Posted by: mystic444 | February 16, 2011

Abraham’s Near Sacrifice of His Only Son

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! 🙂

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Responses

  1. I reckon the sacrifice does not necessarily mean to kill one,s child but to hand him over for military service which amounta to a short perilous life. But if one has other options acceptable to be offered, then it would suffice like that of an animal.

  2. Isn’t it strange, that God who is Purely Good, would order Abraham to Kill his innocent son, Isaac?
    Would our loving Father, God, play a “Trick” like this on His loyal servant?
    Could it be that God NEVER told Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac?

    All of these questions are answered in this Teaching:
    http://bibleofgod.org/did-god-tell-abraham-to-kill-isaac/

    • The Common Understanding of this record
    • Why is this “Test” Questionable?
    • Did God Tempt Abraham?
    • Burnt Offering vs. Sacrifice
    • Satan’s Deception
    • Not the first time Abraham Miscomprehended
    • How old was Isaac?
    • Other Important things to Note

    -Andrew Davis

  3. you don’t know what you’re talking bout. There are so many things in islam that you don’t understand. the point isn’t about commiting murder. The point is how far would you go for your god. ok, it’s like your mom tellling you not to hang out with a specific friend, because she realised that no matter what you’ll listen to her, she tells you can go ahead and hang out with her. It’s something like that. I don’t want to say that you guys are stupid and you aree my enemies or anything. I pray for all you misguided people out there. I’ll always be nise to you. I’ll never disrespect you or hurt you because your religion is different. I love everyone but i may not like your acts.After all at least we stick to our religion and we don’t go astray. You supposed to dress modestly and other people don’t. If you realize parents want to dress modestly but you want to dress like a slut so that any guy can see and love some might rape you or some might look at you with disgust. you know that thing called the family gap. In islam there is no family gap. Cuz everything that consists of that gap is forbidden. I’ts better to be safe than sorry. You have a boyfriend you tthink you love. The day you tell him you don’t want to have sex with him he rapes you. not all are like that but it happens. We are not supposed drink wine, you say you must know when you’ve had enough.
    But by the time you watch you gullped ten bottles of alcohol. you get intoxicated wich haram. It is a huge sin to fornicate but people do it like if its nothing. You look at us wierd because men are aloud to have upto 4 wives minimum, but alot of men out there commits adultry secretly and all that crap. I am a muslim teenage girl, I’m fourteen and I love being a muslim girl. I love being modest and i know that one day if i’m going to show my body off, its going to be to one person only and thats my husband. Everything in islam makes sense. If you think something does not make sense then research and find out. But don’t look up on the internet. You can’t trust anything on the internet. I am a sinner you are a sinner. There is no perfect man on this planet. Except for the prophet (peace be on to him). I pray, beg and cry that you don’t have to go to the hellfire and you’ll strive to be a good muslim. I love you all and wish you the best in life. In this world and the next. Salams (peace). Oh and by the way this terrorrist crap about us, is well crap. Somem muslims interpret the Qur’an wrong and o what they want. I pray that confusion stops in this world. I pray that all the starving kids and parents and human beings outhere, get help. If I was rich I’d probally strive towards that. I hope they find a cutre in cancer. I hope people stop seeing islam as an agressive religion. If i can save one person from going to the fire of hell. I am so contemplated. Good bye, Assalamualaikum, good night. ahh i should go to bed, if my parents find out that i stayed up so late, it is 12:39 am. And tomorrow is school. But yay tomorrow is friday, but no everytime friday comes that means exam comes nearer and nearer. Hope i can come out in the top three. LOVE ALL. MUAH!!!!!!!

    • Bellz – as-Salaamu Alaikum.

      Thank you for taking the time to make that comment. I hope you didn’t get in trouble for staying up so late! 🙂 But I had to wonder if it was actually my article you were replying to. I was so far from attacking Islam that my article in fact advocated Islam. For instance, concerning Abraham and the near sacrifice of his son, I stated that it was the Hebrew/Christian Bible that made it sound like God was advocating murder. The Qur’an says, not that God told Abraham to kill his son, but that Abraham had a dream in which he saw himself making the sacrifice. Dreams require interpretation – they don’t necessarily mean literally what you see in the dream.

      I also said that the Qur’an is clearly correct in saying that the son in the story is Ishmael, not Isaac; and God’s great blessing was on Ishmael, not just Isaac.

      In fact, although I have not “officially” proclaimed myself Muslim, that is in fact what I have become over the past year and a half. There is nothing I can think of in your comment with which I would disagree – except that you obviously thought I was slamming Islam. I wasn’t. 🙂

      The only thing I was doing was pointing out the correctness of what Islam teaches about the present state of previous Revelation: it has become corrupted, and contains much that is erroneous and that no person who loves God should accept. God’s Revelation to Muhammad (peace to him and his family) confirms what is true in previous Revelation, and corrects the error that has crept in.

      May God’s light and kindness be with you and your family always.

  4. The word begotten comes from the Greek word “monogenes”, which is actually a combination of two words: “monos” which means “only” or “alone,” and “genos” which means “of the same nature, kind, sort, species” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the NT); “race, stock, class, kind” (Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature). It literally means “only one of its kind,” and with reference to an individual it signifies that person to be a unique and one-of-a-kind being. Hugo McCord defines it as “a lone being, a unique existence, the only one of its kind, that which has no duplicate”. Jesus Christ is the unique, only one of His kind, Son of God. This is the meaning of “monogenes,” and this is how it is translated in many of the more modern translations, which realize the true meaning of this word. Yes, we are all “sons of God” in a very real sense, but none of us are a son of God in the same sense that Jesus is. He is most definitely a “unique, one of a kind” Son of the Living God!!

    So where did the idea of “begotten” come from?!! PART of the confusion here has arisen from the failure of some ancient translators to correctly recognize the root word of “genes” (which is “genos” = “unique in kind”). Instead, they incorrectly selected the root as “gennao” = “to beget.” If this was the correct root, then an additional “n” would need to be added to “monogenes” — “monogenNes.” Hugo McCord, who used to advocate the “only begotten” translation, writes, “I, too, was in the same error. I did not realize I had to add to the Greek to get ‘only begotten’ into the New Testament. One added letter in a word lowers Jesus from being the only Son of God to being only a son of God” (Gospel Advocate, 3/30/86).

    It is for this reason (to have a correct translation) that the more recent versions have dropped the idea of “begotten.” The concept is simply NOT there. The NEB has “only Son” ….. Phillips has “only Son” ….. NIV has “one and only Son” ….. LB as “only Son” (with a footnote saying, “the unique Son of God”) ….. Even the NASB, which retains “only begotten” in the text, has a footnote which states the literal translation is “unique, only one of His kind.”

    • Johannes – Peace and blessings be with you.

      Thanks for that thoughtful reply. I really appreciate it when someone who doesn’t necessarily agree with what I have said responds in such a respectful way.

      You did an excellent job of trying to make a difference between “unique/one-of-a-kind” and “only begotten”. However insofar as it applies to this article on Abraham’s near sacrifice of his “only” son, it doesn’t really make much difference. There is no way that Isaac was “uniquely” Abraham’s son, any more than he was Abraham’s “only begotten”. Both Ishmael and Isaac were fully human, and both were born in the normal way involving sexual intercourse, gestation in the womb of the mother, and normal birth. Each one had both a human father and human mother. Each one was loved by Abraham. And both were considered to be Abraham’s “seed”. They were both circumcised and both heirs of God’s covenant blessing. Isaac was in no way “uniquely” Abraham’s son.

      In point of fact, though – despite your very good explanation of the difference between the Greek words “genos” and “gennao” – there is actually no difference in meaning so far as usage goes. The word “monogenes” still carries the meaning of “the only one I have” or “the only one born to me”. Other than the references in John’s gospel to Jesus as God’s “monogenes”, and the reference in Hebrews (11:17) to Isaac as Abraham’s “monogenes”, there are 3 other references using that word in the gospel of Luke.

      Luk 7:12 “As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only [monogenes] son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.”

      Luk 8:42 “for he had an only [monogenes] daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying. As Jesus went, the people pressed around him.”

      Luk 9:38 “And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only [monogenes] child.”

      Clearly in each instance the meaning is simply “only begotten” – the only one (son or daughter) born to me. That was the way in which the child was “unique”, “the only one of its kind”. It surely was not meant that the parent had other children but that there was something “unique” about this one distinguishing him or her from the others.

      And that’s the only possible meaning that I can see in calling the son Abraham attempted to sacrifice his “only” son (whether you render it “only one of his kind” or “only begotten”). Isaac was in no sense Abraham’s “only” son; so the Biblical account (including the reference in Hebrews) is clearly in error. The Qur’an is correct in saying that the son being referred to was Ishmael – who was in point of fact the “only” one of Abraham’s sons who was ever at any time his “only” son.

      I also deny (though it bears no real relevance to this article) that Jesus Christ was in any sense God’s “only” son – call it “unique” son, or “only begotten” son. Evangelical Christianity has clearly misunderstood the meaning of the references to Jesus as God’s “monogenes”, or John was clearly mistaken himself. Jesus himself never considered himself “uniquely” God’s son, and in fact he in no uncertain terms denied that he was. In John 10 (interesting that it’s in the gospel of John, the only one that speaks of Jesus as God’s “monogenes”), when the Jews wanted to stone Jesus for claiming to be God’s son (verses 31-39) because he said God was his Father, Jesus responded by referring to Psalm 82:6 – “I say, You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.” If their own scripture, which they believed was infallible, declared that all are sons of God, and therefore “gods”, how could the Jews object to Jesus saying that he also is a son of God? Jesus flatly denied that he claimed to be “uniquely” God’s son.

      Paul, of course, insists that Jesus is only the “firstborn” among “many brothers”. He obviously did not consider Jesus to be “uniquely” God’s son.

      Clearly John has either been misunderstood, or he was mistaken. You may take your choice in that matter. 🙂

  5. That was very well researched and thought after.


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