ALTHOUGH SOME JEWS, some Christians, and some Muslims—across the religious divide—can claim to be sons [=descendants] of Abraham in a biological sense, only Muslims annually celebrate the event (ʿEîd Al-Aḍḥa) commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son to God in the Islamic month of Dhul-Ḥijjah in which they slaughter and share the meat of prescribed animals (cows, camels, goats, and sheep).
Muslims believe that Abraham (Arabic: Ibrâhîm)—after having been inspired through a vision calling him to sacrifice to God his beloved son, Ishmael (Arabic: Ismâʿîl)—began to carry out this order, but God was so pleased with him that He saved Ishmael and substituted a “great sacrifice” in his place. On the other hand, Jews and Christians, according to the Bible, say that not the elder son Ishmael, but younger son Isaac (Arabic: Isḥâq) was designated as the “son of sacrifice.” Although they attribute this event to Isaac and believe it is a great virtue on the part of Abraham, they don’t commemorate this event on their festive calendar.
Therefore it is important to examine what the Bible actually says concerning this sacrificial event and to determine who was the actual “son of sacrifice” involved in this event. Of course, what the Quran says about this event is discussed, as well (Part 2).
Debunking the Biblical Version: Not Isḥâq, But Ismâʿîl
This sacrifice event is narrated in Chapter 22 of the Biblical book of Genesis, in which the account of the event has suffered additions, alterations and distortions, as we will point out. Here Isaac is mentioned as the son to be sacrificed. Besides that, this chapter also informs us that during the sacrifice event God referred to Abraham’s sacrificial son as “your only son” three times:
Take your son,” God said “your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much, and go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you, offer him as a sacrifice to me.”… But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: “Abraham, Abraham!” He answered, “Yes, here I am.” “Don’t hurt the boy or do anything to him,” he said. “Now I know that you have obedient reverence for God, because you have not kept back your only son from him.” … The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time: “I make a vow by my own name—the Lord is speaking—that I will richly bless you. Because you did this and did not keep back your only son from me … (Genesis 22:2; 22:11-12; 22:15-16)
“Your Only Son”: Ishmael/ Ismâʿîl
The Bible records for us that Ismâʿîl was born when Abraham was eighty-six years old:
Hagar bore Abram a son, and he named him Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old at the time. (Genesis 16:15-16)
Again when Ibrahim/Abraham was hundred years old, his younger son Isaac was born:
Abraham was a hundred years old when Isaac was born. (Genesis 21:5)
So Ishmael is older than Isaac by 14 years (100 minus 86 = 14). In other words, during the 14 year period before the birth of Isaac, Ishmael was “the only son” of Abraham. As Isaac was born after Ishmael, he can never have been “the only son” of Abraham. The phrase, “the only son,” applies exclusively to Ishmael. That’s why, the “son of sacrifice” description fits only Abraham`s elder son Ishmael, and not Isaac.
Since writers and editors of the Bible were descendants of Isaac, they made such alteration to show favoritism to Isaac and hostility toward Ishmael. But the All-Knowing God foiled their ill-attempt through their very own writings which use the phrase, “your only son” in reference to the son of sacrifice. In this way the true identity of the son of sacrifice is preserved, in spite of corruptions now present in the Genesis text that has come down to us.
If it were correct that the “only son” is meant to apply to Isaac, then it would have to be believed that before the birth of Isaac, Abraham was childless—or that Ishmael had died at some point in time before the birth of Isaac, which is clearly not the case in the Genesis account. It seems that the sonhood of Ishmael is, for all practical purposes, rejected by Jews and Christians. But God did not reject Ishmael as the first son of Abraham; rather He glorified him. At least four times in the Biblical record He directly blessed Ishmael, promising either his mother (Hagar) or his father (Abraham) that he would be the father of a great nation:
Then he [the angel of the Lord] said [to Hagar/Hajar]: “I will give you so many descendants that no one will be able to count them. You are going to have a son, and you will name him Ishmael, because the Lord has heard your cry of distress. (Genesis 16:10)
… He [Abraham] asked God: “Why not let Ishmael be my heir?” But God said, “…I have heard your request about Ishmael, so I will bless him and give him many children and many descendants. He will be the father of twelve princes, and I will make a great nation of his descendants… (Genesis 17:18 and 20)
[God said to Abraham,] “I will also give many children to the son of the slave girl, so that they will become a nation. He too is your son.”… (Genesis 21:13)
From heaven the angel of God spoke to Hagar, “…Get up, go and pick him [Ishmael] up, and comfort him. I will make a great nation out of his descendants.” (Genesis 21:17-18)
And even before the birth of Isaac, it was Ishmael who took part in initiating the rite of circumcision, a sign of inclusion in the Abrahamic covenant.
On that same day Abraham obeyed God and circumcised his son Ishmael and all the other males in his household, including the slaves born in his home and those he had bought. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen. They were both circumcised on the same day, together with all of Abraham’s slaves. (Genesis 17:23-26)
God was pleased with Abraham’s trust in Him and ordered Ishmael’s mother to name him “God hears”:
[The angel of the Lord said to Hagar,] “You are going to have a son, and you will name him Ishmael [meaning “God hears”] because the Lord has heard your cry of distress. (Genesis 16:11)
And Ishmael’s bringing up was performed under the guidance of God.
God was with the boy as he grew up; he lived in the wilderness of Paran and became a skillful hunter. (Genesis 21:20)
So the reader is made to understand that when God blessed Ishmael and continued to guide his whole life (Gen. 21:20), he would not have been deprived of the Abrahamic blessing and the inheritance that God had promised. There was no time after the birth of Ishmael when he was not Abraham’s son. Furthermore, during a 14 year period (up to the birth of Isaac) Ishmael was Abraham’s only son.
Right of the First-born Son: Ishmael
Moreover, the firstborn son is always preferred to other sons in the right of inheritance regulations and religious performances of the Israelites. The Bible records this:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Dedicate all the first-born males to me, for every first-born male Israelite and every first-born male animal belongs to me. (Exodus 13:1-2)
Since the first-born is divinely reserved for God, then the first-born Ishmael is the right person religiously, not another son, and he would naturally have been chosen for the divine trial, the sacrifice, not the second-born Isaac.
Falsifying the Identity of the Son of Sacrifice: Baby or Boy of 16 Years?
God’s reference to the “only son” clearly testifies to the fact that the sacrifice event had to have taken place before the birth of Isaac – sometime during the 14 years that separated the birth of the two sons. To enshroud this period and to accredit the sacrifice event to Isaac, the Biblical text facilitates another distortion by its placement of the narration of Ishmael’s departure from his father’s house. In one place, it suggests to the reader that it was shortly after the festival of weaning of Ishaq when Sarah implored Abraham to oust Ismael from his house.
The child [born to Sarah, first wife of Abraham] grew, and on the day that he was weaned, Abraham gave a great feast. (Genesis 21:8)
One day Ishmael, whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, was playing with [or, making fun of] Sarah’s son Isaac. Sarah saw them and said to Abraham, “Send this slave girl and her son away. The son of this woman must not get any part of your wealth, which my son Isaac should inherit.” (Genesis 21:9-10)
At the time of Isaac weaning, Ishmael would have been 16 years of age (14 years birth difference + 2 years of nursing). Again—out of chronological sequence—we see placed another narrative showing an event in which Ishmael was Abraham’s only child. The immediately following Biblical text indicates that Hagar’s son was an infant at the time when mother and son were ousted from Abraham’s household due to Sarah’s wish:
Early the next morning Abraham gave Hagar an animal skin full of water and some bread. Then he put the boy on her shoulder and sent them away.….. Hagar put her son under a bush…… When God heard the boy crying, the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven and said: “Hagar, why are you worried? Don’t be afraid. I have heard your son crying. Get up, go and pick him up, and comfort him …God blessed Ishmael, and as the boy grew older, he became an expert with his bow and arrows. (Genesis 21:3-21)
Writers and editors of the Bible wanted to show that Ishmael/Ismâʿîl had been ousted from his father’s house at a very early age whereas it was Isaac/Ishaq who would remain with his father; that way, one would presume that the sacrifice event was connected with Isaac/Ishaq. For this purpose, the sacrifice event is placed in Genesis Chapter 22 after the narration of the birth of Isaac and after that of Ismâʿîl’s departure in Chapter 21).
To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 2…