer the first son as a sacrifice. (110) Thus indeed do We reward those who do right (111) for he was one of Our believing servants. (112) And We gave him the good news of Isaac – a prophet – one of the righteous. This makes good sense; but by the time the Hebrew editors put together the ancient stories several centuries later, the Jewish people had become so convinced of their superiority over everyone else (including other branches of Abraham’s family) that they just couldn’t conceive of the possibility that the righteous son who was willing to let his father sacrifice him to God could be the “rejected” (so the Jews believed) son Ishmael. So they changed the story to make the son to be Isaac, even while retaining the fact that it was the “only begotten” son in the original story.
So putting together the stories of the Bible and the Qur’an, Abraham was first given Ishmael as a son in response to his prayer for a righteous son. Then, when Ishmael was about 13 years of age, Abraham showed that he loved God so much that he was willing to obey what he believed was God’s command to sacrifice his only son. As a result of that great act of love and faith, God gave that great promise recorded in Genesis 17 whereby He established His covenant with Abraham and his offspring, and promised to reward Abraham further with another righteous son – Isaac. One year later, Isaac was born; and then 2 or 3 years after that, when Isaac was weaned, Sarah’s jealousy led her to demand that Hagar and Ishmael be kicked out of the house.
Another interesting difference in the Qur’an’s story is that God did not directly command Abraham to sacrifice his son. Instead, Abraham had a dream or vision in which he saw himself offering his son in sacrifice. Abraham interpreted this dream/vision literally, and sought to literally carry it out. Perhaps he was so familiar with human sacrifice in the idolatrous practices of his family and friends that it just didn’t occur to him that the One True God would find such a practice repulsive; therefore it didn’t occur to him to interpret the dream metaphorically. However that may be, it is obvious in the later Biblical stories that it was recognized that dreams must be interpreted; their true meanings are not the obvious “literal” meaning.
In this case, the meaning was that Abraham must be so devoted to God that he was willing to give up his only son if necessary. This was the same thought as what was expressed by that great Prophet of the One God, Jesus, many centuries later: He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37). Jesus said that because he was in fact the Prophet and representative of God to his hearers; to love him as God’s Prophet was to love God who sent him. And it is love for God which is to be the all consuming passion of our lives.
This metaphorical meaning of the dream is brought out in the Qur’an, not only by the fact that God prevented Abraham from carrying out his intentions, but that God said Abraham had already fulfilled the purpose of the dream. (103) But as soon as the two had surrendered themselves to [what they thought to be] the will of God, and [Abraham] had laid him [Ishmael] down on his face, (104) We called out to him: “O Abraham, (105) thou hast already fulfilled [the purpose of] that dream-vision (from Sura 37, Muhammad Asad’s version). It was Abraham’s willingness to let go of his son at God’s command (not literally killing him) which was the meaning and fulfillment of the dream.
As a matter of fact, in view of the fact that within 3 or 4 years Abraham would really have to let go of his firstborn son – due to Sarah’s jealousy – this incident of Abraham’s dream can be seen as the kindness of God preparing him for the heart wrenching situation coming up relatively shortly in his future. Even before God foretold the birth of Isaac, he was preparing Abraham for what would come about as the result of Isaac’s birth. When we accept the Qur’an as God’s revelation through Muhammad to confirm the truth still remaining in previous revelations, and to correct the errors that had crept in – either into the Scriptures themselves, or into the interpretation of those Scriptures – this story as presented in the Qur’an and compared with the Biblical account is quite beautiful. By correcting the Hebrew and Christian misunderstanding of who the son being “sacrificed” was – and showing that the “sacrifice” was not God’s command, but Abraham’s misunderstanding of a metaphorical dream – we can get a more coherent picture of the setting of the story and how it relates to subsequent events.
Another interesting difference between the Bible and the Qur’an in this story is that according to the Bible, Abraham didn’t let “Isaac” know that he was the intended victim until he was tying him to the altar! On the way up the mountain, with “Isaac” carrying the wood for the sacrifice and Abraham carrying the knife and the fire, “Isaac” asked his father where the animal to be sacrificed was; and Abraham just said that God would provide the sacrifice (Genesis 22:6-8). Isaac was being kept in ignorance until the last moment, when he would be too stunned by the turn of events to offer any protest (before he was already tied down, at any rate). But in the Qur’an, Abraham confided his dream to Ishmael, and asked for Ishmael’s opinion on what they should do. Sura 37:102 – And [one day,] when [the child] had become old enough to share in his [father’s] endeavors, the latter said: “O my dear son! I have seen in a dream that I should sacrifice thee: consider, then, what would be thy view!” [Ishmael] answered: “O my father! Do as thou art bidden: thou wilt find me, if God so wills, among those who are patient in adversity!” (Muhammad Asad). In the Qur’an, Ishmael willingly acquiesced right from the start; in the Bible, Isaac was under the misapprehension – right up to the last minute – that his father intended to sacrifice an animal as would be usual. By the time he found out what the actual plan was, he was too stunned to offer any objection.
So in the Qur’anic story, Ishmael had (by the blessing of God) learned from his father what it meant to trust in God and be wholly devoted to Him. Early in life, he was showing himself to be a righteous child. Now, while this may be speculation on my part – I may be reading something into the text – I believe this righteousness of Ishmael is borne out by the events recorded in Genesis 21 regarding the “casting out” of Hagar and Ishmael.
Many Christians, Jews, and Muslims think of Ishmael as having been a very young child – an infant or toddler – when he and his mother left Abraham’s household. Our English translations (like the NIV) actually read as though Ishmael was a young child being led about by the hand by his mother. In verse 15, when they had run out of water, the translations make it sound like Ishmael was small enough that Hagar could lay him under a bush. In verse 18, the angel of God supposedly told Hagar to lift the boy up and take his hand to lead him.
Yet if this is actually the picture given by the text, that is another major contradiction in the Biblical story. In Genesis 17:25 it is said that Ishmael was 13 years old when he was circumcised; and that was a year before the birth of Isaac. So Ishmael was 14 when Isaac was born. It would have been 2 or 3 years later when Isaac was weaned, so Ishmael would have been 16 or 17 at that time. He was certainly no small child, to be carried by his mother, laid under a bush, and lifted up again and led by the hand!
In verse 17, the NIV says God heard the boy crying, and one pictures a very young child sobbing because he’s thirsty and his mother can’t give him anything to drink. In fact, in verse 16 where the Hebrew text says that Hagar started crying (literally, lifted up her voice and wept) later Jewish tradition, reflected in the Greek translation known as the “Septuagint”, changed that to the child lifted up his voice and wept. I suspect the reason they did this is because they couldn’t figure out why, if Hagar was the one crying in verse 16, verse 17 said that God responded to the child’s voice.
Here’s where my own speculation comes into play. I believe that when Hagar began crying in despair (lifted up her voice and wept), the 16 or 17 year old “child” Ishmael, just on the point of adulthood, “lifted up his voice” in prayer to God. And that’s why when Hagar started crying, God responded to Ishmael’s voice. (While the NIV renders verse 17 as God heard the boy crying, the text actually says that God heard the child’s voice. “Crying” is an interpretation of that statement). While God pitied Hagar, He responded to the prayers, not the crying. Ishmael had already proven, 3 or 4 years before this, that he was a righteous young person, devoted to God and completely trusting in His wisdom, goodness, and faithfulness. Now, when faced with a desperate situation which led his mother to cry in despair, he knew Who to turn to for aid (as Sura 1:5 says: Thee do we worship; Thine aid do we seek).
I’m sure such a reading of the text will not be much appreciated by the generality of Christians and Jews. They want to believe that despite the fact that God had promised to bless Abraham and bring forth many nations from his offspring, giving the “promised land” to all of that “many nations” offspring; and that God had commanded that the sign of His covenant be given to all the males of Abraham’s household (including Ishmael); nevertheless, God wound up selecting only Isaac to inherit that covenant and the land of promise. (See my article: “To Whom Was the Land of Canaan Given”?). Ishmael was supposedly cut off; and it seems to be assumed that Ishmael was unrighteous and unbelieving, in contrast to the faithful Isaac. Jewish tradition says that when in Genesis 21 – at the party being thrown in honor of Isaac’s weaning – it is said that Sarah saw Ishmael laughing (or playing), that is to be interpreted to mean that Ishmael was mocking Isaac (even though the Hebrew text does not say that Ishmael was laughing at Isaac; it just says he was laughing). The Christian apostle Paul says that this meant that Ishmael persecuted Isaac (Galatians 4:29). Yet the Genesis account of Ishmael says no such thing. When speaking of God’s relationship to Ishmael, it always speaks of blessing – never “cursing” or rejection. Genesis 21:20 says that, after the angel of God had rescued Hagar and Ishmael, God was with the boy as he grew up. That indicates God’s presence in blessing; and God does not bless the unrighteous and unbelieving.
So I am pleased to acknowledge that I accept the Qur’an as a revelation from God to confirm the truth that still exists within previous revelations, and correct the errors (whether in the text, or in the interpretations of that text). Reading the Biblical stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac in the light of the Qur’an, one gets a coherent picture that is honoring to God, and respectful to all of God’s servants (including both Isaac and Ishmael). God was well aware of what was going to happen after the birth of Isaac, so he prepared Abraham and Ishmael for this heartbreaking separation by giving Abraham the dream of sacrificing Ishmael. Only after Abraham had proven his willingness to let go of his only son (and Ishmael had proven his willing submission to the plan of God) did God reveal that Abraham would also have another righteous son. When Isaac had been born and weaned, Abraham had already been prepared by God for having to “cast out” his older son and his wife (or concubine) Hagar. Then Ishmael again showed his spiritual maturity by “crying out” to God for help, while his mother was simply crying. That, my friends, is to me a beautiful story! 🙂