Galatians 4:21-31 – An Allegory of Sarah and Hagar
SummaryThose who belong to Christ are children of Abraham through the promise, while those who insist on circumcision are still enslaved under the law.
In Galatians 3-4, Paul uses four appeals to Scripture to support his argument that justification is by faith in Christ Jesus and not by doing the law (3:6-9; 3:10-14; 3:16-18; 4:21-31). Here, in his concluding argument, he addresses those who "desire to be subject to the law" with an elaborate allegory that is unique to Paul and unusual in the New Testament. In doing so he blends scriptural and traditional narrative detail about the two sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael (see Genesis 16-17, 21), with symbolic theological reflection related to the distinction of flesh and Spirit that runs through Galatians. Accordingly, Ishmael, as the son of the slave woman, is born "according to the flesh," while Isaac, the son of the free woman, is born "through the promise" (4:23).
Interpreting this story as an allegory, and picking up the argument of Galatians 3:15-17 with its reference to "will" or "covenant," Paul says that these two mothers and their sons symbolize two covenants, one corresponding to Sinai, the law, and slavery; the other corresponding to the heavenly Jerusalem, the promise, and freedom. Paul expands the allegory by linking the theme of barrenness. The barren Sarah is joined to the image of the barren Jerusalem--the earthly barren Jerusalem in exile--and contrasted with the fruitful Jerusalem of promise, the mother of all who are children of the promise (verse 27; see Isaiah 54:1).
Finally, Paul applies this allegorical reading to the current situation. As Isaac was persecuted by Ishmael, "it is now also," the present children of promise are being persecuted by those who are children of slavery and the law (verse 29). Just as Scripture at that time instructed Abraham to "cast out this slave woman with her son" (Genesis 21:10), so now Paul says that the Galatians need to exclude from their midst those who seek to return to live under the law of circumcision (verse 30).
As strange as it is in some of its features, this allegory is a key hinge in Paul's argument. It illustrates a use of Scripture in which Paul works backward from his conclusion to construct an argument. At its conclusion it thus summarizes the key of the letter's argument to this point: those who belong to Christ are children of Abraham through the promise and not through the law. With its concluding reference to "freedom," the allegory points ahead to what follows, in which Paul asserts that those who seek circumcision are denying their experience of God and the freedom for which Christ has died (Galatians 5:1-6).