Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31)

Paul wrote his letter to the churches of Galatia because they were listening to people whom we call Judaizers who told them that to be saved they had to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in addition to believing in Jesus Christ. Paul responded by arguing that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law and that the Galatians’ listening to the Judaizers was actually a deserting of the gospel (and of Paul, who had presented it to them) rather than an assuring of it. In our consideration of the letter we’ve reached 4:21-31, in which Paul uses the Old Testament account of Abraham’s two wives and two sons to illustrate his argument. I’ll divide the passage into three parts in considering it: the story (verses 21-23), the interpretation (verses 24-29), and the application (verses 30-31).

The Story

Paul opens with an appeal to those wanting to live according to the law (the Mosaic law) to listen to what the law (the book of the law) actually says: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV; references aren’t given for quotations from the passage which we’re considering, Galatians 4:21-31).

Paul then refers to the account of Abraham’s two wives and two sons given in Genesis 16-17 and 21. Because Sarah hadn’t borne Abraham any children, she proposed that he take her servant, Hagar, as a second wife. He did so and Hagar bore him a son, Ishmael. Later God appeared to Abraham and told him that He was going to give him a son, Isaac, by Sarah and that He would establish a covenant with Isaac rather than with Ishmael. As God had promised, Isaac was born. At the party celebrating Isaac’s being weaned, Sarah saw Ishmael laughing at Issac and demanded that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael. He did so.

Paul makes these contrasts between Ishmael and Issac:
– Ishmael was born of a slave woman, Hagar. but Isaac was born of a free woman, Sarah.
– Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” (in the ordinary course of nature) when Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands by having a child through Hagar, but Isaac was born “through promise” when God fulfilled his promise to Abraham that He would miraculously give him a son through Sarah.

The Interpretation

Paul asserts that Hagar and Sarah represent two covenants that God made with His people:
– Hagar represents the covenant between God and Israel made at Mount Sinai in Arabia. Just as the descendants of Hagar were slaves because she was a slave, the Israelites became slaves to obey the law when they entered into the covenant at Mount Sinai.
– Sarah represents another covenant which Paul doesn’t identify. Some commentators identify it with the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 (quoted in Hebrews 8:8-12) and others identify it with the promises made by God to Abraham in Genesis 17 and earlier (see Galatians 3:15). However, as Douglas J. Moo points out, “if we do identify this second covenant as the Abrahamic covenant, we must also follow Paul’s lead and speak of the Abrahamic covenant as christologically defined” (Galatians in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2013, page 301). Just as the descendants of Sarah were free because she was free, Christians are free because of their acceptance of what Jesus did for them on the cross.

Perhaps because the Judaizers stressed their relationship with the Jerusalem church, Paul brings Jerusalem into his presentation. He connects it with Sinai because of the importance of each in Judaism, Sinai’s being where it originated and Jerusalem’s being where it was currently centered. He contrasts “the present Jerusalem” and “the Jerusalem above.” “The present Jerusalem” corresponds to Hagar because it and its children (the Jews) are slaves (to the law) as she was, but “the Jerusalem above” (the one in which Christ reigns and Christians are the citizens) corresponds to Sarah because like her it is free and our mother.

Paul goes on to observe that just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac (not described as such in the Old Testament account but suggested by Genesis 21:9), Christians were being persecuted by the Judaizers. Some commentators treat this (verses 28-29) as application rather than interpretation.

Before my study of Galatians 4:21-31 in preparing this post, I was skeptical over how much meaning the account of Hagar and Sarah in Genesis and Paul’s interpretation of it would have had for the Gentile Christians whom he was addressing. However reading the speculation by various commentators that Paul was reacting to a claim by the Judaizers–that the Jews were children of the free woman and the Gentiles of the slave woman, and thus that the Gentile Christians of Galatia could only be recognized as sons of Abraham by being circumcised–made his including the passage in his letter to the Galatians reasonable.

The Application

Just as Abraham cast out Hagar and her son, the Galatians should have nothing to do with the Judaizers and those who accepted their message “for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” This implies that we should reject not only legalism but also those who teach it.

Paul concludes: “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” We are not under the law but live by faith in Jesus Christ.


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