“Father Abraham had many sons,
and many sons had Father Abraham,” I remember singing this song at church when I was a kid, and if you grew up in Sunday School you likely sang it as well. At the time, I didn’t understand much about what it meant, and I certainly didn’t realize it served multiple purposes: it was a good way to familiarize us with Abraham and wear us out by getting us a little bit of exercise (Right arm, left arm, turn around. Does anyone else relate to this?).
The song follows that we are all Abraham’s sons, and because of this we should praise the Lord. What does that actually mean theologically, and how do we reach that conclusion? Who were Abraham’s actual sons, and what is their significance to Scripture and to us?
It turns out that Abraham did not actually have many biological sons. He had two, Ishmael and Isaac. The story of how he had those sons, however, is miraculous and stunning in how it applies to us, and how it sets up the entire arc of God’s work throughout history.
Here Are 9 Interesting Things to Know about Abraham’s Sons in the Bible:
1. Abraham’s Sons Came as a Response to God’s Promise
The story of Abraham and his sons is found in Genesis and is surrounded by miraculous events, including multiple personal encounters with God. The story begins when God instructs Abraham to “go to a land that I will show you”. God then makes this promise to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:1-2). The promise of future children and descendants is repeated again in Genesis 12:7 and in Genesis 13:16. Yet Abraham still has his doubts.
These doubts come because God is taking His time in fulfilling this promise, and Abraham is not getting any younger! He brings this concern to God in Genesis 15:3, and God responds in verse 4: “And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’ Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” God further confirms the promise of a son in verse 5, with Abraham’s belief in verse 6, “’Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.’”
Things seem to be going well until Abraham makes a costly mistake that many of us also make; he tries to fulfill God’s promise on his own.
2. Abraham Acts on His Own Outside of God’s Plan
Abraham (still named Abram at this point) has a promise from God that not only would he have a son, but that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars. Yet he knows that he is growing older and he becomes concerned that this promise might not happen. In chapter 16, he makes a deal with his wife Sarah (still Sarai at this point). They agree that Abraham will have children through Sarah’s slave, Hagar, “so she said to Abram, ‘The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife ” (Genesis 16:2-3).
If this seems like a bad idea, that is because it is a bad idea. It ultimately leads to more harm than good for all involved. Yet there is nothing beyond what God can do, and God continues to work through even this dark situation.
3. Believing God but Not Trusting Him: The Birth of Ishmael
“Call me Ishmael.” You may recognize this as the opening line to Herman Mehlville’s Moby Dick. Quick literary lesson: Mehlville uses this opening to connect his character with the biblical account of Ishmael, and establish him as an outcast, and as one who suffers consequences for something that was not his doing. In the case of the book, this is Captain Ahab chasing a whale. In our biblical narrative, it is the consequence of Abraham’s bad decision.
The name Ishmael means ‘God listens.’ Ishmael was born as a result of bad human planning and second-guessing, not as a result of God’s promise. He was not to be the child of promise and he was not to be the heir of Abraham. Even though it was Sarah’s idea, Sarah was jealous. Sarah grew bitter against Hagar and treated her poorly, causing Hagar to run away while still pregnant.
Abraham and Sarah heard and understood God’s promise, but decided to go about fulfilling it themselves and involving others in this misinterpretation of it. This led not to joy and fulfillment, but anger, bitterness, and broken relationships. However, Ishmael’s name was not given randomly, and as we will see in the next point, God was not done with Ishmael.
4. Abraham’s First Son, Ishmael, Would Also Be Blessed
The story that led to the birth of Ishmael was not a happy one. Yet God was not absent. After Hagar ran away, God brought her back. Genesis 16:9-10 tells what happened, “’Then the angel of the LORD told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’ The angel added, ‘I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.’” God also made this promise directly to Abraham, who cared very deeply for his son Ishmael, “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 17:20).
It is accepted that most (if not all) current-day Arabic people trace their lineage back to Ishmael. That is a lineage numbering in the millions. Although this was not God’s plan for Abraham and Sarah, he had plans for Hagar and made her a different promise. She was not forgotten, and as his name suggests, God was listening.
5. Believing and Waiting on God: The Birth of Isaac
The name Isaac means ‘He laughs’. Why be given a name about laughter? There are a few reasons. The first is because laughter was the response from both Abraham and Sarah when God told them they would have a son in their old age. It seemed impossible, so the thought of it made them laugh. Abraham laughs at God in Genesis 17: “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”
It happens again when Sarah hears of it in Genesis 18:12-15: “So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
But perhaps the most important reason is that God Himself chose this name for Abraham’s son in Genesis 17:19: “Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac”.
6. Abraham’s Second Son, Isaac was Blessed by God
After God gave Abraham the name Isaac in Genesis 17:19, he continued to speak of how he would be blessed, “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.” Throughout his days, Isaac was surrounded by God’s favor. After his birth, we see the laughter of Sarah turn from laughing in disbelief to laughing in pure joy: “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:5-7)
7. Isaac Embodied the Covenant Between God and Humanity
Although Abraham had two sons, it was made clear that Isaac was the son through whom the covenant promises would be fulfilled. We read in Genesis 17:19, “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.” God has plans to not only bless Abraham, a man chosen by God to follow and trust Him, but to also bless his descendants, their descendants, and eventually the entire arc of human history. God has always chosen to use ordinary people to fulfill his extraordinary plans. Just as we see with Abraham, even when we go off into our own ideas, God still works in the lives of all involved.
8. The Sons of Abraham Would Eventually Become ‘As Numerous as the Stars’
God had a plan that involved Isaac all along. In Genesis 26:4, God confirms his promise to Isaac that he, “will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed”.
Isaac would one day be the father of Jacob, who would one day be the father of twelve sons who would become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Through slavery in Egypt, Solomon’s kingdom, exile in Babylon, to the time of Christ, and through to today, all of the Jewish people can trace their lineage back to Abraham and have truly become a numerous, enduring people.
9. I Am One of Them, And So Are You
In reading the narrative of Abraham’s sons, we come to see that Scripture is really the story of a family – a family that starts with Abraham and endures until today. We can be members of this family by understanding and embracing the promise that was given to Abraham. Paul writes this in his letter to the Ephesians in saying that, “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”. God promises that through Abraham the earth will be blessed, and that blessing finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus, a descendant of Abraham who was fully God, fully man, and through whom we find forgiveness.