May 12, 2009

Galatians IX: Sarah and Hagar

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

I am a big fan of science-fiction film, as many of my Faithful Readers are probably aware. One of my favourite films in the genre is 1999's surprise hit The Matrix. (It's hard to believe it has been over 10 years since its release!) The Matrix is about a small-time hacker, Neo, who is contacted by a man named Morpheus who is regarded by the authorities as a notorious computer terrorist. Morpheus reveals to Neo what is probably the best-kept secret in the world: everything is actually a virtual-reality simulation created by intelligent machines, to keep the human race from realizing that they are being farmed and harvested as an energy source. "You are a slave, Neo," he says. "Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind."

Morpheus has been freed from his slavery, and his mission is to make others aware of the truth and set them free as well. This is why he is so dangerous to the authorities. Morpheus wants Neo and the rest of the human race to be free. The machines want them to be slaves.

The Apostle Paul, too, had been a slave: to his former religion of Judaism. But he now understood that he had been redeemed - set free - by Jesus Christ, and wanted nothing more than to tell people of the Gospel, the good news that Christ saved sinners from bondage. But in the churches of the district of Galatia, some Jews who professed Christianity were claiming that in order to be truly saved, it was necessary not only to have faith in Christ, but to be circumcised. Paul recognized this as antithetical to the Gospel that had been revealed to him, and a step backward into the bondage of legalistic religious observance. Paul wanted the Galatian Christians to be free. The Judaizers wanted them to be slaves.

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,

"Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband."

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman." So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 4:21-5:1)

Paul addresses those within the Galatian church who desired to return to the Law by accepting circumcision as a prerequisite to their salvation. "Listen to the Law," he instructs them. To a devoted Jew, this meant more than just hearing the words: the Law was read in the synagogue, and they were expected to not only listen to it but heed what it said. The Law was not only something to obey, but a source of pride. God had said, when the Law was delivered, "[W]hat great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?" (Deut. 4:8). Paul is asking, "Do you realize what you are in for?" Obviously the Galatian church had not yet reached the point of complete apostasy, despite the pressure that the Judaizers were putting on them.

Once again, for his final theological argument and the rhetorical climax of this letter, Paul returns to the story of Abraham, albeit to an event that was not a particularly high point in his life.

In Genesis 15, Abraham (then still called Abram) was already an old man, and because his wife Sarai was barren, he had no heir of his own - his dynasty would pass to a man in his household, Eliezer of Damascus. Nonetheless, God promised him a son, even in his advanced age: "This man shall not be your heir;(A) your very own son[a] shall be your heir" (Gen.  15:4).

But Sarai remained barren, so she and Abram decided to take matters into their own hands. She gave him her Egyptian servant Hagar as a concubine (Gen. 16:2), and by her Abram had a son, Ishmael (Gen. 16:15). However, this led to hostility between Sarai and Hagar, which led to Hagar being driven out of the household twice (Gen. 16:6,21:9-14). Eventually, of course, Abraham and Sarah had a son of their own, Isaac (Gen. 21:1-3). Isaac became the father of Jacob, who was the patriarch of the nation of Israel.

Not only the Law, but Jewish heritage, was a source of pride. They were the children of Abraham, his true heirs, not mere Gentiles, or worse - the illegitimate offspring of Abraham through Ishmael. They interpreted the story of Isaac and Ishmael in such a way as to prove that only the children of Isaac had a true share in the promises of God. But what Paul does here is to offer an interpretation of his own - he repudiates theirs by reversing the story and throwing it back in their faces. It isn't the physical seed of Abraham that receives the blessings, but the spiritual seed.

This is what Paul has already argued, in chapter 3. Abraham was right with God because he believed God (3:6), before his children had received the Law or he himself had even been circumcised. He was justified because of his faith, not his good works. All the promises given to Abraham have, as their final object, Christ (3:16); therefore, those who by faith receive Christ imitate the faith of Abraham and become his heirs - Jew and Gentile both (3:28-29). But Paul was only repeating an argument already implied by John the Baptist and by Jesus himself. While John was heralding the coming Messiah and baptizing in the Jordan, he warned the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to make a public appearance: "And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (Matt. 3:9). Jesus came right out and said it:

"I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet(A) you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you." . . .

They answered him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did." (John 8:37,39-40)


Paul calls his interpretation an "allegory," translated from the Greek word avllhgore,w, meaning "to speak allegorically." Allegory was a popular figure of speech in the Greek world, and it even had a following amongst the Hellenistic Jews. In Alexandria, for example, the Jewish philosopher Philo had taken the Sarah-Hagar story and allegorized it, so that Hagar represented basic education and Sarah the higher life of the mind. The allegorical method was soon inherited by the early Church, particularly in Egypt where the "Alexandrian" school of theology included such Church fathers as Clement and Origen, who adopted the forms of secular philosophical discourse to lend Christianity some additional intellectual respect. By the early Middle Ages, the Church had developed a fourfold system of interpretation: the literal sense (what the text actually said in plain language), the allegorical sense (what it said about Christ or the heavenly realm), the anagogical sense (what it said about right Christian living), and the tropological sense (what it said about the afterlife or the end of the world). The highest of these was the allegorical. Read Anglo-Saxon poetry from the Dark Ages, and you quickly realize that this hermeneutic was not limited to the Bible - the poets interpreted everything this way. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church still officially teaches the fourfold method. Although evangelical Protestantism tends toward the grammatical-historical method of interpretation, there are still a few holdovers from before the Reformation. If you've ever read Isaiah 14 as the fall of Satan from heaven, for example, or heard Song of Solomon taught as describing the relationship between Christ and the Church, that is allegory.

Interpreting allegory requires a key that comes from outside the text. Certainly nothing intrinsic to the story of Sarah and Hagar suggests the Greek educational system as Philo allegorized it, nor does Song of Solomon actually mention Christ or the Church (and reading it that way can get, frankly, weird). The danger of allegorization is that since that key is not drawn from the text itself, the text can be made to mean almost whatever the interpreter wants it to. A recent and egregious example of this is Harold Camping, the head of Family Radio, whose heavily numerological method of allegorizing Scripture led him to predict the end of the world in 1994, and also to declare the end of the church as God's vehicle for salvation. Obviously, the world failed to end 15 years ago, and Camping has revised his original prediction to 2011; however, I personally know some people who have fallen for Camping's nonsense.1

While the debate about this passage is ongoing, I personally believe that what Paul is doing is properly typology rather than allegory. Instead of importing a foreign concept into the text, typology finds the Old Testament foreshadowing the New, and uses the Old Testament example (the type to explain the New (the antitype). Hence when Matthew cites Joseph and Mary's resettlement in Nazareth after their flight to Egypt as a fulfillment of Judges 13:4 or 13:7 (Matt. 2:23), he isn't claiming that Jesus was a Nazirite or that Samson came from Nazareth (which didn't even exist in his day), or even that Judges 13 predicts the birth of Jesus. He is declaring Samson to be a type of Christ: Samson, the strong man who delivered his people from the Philistines by the power of God; Jesus, the strong man who delivered his people (the Church) from sin by the power of God (cf. Matt. 1:21,12:29). The ultimate type, of course, is Adam, whose foreshadowing of Christ Paul explains in Romans 5 (and indeed Adam is the only explicitly named type, in Rom. 5:14). This is what Paul is doing with Sarah and Hagar: declaring the literal story of their antagonism to be a foreshadwoing of the antithesis between Law and grace.

A tale of two . . .

But in either case, Paul says he is avllhgorou,mena - speaking in allegory - so I will use his word. In this allegory are two women. Though Paul doesn't name them yet, they are of course Sarah and Hagar: Sarah the wife of Abraham, and Hagar the maid.

These two women had two sons. Isaac was Sarah's son, the child of promise; Ishmael was Hagar's, born according to the flesh. This alludes to the different circumstances of their births. Isaac's birth was miraculous, in the sense that Sarah was 90 years old - well past childbearing age! - when he was promised to her. No such promise announced Ishmael's birth to Hagar: he was the product of normal, carnal relations with a fertile woman, at a time when Abraham's faith in God's promise faltered and he tried to help it along by taking a younger woman.

Hagar and Sarah represent two covenants. These covenants were given at two mountains, and represent two cities. Hagar is the Old Covenant, the Law given to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. Sinai is in Arabia, and would underscore the foreign nature of Hagar's descendants: traditionally Ishmael is seen as the father of the Arab nations, and despite their descent from Abraham, they were not to benefit from the promises made to him. To this, Paul's Jewish opponents would readily assent. But Paul's reversal of this story would be shocking. The Law received at Mt. Sinai was the pride of the Jewish nation, the supposed sons of Isaac!

Paul keeps turning this story on its head. In his allegory, Hagar represents the present city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital of Judea: the focus of Jewish worship, because that was where the Temple was. Prior to the Babylonian exile, there was a widespread belief that the city was virtually invulnerable, because the Temple represented the very presence and protection of God. The prophet Jeremiah warned the people of the fallacy of this mindset (see Jeremiah 7), and I think that to an extent this is what Jesus probably had in mind when he told the disciples (who were exclaiming about the grandeur of Herod's Temple) that not one stone would remain standing on another (Matt. 24:2). Both times, it was not long before Jerusalem was sacked and the "invulnerable" Temple destroyed.

It must have incensed the Judaizers to hear Paul saying that Jerusalem and her children were the slaves. However, Paul has already made this argument in Gal. 3:23-4:11. Those who are under the Law are enslaved to the Law, even if they are sons of God. But at the appointed time, Christ redeemed those who were enslaved to the Law and set them free so they could be adopted as sons. This is the New Covenant, represented by Sarah, and delivered on Mount Zion (although Paul does not say so explicitly) by Christ. He inaugurated the New Covenant in his own blood shed on the cross (Eph. 2:7-8), foreshadowing it at the Last Supper, when Jesus shared the cup, announcing, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:27-28). When this covenant was enacted, our citizenship was transferred from the "present Jerusalem" to the "Jerusalem above" (cf. Col. 1:13-14). Citizenship in the present Jerusalem is earthly. Paul has more than one run-in with the "circumcision party" over the years: for example, he warns the Philippian church to "look out for the dogs," whom he calls "evildoers" and the false circumcision - who, contrasted with the "true circumcision" in Christ, seem to put their confidence in earthly things (Phil. 3:2-3). The citizenship of Christians is not earthly, but heavenly; not limited to the physical descendants of Abraham, but as John says in his vision of heaven, they come "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Rev. 7:9). As citizens of heaven, we are destined to receive a heavenly inheritance: Christ will "transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body" (Phil. 3:21). We have not yet received this inheritance, but we will - because we are no longer slaves, but but free sons of Abraham.

In chapter 53 of Isaiah, the prophet alludes to the "suffering servant" - a sorrowful figure, a human scapegoat who "was wounded for our transgressions," because "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:5-6). Of course, this is a prophecy of Jesus' sufferings. Chapter 53 concludes: "He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors" (v. 12). It is because of this that Isaiah can turn from sorrow to rejoicing, and write of this dramatic reversal:

Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married," says the LORD. (Isa. 54:1)

Paul quotes this same verse to the Galatians, and identifies the "barren one" as Sarah. She could rejoice because, though barren, she finally had a son, and through him came a great nation. Christians can continue to rejoice, because they, too, are the spiritual children of Abraham according to the promise, through the work of Abraham's antitype, Christ. The children of Abraham, the Church, would ultimately outnumber the unbelieving Jews, the children of the slave woman. This reversal, from despair to blessing, could only be accomplished by God himself.

"That is you," Paul is telling the Gentile Christians of Galatia. "You are the children of promise, if not of biology." They are already like Isaac, though it is not due to anything they have done, any more than it was with their father Abraham, who "believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Gal. 3:6).

Nonetheless, there is another historic parallel between the story of Hagar and Sarah and the present situation that must be addressed. On the day that Isaac was weaned, Sarah discovered that Ishmael was mocking his half-brother. The hostility between Sarah and Hagar resurfaced, and she demanded that Abraham expel her and her son from the household. This he did, albeit reluctantly, after God promised that Ishmael, too, would father a great nation (though Abraham's legacy would still be through Isaac).

The persecution of Isaac by Ishmael is a type of the persecution of the Galatian Church by the Judaizers. And if the Church wasn't being persecuted from within, it was being persecuted from without by the civil authorities. Persecution is a constant that has endured throughout the history of the Church and continues to this day. Privilege alongside persecution is a paradox of the faith; as Luther said, "Whoso will not suffer the persecution of Ishmael, let him not profess himself to be a Christian."2

Now Paul gets to what I believe is the punchline of this letter. Just as Abraham cast out Hagar, he counsels the Galatians to "[c]ast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman" (Gal. 5:30). If the Judaizers are disrupting the fellowship of the church and throwing them into confusion, then throw them out! There are limits to the diversity that can be tolerated within the congregation. Passages like Romans 14 show that Paul was willing to accommodate a certain amount of difference between Christians for the sake of unity. However, this was not a minor dispute over an arguable matter: the core of the Gospel itself was at stake. The Judaizers were yeudade,lfouj - false brethren - who were in fact sons of the slave woman posing as sons of the free woman, and wanting to make the free children into slaves. But the slaves have no inheritance with the free, and if they are persecuting the free sons, they must be expelled from the assembly.

My sense is that the first verse of chapter 5 fits better as the conclusion to this argument than as an introduction to the next section. In 4:31, Paul again reminds the Galatians that it is them, not the Judaizers, who are the free children. And in 5:1, he admonishes them: "Keep standing firm." Hold your guard; do not submit to the influence of the Pharisees. To return to the Law would have been to return to slavery. Later, at the council of Jerusalem - held to address this very subject and settle the issue once and for all for the entire Church - Peter confronted the Pharisee Christians who were arguing for circumcision, saying, "why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). Paul had stood his ground with Titus against the Judaizers on his first trip to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:3-5); he later stood his ground against Peter when he had withdrawn fellowship from the Gentile Christians in Antioch (Gal. 2:11ff). The authors of the Gospels have shown Peter faltering again and again; here, in his final appearance in the biblical narrative of the early Church's history, Peter stands firm with Paul. Luke leaves us with a positive last impression of him as he exits history.

Again, however, it is a good reminder that freedom in Christ is not freedom from any kind of moral restraints. Paul warns the Galatians against turning their freedom into an opportunity for the flesh (5:13), though this passage is the subject of a later post. It is unfortunately common amongst the evangelical world to throw out words like "legalism" or "Pharisee" against anyone who suggests any boundaries to doctrine or conduct. We have been set free from the burden of earning God's favour through the strict observance of a moral code; we are free to approach God by faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross. We cannot earn God's acceptance, but we are accepted by him because he accepted Christ's obedience on our behalf. Jesus, too, has a yoke that he invites his followers to wear, but unlike the oppressive yoke of the Judaizers that was too great to bear, his yoke is easy and the load is light (Matt. 11:29-30). The Law demanded a return to endless, wearisome work that could offer no salvation from sin. Jesus offers rest to weary souls, since he has done the work to take away sin once and for all.


1 For a rebuttal of Camping's heresy and a defense of the Church, see Dangerous Airwaves by James R. White (Calvary Press, 2002).

2 Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (New York: Robert Carter, 1844), 441.


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