Galatians 4:21-5:1 – Sarah and Hagar

This is the final stage in Paul’s scriptural argument against the agitators in the Galatian churches. He has made the point that Abraham was justified before circumcision, rather than after. In fact, Abraham was right with God before the Law was given at all.

He now moves to a allegorical argument based on the two wives and two children of Abraham. This is one of the most difficult passages in all of the Pauline letters for several reasons. First, Paul uses a method which is not simply unfamiliar to us, it seems to be drawing things out of the text which are simply not there. If a modern pastor made this sort of an argument, most people would question them and probably reject the argument based on the use of allegory alone.

Second, the allegory itself seems strange to the modern reader since it is not a modern allegory at all (Aslan is Jesus, Pilgrim’s Progress, etc.). But that is not at all the sort of allegory Paul wants to find in the Sarah and Hagar story. Paul is creating a contrast between the two sons of Abraham, one who was born free, and the other who was born in slavery. The story in Genesis is not an allegory at all, Paul is drawing an allegorical contrast from it. As Ben Witherington points out, Paul is using allegory to contemporize a text, not find “deeper meanings” (Galatians, 330). In other words, this is more like an application, or an analogy in contemporary rhetoric rather than a full allegorization of the original story.

With those clarifications, what is the point of the allegory? These two covenants are contrasted as between the earthly Jerusalem and heavenly Jerusalem. This is obscure, but Paul’s point is to connect the old covenant (the Law) with Sinai, a location outside of the land, in Hagar’s territory, with the new covenant enacted in the “real” Jerusalem in Heaven.

The fact that Paul considers Jerusalem to be under the yoke of slavery is significant. He could be referring to the fact that it is still under Roman rule (the exile continues), but likely as not he is dismissing the earthly Jerusalem because the agitators make a great deal about their connection to the Jerusalem church.

What is surprising is that Hagar represents those who are enslaved by the Law, or Second Temple Period Judaism! Sarah is the free woman, therefore she represents those who are saved apart from the law. Going back to verse 19, Paul describes his ministry as “bearing free children” like Sarah, while the agitators are “bearing slave children” like Hagar. It is all that they are capable of since they are still under the yoke of the Law (Witherington, Galatians, 331).

The point of the analogy is made clear when we realize that Paul is taking on the role of Sarah and commanding that the agitators be expelled from the church! As strange as it sounds, Paul is speaking the words of Sarah to the congregations. The agitators must be removed because there is danger in letting them remain. Like Ishmael, they threaten the (spiritual) life of the true heirs of Abraham.

This seems strong by contemporary standards, but for Paul this is critical to the health of the church. The agitators are attacking what it means to be “in Christ” and therefore risk destroying the church. As he will say in 5:9-10, the bad yeast must be wholly removed and thrown away. Just a little legalism is enough to ruin the whole church!

4 thoughts on “Galatians 4:21-5:1 – Sarah and Hagar

  1. This is really interesting to the fact that Paul showed his knowledge and understanding of the scripture to make an allegory like this. The thought of both women representing both sides of the being free and being a slave. What is also interesting from other classes I’ve learned that Ishmael, Hagar’s son, is an ancestor to Mohammed. This is fascinating seeing that Islam is similar to Christianity in a way that to me would just be basing it off of the beliefs of Christianity. Which Muslims now have control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem which they consider is the second holiest site, below Mecca. It’s interesting that Paul choose the split where two of the major religions were born, Ishmael; Islam, and Isaac; Judaism and Christianity. But why this story of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah? Well at the end of Genesis 16 Hagar is not mentioned anymore. In Genesis 16:7-16 Sarah, Sarai at the time, mistreated Hagar because of her own guilt. This led Hagar to flee, and after meeting an angel who then told her that she will have numerous descendants is she ‘submitted’ to Sarah and went back. She did and was named Ishmael by Abraham. This is where Paul could be getting at. The Angel told her to submit to Sarah. From reading Galatians 4:28-31 Paul talks about, in your words from the blog, Hagar representing the “enslaved by the Law, or Second Temple Period Judaism”, and Sarah being “the free woman, therefore she represents those who are saved apart from the Law”. It’s fascinating that he also mentions Isaac to be the children of promise. Hagar was told Ishmael “will be a wild donkey of man;” and “will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” from Genesis 16:12. The fact that Islamic Muslims have the belief that they don’t turn away from a battle and that one of the greatest sins in Islam is shirk which is defined as to “avoid or neglect” which is talking about duty or others. I sincerely found this blog interesting and how it connects to modern history!

  2. Reading these passages in scripture for the first time in a while, I was confused. I had to reread the passage two-three and the study notes to get a better idea of the message Paul is trying to communicate. Like Dr. Long said, we often do not see this type of writing today, so it can be hard for the modern reader to fully understand Paul’s message. Now, reading the passages, study notes, and the blog I think I can draw a pretty good conclusion of the verses. Here Paul uses Hagar and Sarah to again, emphasize the difference between being a free child of God and being a slave to the law; as he does several times throughout Galatians (2:16, 20-21; 3:1-9, 12). Abraham’s son (technically the firstborn) born of Hagar is represented the slave of Abraham (Sinai Covenant). Then Isaac represents the free sons of Abraham (Gen. 16-17; 21). Paul is calling Christians to not “enslave themselves to law observance but to remain free from enslavement” (Longenecker, p. 102). No longer do we have to work for our keep with the Lord, rather we are to be like the free woman, justified by faith alone. The only reason that people of Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament had to be “slaves” for the Lord was because God had not yet sent his son to take that burden away. That is Paul’s message in this passage, to show that times of old have changed and we are now set free as long as we believe, thanks to this prefect guy named Christ Jesus.

  3. Paul uses part of the story of Abraham involving Sarah and Hagar as a type of allegory for those who become circumcised and those that do not. This is not an allegory that takes the literal meaning from the Abraham narrative but rather draws out a new meaning that is relevant to the problem the Gentile believers were facing (TTP, p.360). Hagar was a slave women and Abraham slept with her so that she could bear him a son since Sarah had not yet given Abraham the son God has promised. In this Abraham took his future into his own hands rather than trusting God would cause Sarah to bear a son as he had promised. Sarah, of course, was a free woman and she bore Isaac miraculously because she was past the age of childbearing. The Galatians became God’s children through God’s grace and power much like the circumstances in which Isaac was born to Sarah. Circumcision, a human act, was not necessary for the salvation of the Galatians (ESVSB, p.2253). Just as Sarah cast Hagar and Ishmael out, so should those who teach a false gospel of justification by works such as the agitators mentioned in Galatians be cast out of the church.

  4. Those who know the story of Sarah and Hagar may find it confusing or puzzling why Paul would use it to make a point in Galatians about freedom and slavery. Paul does not use this story in a way that is common to us. When I hear allegory, my first thought is with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” with Aslan. The way that Paul uses this story is different, however. “First, Paul uses a method which is not simply unfamiliar to us, it seems to be drawing things out of the text which are simply not there” (Long, 2019). Instead, he uses the story in more of an example and application way, not necessarily an abstract comparison idea. Paul brings ideas into Galatians that are not originally presented in Genesis. Even with knowing the story of Sarah and Hagar, I had trouble understanding the point Paul was trying to make. Paul was drawing the concept of slavery and freedom with God from Sarah and Hagar to help solidify his points with being free from slavery in Jesus. Longenecker adds, “Paul establishes that contrast as the interpretative lens through which to read another part of the Abraham story, as an allegory to the situation of Jesus-followers” (Longenecker, 102). This jump made me skeptical with taking Bible passages out of context and using it for personal motives. I agree with Long’s statement that modern pastors doing something like this would be questioned (Long, 2019). It did make more sense when thinking about this story with the context of Paul with the agitators. Paul wanting to send them away much like Sarah sent away Hagar seems to draw a better conclusion and significance for Paul using this story in a new way in Galatians.

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