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).
Starting your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus is easy. You’re already logged in with your Bible Gateway account. The next step is to enter your payment information. Your credit card won’t be charged until the trial period is over. You can cancel anytime during the trial period.
Click the button below to continue.
You’ve already claimed your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus. To subscribe at our regular subscription rate of $3.99/month, click the button below.
It looks like you’re already subscribed to Bible Gateway Plus! To manage your subscription, visit your Bible Gateway account settings.
You've successfully created your account! For the ultimate Bible Gateway experience, consider upgrading Bible Gateway Plus to get the most out of your new account. For just a few dollars each month, a Bible Gateway Plus upgrade gives you:
• A complete digital Bible study library integrated with your Bible Gateway account, with no expensive software to install.
• Access to 40+ study & reference books including the NIV Study Bible, the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, and the MacArthur Study Bible.
• Special during April only: full access to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
• An ad-free Bible Gateway experience.
• A risk-free, 30-day trial—you can cancel any time.
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.