What might appear another 'problem' with this passage is Isaac's
description as Abraham's only son. What about Ishmael? Though he and
his mother had been summarily dismissed and sent off into the
wilderness, he is still a son. . .isn't he? Not by some folks' legal
"And this is why he only says that he will give her
[Sarah] one son. And now he has called it a son, not speaking carelessly or inconsiderately, but for
the sake of showing that it is not a foreign, nor a suppositious, nor an
adopted, nor an illegitimate child, but a legitimate child, a proper citizen,
inasmuch as a foreign child cannot be the offspring of a truly citizen
soul, for the Greek word 'teknon' (son), is derived from 'tokos'; (bringing forth), by way of showing the kindred by which children are,
by nature, united to their parents." (Philo Judaeus, A Treatise on
the Question Why Certain Names in Scripture are
Changed, Chapter XXVI).
The son only of a free-born citizen wife could be registered as a citizen of
the city of Athens. Offspring of other unions had no legal standing. This sounds
harsh to modern ears, but they were non-persons in the eyes of the
community. The middle of nowhere isn't Athens, but the conceptual
framework seems similar. By this standard, Abraham had one son, and not only
because Isaac was the child of promise, but because his mother was a
free-born citizen lawfully married to the father. In one of his
flights of interpretive fancy Philo mentions this distinction: "Accordingly
the practicer of virtue lives with all the aforesaid powers, with
some as with free women and citizens, and with others as slaves and
concubines." (A Treatise on the Meeting for the Sake of Seeking Instruction,
Philo Judaeus, Chapter VI). The son born of the slave-woman was
"Why did Abraham say to God, O may this my son Ishmael live before thee?
"In the first place, I do not despair, says he, O Lord, of a better generation, but I believe thy promise: nevertheless, it would be a sufficient blessing for me for this son to live who in the meantime is a living son, standing visibly, even though he be not so according to the legitimate blood, but is only born of a concubine."
(Philo Judaeus, A Volume of Questions, and Solutions to Those Questions, Which Arise in Genesis, Volume III, Section 57).
Philo praises Abraham as "the constant husband of one wife" (Philo Judaeus, A
Volume of Questions, and Solutions to Those Questions, Which Arise in
Genesis, Volume III, Section 21), while acknowledging no law prevented
his actions: ". . .at that time in which it was lawful for him to make
use of her handmaid. . ." Still, Ishmael could not be the legitimate
citizen son and heir, inasmuch as his mother was a slave. The author of the letter to Hebrews
shares the understanding that Abraham had only one citizen son: "By
faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had
received the promises offered up his only begotten [monogenes] son, (To whom it
was said: In Isaac shalt thy seed be called:) Accounting that God is
able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him
for a parable." (Hebrews 11:17-19).
That 'monogenes,' 'only begotten,' confuses some readers, but it is legitimate: Isaac was
Abraham's only citizen son. Compare with, "And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto
his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with
timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child [και αυτη
μονογενης αυτω αγαπητη LXX]; beside her he had neither son nor
daughter." (Judges 11:34).
Notice that the letter to Hebrews distinguishes between a 'son' an an
"If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?
But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons."
We do not tend to think this way; to us, the 'son' is a son and
so is the illegitimate one. But if the usage is consistent and
meaningful, it is pointless to quarrel with it. The other One called 'only begotten' is
the anti-type foreshadowed by the binding of Isaac,
"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth."
"No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him."
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
. .He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."
"In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him."
(1 John 4:9).
Going the extra mile to conform the prophecy to its fulfillment, Jerome, in his Latin Vulgate
translation of Genesis 22:2, makes Isaac "filium tuum unigenitum."
'First-born' is a familiar Old Testament title of the Messiah. 'Only
begotten' is a little less familiar but equally valid. The transmission
route, it would appear, is through Isaac: