So tell me - you who wish to be under the law - are you actually hearing the law [aright]? [After all,] it is written that Abraham had two sons - one of the maidservant and one of the free woman. But indeed the one of the maid servant was birthed according to the flesh, and the one of the free woman [came about] through the promise. So to speak allegorically: these [can] represent two covenants, one indeed bringing forth slavery from Mt Sinai, which [slavery] is Hagar. And so now Hagar - Mount Sinai located in Arabia - corresponds to the contemporary Jerusalem for she [Jerusalem] serves there as a slave with her children. But the Jerusalem [from] above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: "Rejoice O barren one that does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in labour! For the desolate one has more children than she who has a husband."
     Now we, fellows [brothers and sisters], like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now. But what does Scripture say? "Cast out the slave and her son; for the son of the slave shall not inherit with the son of the free woman."
     So, fellows [brothers and sisters], we are not the children of the slave but of the free woman. - Galatians 4: 21-31/transliteration by Bruce C Wearne

Expulsion of Ishmael and His Mother

The expulsion of Ishmael and His Mother by Abraham by French artist Gustave Doré.

 

IN A NUTSHELL

Paul confronts the Galatian's rationale for redesigning their standing before God. The story of Ishmael and Isaac is revisited in order to explain its current application.

We have noted throughout points where it is difficult to comprehend Paul's exact appeal. Now the text gets very complex where Paul confronts the argument put forward by the Galatian churches to justify their "desire to be under the Torah" (verse 21). He continues his refutation of their "new" allegiance by reference to their allegorical interpretation of God's promises to Abraham and Sarah.

Paul considers their point of view and draws out its implications. The Galatians, well versed in the story of Abraham (refer to "Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham..." Acts 13:26), would know about the circumcision of Ishmael under the patriarchal rule of Abraham (Genesis 17:23). So then, at that time circumcision became a requirement for those who were to be included into the extended family of Abraham as slaves, even though such offspring were born not of the line of promise but, as Abraham's child, was born "according to the flesh".

What then is the implication here? The Galatians have been reading the ancient story to suggest that the story of Hagar and Sarah provides them with a precedent by which Gentile believers now "come under" the Law, just as Ishmael, born under Abraham's patriarchal authority, was duly circumcised.

Paul seeks an answer to this question: How does the Scripture view Sarah and Hagar, the mothers of Abraham's two sons? He puts it in these terms: "From this ancient story, which tells us of the re-issuing of the Promise, long before the Law, with whom are you proposing to (allegorically) align yourselves? Hagar or Sarah? After all, the full story also tells about the way the institutions of slavery and servitude were dealt with by the law! (Torah's prescriptions for slavery are given immediately after the Ten Words in Exodus 21:1-11)."

This, says Paul, is the issue. There are now some very serious options before the Galatian church. Since you want to justify your insistence upon circumcision with a precedent from the story of God's covenant with Israel, which storyline is it to be? Will it be Sarah's enslavement and rejection of Hagar and her son, or the line of Promise given by God through Sarah? Will you align yourselves, and your demand that Gentiles be circumcised, with the free woman and the covenant of Promise through Isaac? Or will you reconstruct your identity in terms of Sinai's covenant about slavery within Israel? Which is it going to be? Paul's argument unfolds in these terms: "Even if you desire to align yourself with the line of Promise, are you Galatians not choosing the covenant of slavery, the line which comes from Hagar and leads to Mount Sinai?"

Now why is that? To answer this we look again at the Genesis account. That line, the line of Hagar, did not arise apart from the co-operation of Sarah and Abraham. It was made possible by these two ancestors of the "heirs to the Promise", and clearly that was a line "of the flesh", a departure from the path of faith, from the Promise itself. Who was it that received the Promise? And whose maid was Hagar? What free woman stands behind "the line of Hagar"?

Did not Sarah's initiative bring forth even greater servitude for Hagar? She was no longer merely her handmaid, but also the mother of the child of Sarah's husband? Did it not this, in time, lead further to theexpulsion of the slave and her son, even though Ishmael had been circumcised? What disaster then for the Galatian church does that portend?

The line from Hagar, the covenant of slavery as Paul terms it, was initiated by those to whom the covenant of Promise had been given. It thus could be said to have ended up "at Mount Sinai in Arabia".

Paul's point is that the attempt to seek an alignment with circumcision as a precedent simply must result in an implicit slavery, that is an implicit slavery "under the law".

But the practise of circumcision arose before Torah was given! And so, when Torah was given, it had to address the situation in which the people of Israel had already inherited and maintained.

Torah included laws that addressed this inherited situation, notably those that required just and kind treatment for slaves.

So that is why these two women (and their offspring) can be taken to represent the way the "two covenants" can indeed be aligned with Mt Sinai, bringing forth a way of life "under the law". That is why such a demand for circumcision now means that the Law replaces the Promise. Paul asks them: "Is that really what you are wanting?"

The Galatians would now be accepting the covenant of slavery, represented by Hagar, as enunciated at Sinai and which had its then current fulfilment in Jerusalem from where the Judaisers, demanding circumcision, have come. To go that way means to no longer live by God's promised blessing to all peoples, but by what was said about slavery at Sinai when Torah was given. Paul asks them: "Is this what you want? Are you willing to affix your life to the teaching about slavery described in Torah?"

This is a truly crucial question and, as we have suggested, it involves Paul in pointing out, by reference to the Biblical story, that they truly do not understand the giving of the Law.

And if they were to follow their misreading of the story of Sarah and Hagar, of Isaac and Ishmael, they would therefore endorse become a system of belief in which this Law proclaims that the Messiah has come to usher in the age in which they, as people of the Law, are to rule over all the peoples of the world.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of God that His people are the people of His Promise, is thus completely overthrown. What was proclaimed as Good News is now very much bad news for those who will be enslaved by this reversion.

Hagar the slave is taken as an allegorical picture of those who now should allow themselves to be ruled by the People of the Law, the People who, presumably by their adherence to Torah, have the task of bringing the Promise to fulfillment.

This then is merely a version of the zealot option allowing Jesus' disciples to live on the presumption that God's Kingdom is all about Israel's domination.

That presumption, Jesus had repeatedly told His disciples, was simply to live and think "like the Gentiles". Paul has deepened our appreciation of this by exposing the departure from Jesus' Gospel to a duplicitous and hypocritical way of life and it becomes clear why Paul has written in agony: "Oh foolish Galatians! Who has mesmerised you?"