So tell me - you who [say you] 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 [contemporary] Jerusalem for she now 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 churches' rationale for redesigning their standing before God.

To continue - Paul tells the Galatians that their adoption of a circumcision requirement makes Hagar's slavery to Sarah, along with Ishmael's circumcision, into the historical precedent (their own "covenant") for the legal demand that Gentiles be circumcised.

Therefore, Abraham's obedience to the circumcision requirement given him by the Lord, is now to be viewed as an anticipation of what the Law on Sinai required and Sinai's Law is now viewed as the fulfillment of the Promise. The Mosaic law about slavery (Exodus 21) is read as confirming the Promise God gave to Abraham. That promise - that in him all the peoples of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12) - is subverted by a "born to rule" presumption, a self- elevation by those professing to be the 'People of Promise' because of the coming of the Messiah.

Paul is suggesting that if adherence to the Law of Moses - and with it, the law governing slavery - is justified as fulfillment of the Promise, then it has to be asked whether the Hagar-Sinai allegory will also have to be applied to justify the servitude Jerusalem currently experiences with her children? What kind of Promise fulfillment is that? Would not Roman occupation of the Land of Promise cancel the rule of the Messiah? Would it not show that the Promise has been overthrown? And further, what would it say about the Galatians themselves and their faith in Jesus Christ? By referring to Jerusalem's current captivity and servitude (the Roman occupation of Israel), Paul takes the Galatian allegorical justification for circumcision and proceeds to explain just why it is untenable.

The Torah reveals that the son of the slave (see "for it is written" verse 22, verse 27 and "what does scripture say" in verse 30) was born according to the flesh. It was the maid of the free woman who had been handed over to the very person who had been given God's promise - Abraham's submission to Sarah, at this point, confirmed Hagar's greater servitude in child-bearing, and it was all according to Sarah's (free!) design. And so, Hagar was handed over to Abraham, by way of the flesh, to be his concubine. She had a child of the flesh,by Sarah's command. This "free woman" still became mother to Isaac despite having put her maid under greater servitude.

So, implies Paul, is Sarah's part in this to become the precedent for us? Not so, he says. Consider the next step in the story. What does the Scripture (verse 30) say? Ishmael had been circumcised, Hagar had been delivered up to Abraham by her mistress, and then - when tensions erupted within the household between the two sons - the Lord actually accommodated Sarah's demand that Hagar and her son be cast out in order to look after Hagar and her abandoned son Himself! That is what the Scripture says!

Paul takes up the appeal of the Galatians to show them that the path they are on is completely incompatible with the Promise. The one circumcised, the one who was not born of the line of Promise, was to be cast out - not to die but, as the story goes, so that the Lord, in His own way, could deal with him! So, by paying attention to the story we come back to the question in even more revealing terms: what is it that the Galatians would now want to advocate?

Formerly, the one born according to the flesh and then circumcised, Ishmael, persecuted the child born of the Promise, Israel.

Now, however, the zealots within the Christian fold would take on a role reversal - those who claim to be of the Promised line were persecuting those who do not advocate the subservience of the Gospel to circumcision.

If, says Paul, this is to serve as a convenient picture of your relation to God's covenant, the question arises as to which side you are on. This is the consequence of seeking to give yourself a precedent to justify your desire to be "under the law". It is completely ill- conceived. To read one's standing before God in this way simply endorses a view of Mt Sinai that bearing children is for slavery. That part of the Torah, that accommodates the weakness of the People of Promise, would thereby become the grounds for tyranny.

And so, such a zeal to find a precedent leads nowhere else but to Arabia, to Mt Sinai, that place where the Lord brings to Himself all His over-zealous servants, graciously showing them how hopeless it is to try to bring God's promises to fulfillment by the flesh! (see I Kings 19).

Mt Sinai, through the law given by Moses, reveals Sarah's imperious impositions upon Hagar and her own husband; it reveals Abraham's "returning to the weak and beggarly elements" (4:9) which are, in fact, the inheritance of those who rely upon the flesh, and, yes, it also confirms God's judgment upon Hagar's opposition to the child of Promise - as well as confirming His mercy to her and her son (Genesis 21:8-21). It is the story of the long-suffering patience of the Lord who keeps His promises. Paul makes it plain - "our mother" he says, "is the Jerusalem from above which is free" (verse 26). To take Sarah's side in the way the Galatians were seeking to do, will mean demanding, in time, the expulsion of those who are not descended in the flesh from Sarah herself (Genesis 21:10)!

But we also see that the casting out of Ishmael was not that he would die, but that the Lord would deal with him in His own way. Ishmael's life was not to unfold as the persecution of the child of promise. And meanwhile, Sarah is freed to care for the child God had promised, not just to Abraham and Sarah, but from whom all nations would be blessed.

So, says Paul, choose! Do you really and truly want to put yourself under the law after Christ has set you free? Allegories aside, you are either children of the covenant of slavery or of the covenant of Promise. In this choice you are taking a stand: either it will be in the flesh, to side with those who persecute those who, by faith, receive the Promise [see the outworking of this in the reference to the possibility of "biting and devouring each other" (5:15)] - or you will be given grace to wait for the Spirit and honour God's blessing of those "outside" the line of Isaac because His sure promise to Abraham, to say it again, is that all the peoples of the earth will be blessed in the One Promised (Genesis 21:15-21).

Scripture is plain - God's promise does not come by way of our inherited weakness due to sin - the way of the flesh - but by the Spirit. The connivances of those claiming God's promises as fulfillment of their willing bondage to the "weak and beggarly elements" of our creatureliness apart from God, do not stop God from working His purposes out. The mere advocacy of works of the law does not prevent Him from giving right standing before Him to anyone He wills. But to insist that works of the law are necessary for God to keep His promise is to depart from one's spiritual freedom in Christ and to embrace the slavery of the flesh. It is merely a foolish deceit (3:1).