After his personal appeal ("become like me"), Paul begins to give specific direction to the Galatians. He does this first of all by taking their own perspective: since they want to be under the law, Paul asks if they are aware of what the law says to them (v. 21). His opening question is a clue that although the Galatians have expressed their desire to keep the regulations of the Mosaic law, they have not yet fully understood or accepted all the obligations of the law. We know from verse 10 that they are already trying to observe the Jewish calendar. And we will see in 5:2 that some of them have gotten circumcised. But Paul has to inform them in 5:3 that once someone is circumcised, he is under obligation to keep the whole law. At this point in his letter Paul takes their position and says, as it were, "Well, now if you really want to keep the law, let me tell you how the law applies to your situation."
Paul's application of the law to their situation is taken from the story of Abraham's two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. When we read through Paul's use of Scripture in this section, we encounter a strange allegorical interpretation. In all of the New Testament, there is perhaps not a more difficult passage to interpret. This passage has often been used to accuse Paul of twisting and distorting Scripture. Betz says that this passage "has strained the credulity of the readers beyond what many people can bear" (1979:244). Paul explicitly calls attention to his method of interpretation in verse 24: these things may be taken figuratively. A more accurate translation of this phrase than the NIV would be "these things are now being interpreted allegorically." Paul must have inserted this reference to his method of interpretation because he knew that his use of this method of interpreting the biblical text would cause difficulty for his readers. In order to appreciate what Paul is doing here, we need to get an overview of the passage, to look at the whole before looking at the parts. Let's consider Paul's purpose for his allegorical interpretation, the false teachers' interpretation and Paul's method of interpretation.
You can often tell the purpose of a book by simply reading its introduction and conclusion. Paul introduces his interpretation of the Old Testament text by pointing out the difference between the two sons of Abraham: one was born of the slave woman in the ordinary way, while the other was born by the free woman as the result of a promise (vv. 22-23). Paul concludes his interpretation with these words: Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman (v. 31). His introduction and conclusion make it clear that his primary purpose is to identify the Galatian Christians as the true children of Abraham, the children of the free woman, the children of promise. As we have seen already, the primary point of Paul's argument in chapter 3 was also to answer this question of the identity of the Galatian Christians: "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (3:29). So when we examine the details of Paul's allegorical interpretation, we need to keep in mind this central point to understand where Paul is headed.
When we consider the context for the allegory in the broader setting of the entire letter, we can also see that Paul constructed the allegory to call for decisive resistance to the false teachers. Paul began the body of his letter by rebuking the Galatians for giving in to the pressure of troublemakers who were leading them to accept a false gospel (1:6-7). In his autobiography Paul illustrated how he decisively resisted pressures from Jewish Christians at Jerusalem (2:3-5) and at Antioch (2:11-14) similar to those faced by the Galatian churches. The request section of the letter begins with the initial request of the letter in 4:12, "become like me," which calls for the Galatians to resist the false teachers just as Paul had resisted the false brothers. His own stand against those "Ishmaels" is now supported by the command of Scripture (Gen 21:10 in Gal 4:30), and Paul asks his converts to follow this command as well. To those who want to be under the law (v. 21) Paul gives a specific command to follow: Get rid of the slave woman and her son (v. 30). In 5:1 Paul paraphrases the call for decisive resistance expressed by the command of Genesis 21:10 in his own words: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."
So Paul's purpose for his allegorical interpretation of Genesis 21 is to identify the Galatian Christians as the children of freedom and to instruct them to resist those who would lead them into slavery under the law.
We might well wonder why Paul chose such a text to prove that Gentile Christians were the true descendants of Abraham. After all, on the surface it would seem that Paul had to use extreme measures to make the text serve his purpose. In fact, the text seems to fit the position of the false teachers better. We can easily imagine that Jewish Christians would have claimed that as Jews they were the sons of Isaac, the legitimate children of Abraham, while the Gentiles were like the Ishmaelites, illegitimate children. As the children of Isaac, the son of promise, the Jewish Christians could have gone on to claim that only those who attach themselves to the true people of God by circumcision and keeping the law can ever hope to inherit the promises of God. They would probably have threatened expulsion to all those who refused to live under the yoke of the law, as all full members of the Jewish Christian community were expected to live. They might have also claimed that the mother church in Jerusalem supported their teaching.
This line of speculation seems reasonable enough. But did the false teachers actually use the text in that way? Of course we cannot know for sure, but there seems to be good evidence that they did. First of all, the one undisputed fact in Paul's description of the rival teachers' campaign in the Galatian churches is their promotion of circumcision: they "are trying to compel you to be circumcised" (6:12). Since the law establishes circumcision as the sign of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17:10-14), and since circumcision and the Abrahamic covenant are closely linked in all strands of Jewish literature, it is difficult to imagine how the opponents could have promoted circumcision without referring to Abraham.
Second, the way Paul develops his allegory of Abraham's two sons immediately after his comment that the Galatians desire to be under the law (4:21) suggests that he was confronted by teachers who equated Abrahamic descent with being under the law. In fact, in the Jewish literature of Paul's day one of the most celebrated characteristics of Abraham was his perfect obedience to the Mosaic law.
Third, the way Paul introduces the Abraham story itself with the formula it is written (v. 22) is a clue that he is responding to the rival teachers' use of the same passage. Usually this formula introduces a quotation. But here it simply introduces a very brief summary of the Abraham story, which spreads over a number of chapters of Genesis: Abraham had two sons. It appears that the Gentile believers in Galatia have already been told the story.
Fourth, the women are introduced as the slave woman and the free woman. Which slave woman and which free woman? Paul seems to assume that his readers already know that the slave woman is Hagar, the free woman Sarah.
In light of this evidence for the false teachers' own use of the Abraham story, including the Hagar-Sarah story, we can safely conclude that Paul deemed his allegorical treatment of the Hagar-Sarah story necessary "because his opponents had used it and he could not escape it. His so called allegorical treatment of Abraham was evoked not by a personal love of fantastic exegesis but by a reasoned case which it was necessary that he should answer" (Barrett 1982:162). When we work through Paul's interpretation, it will be helpful to keep in mind that it is a rebuttal of a number of strong points in the rival teachers' argument.
If we hope to understand Paul's allegorical treatment of Scripture, we need to describe the method he used. Paul's statement that he was interpreting the Hagar-Sarah story allegorically does not automatically decide the question as to the exact nature of his exegetical method. Some of the early church fathers, such as John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia, insisted that by "allegorical" Paul actually meant "typological." Many later commentators have taken the same view. R. Hanson's definition of these terms helps to sharpen the distinction between allegory and typology: "Typology is the interpreting of an event belonging to the present or recent past as the fulfillment of a similar situation recorded or prophesied in Scripture. Allegory is the interpretation of an object or person or number of objects or persons as in reality meaning some object or person of a later time, with no attempt made to trace a `similar situation' between them" (1959:7). On the basis of this definition, we can see that Paul used both a typological method and an allegorical method in his interpretation of the Hagar-Sarah story.
Paul saw a real correspondence between the historical situation of the two sons of Abraham and the two sorts of descendants of Abraham in his own day--those born according to the flesh and those born according to the Spirit. This correspondence is emphasized by the grammatical construction of 4:29: At that time . . . It is the same now. Then, as now, the son according to the flesh persecuted the son according to the promise. Paul depicts the hostile activities of the troublemakers in Galatia in Galatians 1:7, 3:1, 4:17, 5:7-10 and 6:12-13. Since the Galatian believers were the persecuted and not the persecutors, they were obviously the children of the free woman through the promise. They were experiencing the fulfillment of a situation in the life of Isaac recorded in Genesis 21. On the basis of this real correspondence between the historical event in the life of Isaac (the type) and the fulfillment of that event in the present life of the Galatian churches (the antitype), Paul rephrases the words of Sarah in Genesis 21:10 as a divine command for the Galatian churches: But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son" (4:30). Galatians 4:31 is the natural conclusion Paul draws from this interpretation: Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
Typological interpretation, such as this appears to be, is grounded on the conviction that God acts in similar ways in different periods of history and that the event of salvation in Christ is the fulfillment of history, law and prophecy. From this perspective, persons and events associated with the event of salvation in Christ will be seen to correspond to the original situation. Seen in this light, Paul's application of the Genesis account to the Galatian churches is based not on arbitrary, fanciful definitions but on actual parallels in history: At that time . . . It is the same now.
But when we turn to verses 24-27, we see Paul using an allegorical method of interpretation. For the correspondence between Hagar and Mount Sinai and the present Jerusalem is not a historical correspondence.
Among Jewish thinkers, Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Paul, was the most prominent practitioner of allegorical interpretation. Philo saw the Old Testament as primarily a book of symbols that have hidden meaning beyond the literal, historical sense. His allegorical interpretation of these symbols was guided not by the constraints of the text but by his desire to demonstrate that the Jewish Scriptures contained the essence of Greek philosophy. In his interpretation of the Hagar-Sarah story, Sarah represents virtue and true wisdom, whereas Hagar represents general education. So Philo uses the allegory to contrast the superior value of true wisdom, which is found in the sacred Scriptures, to general education, which prepares one for secular work. In that allegory Isaac is the true philosopher trained in holy Scriptures; Ishmael is the sophist, unable to perceive eternal ideals.
Paul, of course, is not using the text as Philo did, to expound Platonic philosophical principles. Nevertheless, he is giving a meaning to the various terms of the text in an allegorical fashion. The theological framework for Paul's allegorical interpretation comes from his Abraham argument in chapter 3. In that argument Gentile converts were identified as true children and heirs of Abraham on the basis of the promise given to Abraham and the fulfillment of that promise in their experience of the Spirit. The Abraham argument also set out a contrast between the Abrahamic covenant as the means of life and righteousness and the Sinaitic covenant as the means of slavery.
Thus when the Genesis account is interpreted allegorically, it is not surprising that Sarah and her counterpart--the Jerusalem above, our true mother--should be identified as the mother of the Galatian believers in Christ. It follows naturally enough that Sarah can also be equated with the covenant of promise--a promise that included Abrahamic blessings for Gentiles as the seed of Abraham.
All these equations are built on the exposition of the gospel in the light of Old Testament texts in Galatians 3. In other words, Paul's allegorical definitions in Galatians 4 do not determine or form the basis of his theology but are derived from his theology, which has already been developed in the previous chapter.
A natural consequence of Paul's definitions of these terms in the allegorical equation is that Hagar becomes a symbol of the covenant at Mount Sinai. At this point in his interpretation, however, the basis for Paul's definitions becomes more problematic. How can Paul make the "Hagar Mount Sinai" and "Sinai present Jerusalem" equations in the face of the fundamental Jewish conviction that the Mosaic law was given to the descendants of Isaac at Mount Sinai and had nothing to do with Hagar?
The most satisfactory explanation of Paul's allegorical equations is simply stated in verse 25: because she is in slavery with her children. In Paul's allegorization of the text, slavery is the common feature that links Hagar (the slave woman), the covenant given at Mount Sinai, and the present Jerusalem. Paul has already attributed this feature of slavery to the Mosaic law (3:22-24; 4:1-10) and to a certain faction of "false brothers" at Jerusalem (2:4). His allegorization therefore must be seen as a counterattack on that Jewish-Christian faction within the church at Jerusalem which had tried to rob Gentile believers of their freedom by requiring them to be circumcised (2:3-6) and which was now attempting to do the same thing at Galatia. This actual experience of "false brothers" in the church gave rise to Paul's allegorical treatment of the text and is the key to its interpretation.
Paul's basic typological interpretation is supplemented by an allegorical treatment in order to relate the people in the story to the specific issues in the Galatian church and so to counterattack the false teachers' use of the same text.
Now that we have taken time to get an overview of this complex passage, we can turn to verse-by-verse exposition.
After his introductory question (v. 21), Paul sets forth the historical contrast between the two sons of Abraham (vv. 22-23); he develops this contrast by means of allegorical comparisons (vv. 24-26) and then adds a scriptural confirmation (v. 27). In verses 28-30 Paul addresses his readers directly and spells out the personal consequences of his interpretation for their lives. Finally, Paul underscores the main point again in his conclusion (v. 31).
The contrast between Abraham's two sons is established in terms of their social status (v. 22) and the manner of their birth (v. 23). Ishmael's mother, Hagar, was Abraham's slave; Isaac's mother, Sarah, was Abraham's wife, a free woman. Since the social status of the mothers determined the social status of their sons, Ishmael was a slave and Isaac was free. Furthermore, there was nothing supernatural about Ishmael's birth: it happened in the ordinary way, as a natural result of the sexual union of Abraham and Hagar. NIV's in the ordinary way is a good paraphrase of "according to the flesh." In this context flesh is not used as a negative, judgmental term; it simply indicates that Ishmael's birth was not caused by anything except the normal biological processes of conception and birth. On the other hand, Isaac was born as the result of a promise. The only way that Abraham's sexual union with his aged, barren wife Sarah could have resulted in conception and birth was by the supernatural fulfillment of the promise of God.
So far Paul has simply summarized the biblical narrative of Abraham's two sons. But what a dramatic contrast his simple summary sets forth: slavery by natural birth and freedom by supernatural birth! It does not take much imagination to see how this contrast could be effectively used to illustrate and apply the truth already given in this letter. If you have only experienced natural birth, you are by nature a slave. But if you have experienced supernatural birth by the fulfillment of God's promise in your life, you are by God's grace set free. Before Paul develops these personal implications, however, he sets up a series of allegorical comparisons.
Since contemporary Jewish exegesis of the Hagar-Sarah story would have supported the position of the false teachers in Galatia, it was necessary for Paul to redefine the terms of the story so that he could draw out its real meaning as he saw it. The purpose of his allegorical comparisons is to establish the identification of the false teachers with Hagar and Ishmael (vv. 24-25) and the identification of the Galatian believers with Sarah and Isaac (vv. 26-28).
The identification of the false teachers with Hagar and Ishmael is developed in four steps. The first step identifies Hagar with the covenant from Mount Sinai and the children of Hagar with the children of the Sinaitic covenant: the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar (v. 24). This comparison is based on the common understanding that the children of slave women are slaves. If Hagar represents the covenant from Mount Sinai, then the children of that covenant are destined to be slaves, since the children of Hagar, the slave woman, were destined to be slaves. Paul has already argued that those who adhere to the Sinaitic covenant are enslaved by it (3:19--4:10). His allegorical comparison here builds on that argument and leads to the identification of the rival teachers with Hagar's children, so that he can appeal to the Galatian believers in the words of Genesis 21:10 to resist the influence of those teachers.
The second step in this identification process undergirds the Hagar-Sinaitic covenant comparison. Such a comparison contradicts the common Jewish understanding that the Sinaitic covenant was given to the descendants of Isaac and was therefore not related to Hagar and her descendants. So now Paul sets forth a Hagar-Mount Sinai equation to support his Hagar-Sinaitic covenant equation: Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia (v. 25). Paul appears to be connecting Hagar with Mount Sinai on the basis of her name and the geographical location of Mount Sinai. In what way the name Hagar can be connected with Mount Sinai is extremely difficult to understand. There may have been some Jewish way of equating the numerical value of the words Hagar and Sinai or the sound of the Hebrew name Hagar may have been similar to the sound of a word associated with Mount Sinai. It is easier to understand how Hagar could be connected with Mount Sinai on a geographical basis, since Mount Sinai is in Arabia, the land inhabited by the Arabians, the descendants of Hagar and Ishmael.
The third step in Paul's identification of the children of Hagar as the false teachers in Galatia is his assertion that Mount Sinai corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem (v. 25). Paul's addition of Jerusalem to his allegorical equations makes sense only if the false teachers themselves were closely identified with the Jerusalem church. In other words, Paul mentions Jerusalem to increase the number of contact points between the false teachers who were associated with Jerusalem and the descendants of Hagar. Perhaps Paul's declaration in the next verse--but the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother--was his response to one of the slogans of the false teachers: "We come from the mother church in Jerusalem" (Lincoln 1981:17).
The fourth step supports the "Mount Sinai Jerusalem" equation by drawing attention to the common characteristic of slavery of both the children of the Sinaitic covenant and the children of Jerusalem: because she is in slavery with her children. Jerusalem was the proud capital city for all the recipients of the covenant given at Mount Sinai. And the center of life in Jerusalem was the study and teaching of that covenant. The goal of life in Jerusalem was to regulate all of life by the law given at Mount Sinai. Since the Sinaitic covenant enslaved all who relied upon it and tried to regulate their lives by it (see 3:19--4:11), it followed that Mount Sinai and Jerusalem could be equated on the basis of this common characteristic of slavery. Furthermore, since the false teachers were characterized by their emphasis on the demands of the Sinaitic covenant and their appeal to the authority of the Jerusalem church, it follows that they were themselves in slavery and could therefore be identified as the children of Hagar, the slave woman.
Paul's allegorical comparisons are not easy to follow. They have raised a host of unresolved problems for interpreters. But we need to remember that whatever rationale Paul used for his equations of Hagar with Mount Sinai and the present Jerusalem, the goal of these comparisons was the identification of the false teachers with Ishmael as the children of slavery because of their emphasis on the Sinaitic covenant. Once this identification was established, Paul could then appeal to the Galatians in the words of the law itself to get rid of the slave woman and her son.
The identification of the Galatian believers with the children of Sarah begins with a contrast between the present Jerusalem, whose children are in slavery, and the Jerusalem above, which is free. She is our mother, Paul declares (v. 26). This contrast mixes two pairs of opposites: present-future, below-above. In Jewish prophecy the Jerusalem above was the consummation of all of God's promises for his people. In the heavenly new Jerusalem the people of God would experience the perfect rule of God in peace and harmony with him, one another and all of the new creation. But Paul does not put the heavenly Jerusalem in the future. His use of present tense indicates that the Galatian believers are already citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. Since they are already experiencing the Spirit of God, they are already enjoying the fulfillment of the promises of God. This means that they have already entered the heavenly Jerusalem. They can shout with joy, She is our mother!
This contrast is a dramatic way to show how foolish it would be to follow the demands of the false teachers. They were commending themselves as representatives of Jerusalem and teachers of the law of Moses. But there was no good reason for those who were experiencing the freedom of life as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem to be bound by slavery to the law, which was characteristic of the present, earthly Jerusalem.
The Jewish pride in Jerusalem is an understandable human affection. We often take special pride in the city of our origin. I'm quite happy to identify myself as a "Chicago boy," since I was born in Chicago. Chicago is one of the great cities of the world, I think. But like Christian in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, we look forward to the city of our destination, the heavenly Jerusalem. And even now, as Paul insists here, we can rejoice that we are citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem by faith in Christ. One of the greatest reasons for taking delight in our citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem is that people from every race, nation, language group and social class belong to that city. Whereas identification with the city of our origin sets us apart from people from other cities, identification with our city of destination unites us with people from every city.
Paul confirms his identification of his converts as the children of the Jerusalem above with a quotation from Isaiah 54:1. This prophecy assures Israel during her barren time of the Babylonian captivity that she will one day have more children than ever before. The Jews took it as a prophecy not only of the restoration of Israel but also of the time when multitudes of Gentiles would turn to God and claim Israel as their mother by becoming full members of the Jewish nation. Paul sees the fulfillment of the prophecy in the birth and growth of the church. The multiplication of the children of Sarah and the heavenly Jerusalem was a tangible reality for Paul as he witnessed the faith of Gentiles and their reception of the Spirit. Moreover, they were not born in the ordinary way but as the result of a promise (v. 23)--this promise from Isaiah! As Paul saw this ancient promise of God fulfilled in his own mission to the Gentiles, he must have also fulfilled the commands of the prophecy: Be glad . . . break forth and cry aloud! What a wonderful surprise it was for him to see God fulfilling his word in this way as he preached the gospel to Gentiles.
After his use of Scripture to confirm what has actually happened in his mission, Paul draws out the personal consequences for the Galatian believers: Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise (v. 28). Just as Isaac was born as the result of a promise, so the Gentile believers were born as a result of the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham (3:8) and his promise through the prophet Isaiah (4:27). So the link between the Galatians and Isaac is established.
That link is confirmed by the Galatians' experience of persecution. The Jewish Christian teachers have been harassing them with their requirements and demands. That is exactly what happened in the story of Ishmael and Isaac: At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now (v. 29). Genesis says that Ishmael mocked Isaac (Gen 21:9). Interpreting this text in the light of his own experience, Paul saw Ishmael's treatment of Isaac as derisive and abusive.
One personal consequence of being like Isaac is being mocked and persecuted by "false brothers" like Ishmael. Paul experienced fierce opposition from "false brothers" who tried to destroy him and his work. As it was at that time . . . it is the same now (v. 29). His story has been repeated many times throughout the history of the church. Often the most painful opposition comes not from those who are totally unrelated to the church, but from those who have positions of power within the church but lack the true power of the Spirit. We can see this illustrated in the time of the Protestant Reformation, when the powers of the Church of Rome ruthlessly persecuted the Reformers.
Now Paul is ready to apply the law directly to the Galatian crisis: But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son" (v. 30). Paul has really turned everything upside down. To those who want to be under the law he gives a command that must be interpreted within his framework of definitions to mean that they should expel the law teachers: Obey the law by getting rid of the law teachers! Excommunicate them!
The command for expulsion also carries with it an exclusion from inheritance: For the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son (v. 30). This has sometimes been taken as an absolute exclusion of all Jews, or at least of all unbelieving Jews. But Paul has a more specific target in mind. He is concerned about the subversive influence of those who have been teaching another gospel (1:6-9), those who have been bewitching his converts with their demand for law observance (3:1), those who are zealous to win the Galatians to themselves and to alienate them from Paul (4:17). It is these people who are forfeiting their inheritance by depending on the law rather than on the promise fulfilled in Christ (3:18).
The clear implication of this exclusion of the law teachers from the inheritance is that those who depend on the promises of God fulfilled in Christ will receive the inheritance. They are the true children of Abraham and Sarah; they are the Isaacs.
The consequence of being an Isaac is not only persecution, it is also inheritance. The pain of rejection by "false brothers" is more than offset by the joy of acceptance as children and heirs of promises made and kept by God. Already all who have faith in Christ enjoy the inheritance: they have received their citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem. The proof of that citizenship is the presence of the Spirit in their lives: they have been born by the power of the Spirit (v. 29).
The conclusion of the entire Hagar-Sarah allegory emphasizes once again the identification of believers in Christ: Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. The freedom-slavery and Spirit-flesh antitheses which Paul has constructed in his allegory serve as the framework for his ethical instructions in the rest of the letter. The children of the free woman, who were born by the power of the Spirit (v. 29) must learn to express their freedom by walking in the Spirit. They must not submit to slavery under the law or gratify the desires of the flesh.
Identity is the basis of behavior: a clear understanding of who we are in Christ guides our conduct in the Spirit.
Click the button below to continue.
For the best Bible Gateway experience, consider upgrading to Bible Gateway Plus. Bible Gateway Plus equips you to have in-depth biblical discussions with your friends, your family, and your peers. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.