Read the Passage (NRSV)    Find more resources related to this passage  Print

Galatians 4:21-31 – An Allegory of Sarah and Hagar


Those 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).

Galatians 4:21-31

The Allegory of Hagar and Sarah

21 Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? 22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. 23One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. 24Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. 25Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia* and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. 27For it is written,
‘Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,
   burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs;
for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous
   than the children of the one who is married.’
28Now you,* my friends,* are children of the promise, like Isaac. 29But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30But what does the scripture say? ‘Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.’ 31So then, friends,* we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.

Related Passages