His Only Son: Recap & Review
Updated: 5 days ago
His Only Son is a biblical film that depicts the journey of Abraham, Isaac, and their servants to Mount Moriah, where Abraham intends to sacrifice Isaac, according to the commandment of God. In addition to adapting the biblical account of these events in Genesis 22, the film also contains copious flashbacks to events in the life of Abraham, including his original call, his various encounters with God, struggles with Sarai's infertility, the decision to sleep with Hagar to produce an heir, and the birth of Isaac. Angel Studios, the studio that helped launch The Chosen, has touted His Only Son as the first crowdfunded biblical film to be released nationwide. I have a lot of feelings about the film (spoiler: I was disappointed) but before I get to my thoughts, I'll give a brief recap of the events (**spoiler warning**).
Recap of His Only Son
The story of His Only Son isn't completely linear. The primary story is intercut with various flashbacks from Abraham's life. If I tried to present events as they unfold, it would be hard to follow, so I'll summarize elements of the film instead of doing a blow by blow.
His Only Son begins with God appearing to Abraham, after a period of silence, commanding him to take Isaac and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah. When Abraham tells Sara he needs to go make a sacrifice at Moriah (he doesn't mention that it's Isaac), she's afraid that the road will be dangerous and questions why they can't make the sacrifice at their camp. Abraham insists that they must do what the Lord has commanded and that he will guide them. After recruiting Kelezar, the son of his chief servant, Eliezer, and another servant, Eshcolom, Abraham tells Isaac about the journey (again, not mentioning the sacrifice) and they head out.
Much of the movie follows Abraham, Isaac, and the servants on the road. As they travel, we get flashbacks that fill us in on the story of Abraham, from his first encounter with God, in which he receives God's promise, all the way to Isaac's birth. I won't recap all of these episodes, because they basically reflect various episodes taken from Scripture (with some significant omissions that I'll discuss in my review below) and because they don't really do much to advance the plot. The goal is to establish Abraham's frame of mind and all that he's been through. The one thing worth noting is that throughout these episodes, Abra(ha)m is consistently portrayed as having completely solid trust in God, whereas Sara(i) functions as his spiritual antagonist, expressing doubt and anger at God, urging Abram (against his own protests) to take Hagar, and then blaming him after Hagar conceives.
Campfire Conversations with Abraham's Servants
Throughout the journey, we also get various scenes of Abraham, Isaac, and his servants having meals or talking around a campfire. One of the servants, Eshcolom, is a native of the land and resents Abraham for taking him captive. He believes Abraham is arrogant and condescending and also doesn't understand Abraham's faith. Throughout these scenes, Abraham lectures Eshcolom on faith with speeches that sounds oddly reminiscent of a standard Protestant evangelism tract (e.g. he explains God's holiness, man's sinfulness, spiritual blindness, how we can't please God through our deeds, etc.). Kelezar gets mad as Eshcolom for disrespecting their master and not being grateful for having a master who knows the true God. This tension reaches a boiling point when they reach Moriah. Eshcolom becomes blatantly defiant and Kelezar has to physically restrain him and tie him up. We never return to the story of the servants after Abraham goes up Moriah.
The Soldiers of Abimelech
Early in the journey, Abraham and his company encounter some soldiers of Abimelech. The soldiers are intimidating, but they ultimately leave them alone when they realize who Abraham is. Not much later, the travelers find a dying man, whose daughter has been taken by the same soldiers, but they can't do much about it.
They see signs of the presence of the soldiers at a couple points during the journey, but don't encounter them again until they reach Mount Moriah. The soldiers are angry that Abraham concealed his true destination from them and demand tribute in response. Isaac responds by condemning them for taking the girl (who is with them) and offers to take her place. They consider taking Isaac and turning him into a male sex slave in her place, but Abraham refuses. A fight breaks out, in which Abraham gets injured, but the servants are able to drive the soldiers away (what happens to the girl is not addressed).
After the encounter with the soldiers of Abimelech, Abraham takes Isaac up Mount Moriah and they build an altar. Abraham finally reveals to Isaac what God has commanded. Isaac asks if there are other options but Abraham insists that he's prayed and God has been silent. Isaac eventually submits, in words intentionally designed to mirror the words of Jesus in Gethsemane. Abraham is about to plunge the knife into him when God speaks and stops him. They see the ram that God has provided in Isaac's place and Abraham and Isaac embrace one another.
The New Testament
The film ends by flashing forward to Jesus' crucifixion. We see the Roman Centurion declare that this is surely the son of God. After the credits, we get a string of standard verses used in evangelism (e.g. Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23, 2 Corinthians 5:21) with relatively little explanation.
Review of His Only Son
His Only Son begins with a brief video from the director, David Helling, in which he points out how little the film was made for compared to big budget Hollywood film. But the problems with His Only Son aren't due to its limited budget. Sure, the production could look a little better at certain points (e.g. the CG city of Hebron), but these small imperfections are easy to overlook - and the settings are breath-taking. What's hard to overlook is the shoddy writing. While there are a few saving graces, on the whole, His Only Son is plodding, heavy-handed, and deeply problematic in its depiction of women and slavery.
David Helling ends the film by announcing his plans to continue to film a series of Old Testament films. The public does need more quality adaptations of Old Testament stories, but subpar adaptations aren't going to meet that need. While I'm sure Helling is a faithful and devout Christian and I wish him the best, I'm not convinced that his writing is strong enough to capture the complexity of Old Testament stories.
Let me expand on a few of my biggest issues with His Only Son:
His Only Son falls into a common pitfall of Christian films. It's so concerned with delivering a theologically-correct, evangelistic message that it puts large chunks of evangelistic messaging onto the lips of character in a manner that feels contrived and untrue to the historical position of the characters. Like I suggested in my recap, many of Abraham's talks sound like a summary of the Bridge or the Four Spiritual Laws. There's very little effort to reckon with Abraham's position in redemptive history. There's also no reason why Abraham would be explaining these concepts to his servants now - if they've been living with him since birth, surely he's had plenty of time to explain these things. There's also very little effort to portray Eshcolom and Sarai, the spiritual "antagonists," in a sympathetic manner. Even though they give Abraham pushback, they're always portrayed in a negative light, even though they do raise some legitimate and troubling points.
Portrayal of Women
Feminist criticism of modern films can sometimes be overblown. Although I think it's good practice, I'm not convinced that it's always a cardinal sin if a film fails to meet the Bechdel Test or other more stringent measures. That being said, it's hard to watch His Only Son and not be concerned about its treatment of women.
Sara(i) exists to serve two purposes. In most scenes, she functions as a spiritual antagonist, complaining about God's timing or lack of provision, urging Abraham to go back, urging Abraham to take Hagar, and then attacking Abraham when he follows her advice. But after God finally provides a child, Sarah transforms into a happy mother who admits that she was wrong and should have trusted God. Although Abraham nominally takes responsibility for sleeping with Hagar (because not doing so would look bad), the film itself suggests that the responsibility lies primarily on Sarah, who has to strong arm Abraham against his protests.
The depiction of Hagar is even worse. I don't think she got any dialogue. She just gives Abraham eyes and we're told that she covets Sarah's position. There's absolutely no effort made to portray her as a complex human being. And when Eshcolom points out how messed up Abraham's treatment of her was, his (completely legitimate) complaint is shot down with a very empty hand wave.
The only other female characters in the film are female prostitutes that Abraham and his company pass on their way to Moriah and the girl captured by the soldiers. Neither have any actual character development. They are passive objects that exist solely to motivate the male cast.
Christians, if we don't want our daughters drawn away from the faith by the seductive philosophies of this world, we need to produce media in which women are portrayed as three-dimensional humans with the same level of complexity and agency as males. Women can't be reduced to either objects of temptation, passive damsels in need of saving, or passive yes-(wo)men who exist to prove that men are always right. It's completely fine to portray the flaws of a female character, but when the male character is always right and the female is wrongs, there's something seriously amiss.
Portrayal of Abraham
Part of what makes the portrayal of Sarah so frustrating is how it contrasts with the portrayal of Abraham. Although Abraham waxes eloquently on how all men are sinful and bind apart from the grace of God, the film portrays him as essentially perfect. It's the type of simplistic portrayal of Old Testament you'd expect to find in a bad Children's Bible.
Yes, at various points we seem him struggle with God's command to sacrifice Isaac, but never so much that he actually considers disobeying. As I noted above, the only sin of Abraham that the film portrays is his decision to take Hagar as a second wife - and the film suggests that Sarah is mostly to blame, since she pushes him to do it despite his multiple protests. There's no sense that Abraham himself is inwardly tempted by the idea - he simply lacks the fortitude to say no to his wife's plan. The film noticeably omits episodes in which Abraham is clearly the one in the wrong, like when he gives Sarah to Pharaoh in order to save his own sin. And even when one of those stories comes up - the story of Abimelech taking Sarah - the film fails to point out Abraham's frightened lie and instead paints him as a complete victim.
As I noted in my section on sermonizing, Abraham is also portrayed as having almost all the answers theologically. He lectures on theological topics as if he attended a modern evangelical seminary - there's very little sense of a need for progressive revelation. Although Abraham doesn't know how God will provide a replacement for Isaac, he never seems to doubt that God will and he has no significant doubts about God's goodness, in spite of what he's been asked to do. It seems unlikely that Abraham would have had such complete certainty - and it makes it harder for us to connect with him as a character.
Portrayal of Slavery
At various points in the film, Eshcolom, Abraham's slave complains about how he's been enslaved and forced to serve Abraham. Kelezar, the faithful servant, responds by justifying their slavery, because serving Abraham and the true God is better than serving the false gods of the people of the land. The film seems completely satisfied with Kelezar's argument - he's consistently portrayed as the good guy and Eshcolom is consistently portrayed as the bad guy for raising such pesky questions. But Kelezar's arguments sound disturbingly similar to the types of justifications that were made by American slaveholders to support chattel slavery. I realize that historically there were differences between the practice of slavery in the ancient near east and American slavery, but none of those differences were suggested by the film. As a result, we're left with the impression that slaves of Christians should be content with - even grateful for - their servitude because it's better than living under paganism.
A movie should tell a good story. It can do other things too - delivering theologically-true messages and biblically-accurate details is great. But if there isn't a good story, all the rest will fall flat.
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is an interesting story concept. What would you do if God asked you to sacrifice your only child? The question has intrigued Christian writers for centuries. But a story requires more than an interesting concept. It requires thoughtful structure, engaging conflict, and good pacing. Unfortunately, His Only Son fails to deliver these other important aspects of good storytelling.
Part of the problem is that there isn't much for Abraham and his company to do. They're just traveling on a road, with relatively few obstacles to overcome. The film tries to introduce the soldiers as an additional obstacle - and I like the idea. But the soldiers aren't a real threat and they do very little up until the final climax, in which they are dispatched with little trouble. Instead of giving us real obstacles, we're forced to sit through way too many campfire discussions and flashbacks. There's so little urgency. It makes the film feel slow and, honestly, boring.
Another part of the problem is that the film is marketed to an audience that already knows the story quite well. Now, I'm not saying every film needs to have a surprise or twist, but there does need to be tension. When Abraham knows what he's going to do and never really wavers - and when the audience also knows what Abraham is going to do - it's hard to stay engaged. The film tries to create tension through Eshcolom's questions and growing frustration, but it's hard to feel that invested, given how black and white the film's treatment of the characters is.
I think the music and tone also contributes to the plodding feel. I didn't have a problem with the main theme in and of itself. The problem is that there was way too little variety in the music and more broadly in the tone of the film. A film needs to have emotional variety. When the music (and action) is all somber and solemn all the time, it makes the experience feel monotonous. To make us really feel sadness, you have to bring us down from a happier place. When everything is sad, nothing begins to feel sad. It just feels onerous.
His Only Son isn't a complete mess. There are seeds of interesting ideas - the soldier plot, the conflict between the servants, the question of whether Eliezer and his son would have actually wanted Isaac to die so they could inherit from Abraham - these elements could have proved interesting. The film did a little bit of retroactive typology that was interesting. And I have no complaints about the fundamental theology of the film and I'll acknowledge that it works very hard to be true to the biblical text. Unfortunately, that's not enough to save His Only Son from its many defects as a film.
A New Resource for Studying Biblical Adaptations
If you're like me, watching biblical adaptations is about more than entertainment. Bible movies & shows like The Chosen provide us with fresh eyes to see the significance of the Bible and the beauty of the Gospel. That's why I'm excited to share with you a new resource that I've created to help you study biblical adaptations & reflect on how they apply to everyday life. Come and See is a devotional journal designed specifically for studying Bible movies and shows like The Chosen. It includes sections for you to take notes on each episode's plot, your favorite quotes, personal connections, questions, and, of course, Scripture references. Whether you're studying on your own or with your small group or ministry, Come and See is a perfect resource to help you dig deeper into The Chosen.
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If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-3, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!
The Chosen Season 4
The Chosen Season 4 Controversy? (The Transfiguration of Jesus & the Second Commandment)
Reflecting on The Chosen Season 3 & Anticipating Season 4: What Worked & What to Fix
The Chosen Season 3
The Chosen Season 3 Episode 1 & Episode 2: Reaction and Analysis