How many sons did Abraham have?

A Study in Contradictions #2 (refer here for series and reference explanation)

I haven’t forgotten about this challenge, I just haven’t gotten around to typing up my responses in a while. I know there are many of you out there who started following this blog specifically because of this study series, and I hope to be more consistent about this in the future.

The SAB asks the question, “How many songs did Abraham have?” and gives the following options:

A) only one — Heb. 11:17; Gen. 22:2

B) two — Gen. 16:15, 21:2-3; Gal. 4:22

C) eight — Gen. 25:1-2; 1 Chron. 1:32

The biggest part of this question is in the difference between Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s two sons. Abram (Abraham’s original name) was promised a son to carry on his line and inherit the promises from God (Gen. 15:4). This promise isn’t fulfilled immediately and, since Abram and Sarai (Sarah’s original name) have free will, they become impatient and take matters into their own hands to make an heir happen.

As was the custom of the day, Sarai, who was unable to have children of her own, provided Abram with an alternative – a selected servant girl who would bear his children and continue the family line. This woman, Hagaar, had a son named Ishmael, but he was not the son God had promised.

We know this because in Gen. 17:15-17 God visits Abraham again and reminds him that he will have a special son. Abraham tries to present Ishmael to God in v. 18, but God says, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him” (v. 19). God clarifies that Ishmael is not the son He had promised before who would inherit Abraham’s covenant with God. (Ishmael did not come directly from God’s power, but was instead the product of man’s own decisions. Isaac came from God’s blessing in allowing Sarah to conceive a child she was otherwise physically unable to have. 21:1)

So Abraham at this point in time has two biological children who are half-brothers to each other, but only one of them is the son promised by God. When God tells Abraham to sacrifice his “only son” in Gen. 22:2, He is referring to this only son of promise, Isaac. Ishmael and Hagaar have also been sent away at this point (21:8-21), so Isaac is also the only son growing up in Abraham’s household at this time to which God could have been referring. (Think about it – if you only have one child in the house and someone says “your son,” do you start looking for other children that may be out in the world or do you look at the one playing in front of you?)

As for the eight sons reference, Abraham went on to have six sons later with his second wife, Keturah, after Sarah has died, making a total of eight sons. Isaac is a grown man and married at this point, so those other sons – and possibly unmentioned daughters – came much later in Abraham’s life.

This supposed contradiction should be easy to understand because if a man today has one son he would say, “I have only one son.” That doesn’t mean he will never have any other sons or other children; it just means he only has one at the time that you asked him. All of the SAB’s offered answers are true – it depends on what time in Abraham’s life you asked him.

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