One Little Word
Some verses in the Bible seem to stand in such glaring contradiction to other Bible passages that reconciliation appears virtually impossible. But, after looking into the problem with only a small amount of diligence, the solution generally becomes apparent, and the supposed contradiction vanishes like a plate full of chocolate chip cookies in the midst of a group of hungry teenage boys. Such is the case with Hebrews 11:17: “By faith Abraham, being tried, offered up Isaac: yea, he that had gladly received the promises was offering up his only begotten son.” When this verse is compared to Abraham’s history as recorded in the book of Genesis, we immediately notice that Isaac was not the “only begotten son” of Abraham. In fact, we read that Abraham fathered Ishmael by Hagar (Genesis 16:16) more than a decade before the birth of Isaac. And following the death of Sarah, Abraham took Keturah as a wife, by which he begat at least six more sons (Genesis 25:1-2).
How is this seeming contradiction to be resolved? First, let us remember the general context of Hebrews 11:17. This verse comes near the end of a book whose writer has shown an intimate knowledge of the Old Testament. Even in the very chapter under discussion, we read a rather complete list of Old Testament heroes such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, et al. Furthermore, much more obscure characters like Barak and Jephthah make their way into the discussion. Add to this the numerous allusions to Melchizedek and the priesthood in earlier chapters, and one soon realizes that the writer of Hebrews was a true Old Testament scholar. To assume that he thought, or accidentally wrote, that Abraham had only one son would be to attribute to the writer a grievous, careless mistake of colossal proportions.
In truth, the problem has nothing to do with the writer of the book of Hebrews, but everything to do with the translators of the Greek into English. In the Greek text of Hebrews 11:17, the word translated as “only begotten son” is monogenes. While this word could possibly be used to refer to an only child, that certainly was not its sole use. Josephus used the word monogenes to refer to Izates, who had an older brother and several younger brothers (Antiquities, 20.2.1). The well-respected Greek-English Lexicon by Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker explains that the word can be used to denote something that is “unique (in kind), of something that is the only example of its category” (1979, p.527). This meaning fits perfectly the passage in Hebrews 11, where the writer was explaining that Abraham offered up his “only promised son.” Abraham had no other children that fit in the category of being promised by God. Isaac was the only “example of a category”—that category being a son who was promised to Abraham and Sarah. Although Abraham had many other children by other women, he had no other child “of promise.” Isaac was his unique son, the only one of promise: the “monogenes.”
Sometimes, clearing up a supposed contradiction in the Bible is as easy as looking up the possible meanings of a single word from the original language. Before we allow our faith to be shaken by superficial claims of contradiction, let’s resolve to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt that even an ancient secular document would deserve. It borders on comical to imagine that the Hebrews writer, with his commanding knowledge of the Old Testament, accidentally “slipped” when referring to Isaac as Abraham’s only son. Once again, we find that no contradiction exists; the honest Bible student has his or her question answered, the Bible skeptic has his or her allegation refuted, and the Bible remains the inspired Word of God.
Arndt, William, F.W. Gingrich, and Frederick Danker (1979), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Josephus, Flavius (1987 edition), “Antiquities of the Jews,” The Works of Josephus, transl. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).