In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, as he makes a case for the truth of the gospel and the fallacy of seeking justification through works of the Mosaic law,1 he writes: “Tell me, the ones wishing to be under [the] law, are you not hearing the law?” (Gal. 4:21).2
The heated tenor implied in the previous verse is more evident here, as Paul specifically addresses “the ones wishing to be under [the] law” (cf. 3:10; 4:4-5). He has been quoting from the OT (3:6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16) and has appealed to the law to confirm that those who are characterized by its works are under “a curse” (3:10). He now asks, “are you not hearing the law?” As H. N. Ridderbos points out: “There is a touch of irony here …. whoever reads the whole of the Torah will discover that its bearing is quite different from the one the Galatians are apparently at present inclined to believe” (Epistle to Galatia NICNT 173).
The Hagar-Sarah Allegory
Paul continues: “for it has been written that Abraham had two sons, one out of the maidservant and one out of the free woman. But the one indeed out of the maidservant has been born according to flesh, and the one out of the free woman through the promise, which is being allegorized …” (Gal. 4:22-24a).
The gégraptai formula (“it has been written”) normally prefaces a direct quote from scripture (cf. 3:10, 13; 4:27), but here it begins a summary and exposition of Gen. 16:1-16 and 21:1-12 (cf. Gen. 15:5; 17:15-19). There has been much discussion about the way in which Paul makes application of this biblical narrative, and J. M. Boice acknowledges: “Commentators are sometimes embarrassed because Paul’s doctrinal argument in the central two chapters of Galatians concludes with an allegory based on what they consider an unjustified use of an OT story” (Galatians EBC 10:482).
J. C. Beker speaks of “Paul’s complicated” and “abstruse” argument (Heirs of Paul 107), which T. D. Gordon calls “the curious allegory” (“Problem at Galatia” 41). Having described this hermeneutical approach as “a far cry from a contemporary literal-historical method” that does not seem to be “the best way of interpreting Scripture,” G. L. Borchert goes on to mention “Paul’s unusual symbolic equations” (Galatians CBC 311). In discussing what he considers “the somewhat arbitrary manner in which [Paul] occasionally extracts meaning from scriptural texts,” B. Longenecker describes the apostle’s exposition with comments like, “his interpretation is somewhat imaginative …. it has been significantly dislodged from its original narrative context …. interpretive freedom …. It is more like a call to re-image the scriptural text in accord with prior Pauline convictions …. this playful reconfiguration of the scriptural story …. his rather creative readings of scripture …. lack of exegetical rigour” (“Galatians,” in St Paul 71-72).3
While the issue is admittedly problematic, in order to address it fairly, two very important questions need to be considered. First, why was this particular account chosen? Second, how is Paul actually using it? The first thing to notice is the way in which the gégraptai formula (“it has been written”) is employed. There is a conspicuous departure from its standard Pauline usage, viz. of introducing direct scriptural quotations (see E. E. Ellis, Paul’s Use of the OT 48-49, 156-85). Further, the unorthodox manner with which the story is treated ought to alert us that something out of the ordinary is taking place.
Instead of Paul having selected the narrative as a central argument, it is not implausible that the account had been introduced to the Galatians by the judaizers in order to support their assertion that Abraham’s inheritance comes through the fleshly lineage of Isaac, with the accompanying requisite of circumcision (see 3:6-7; note C. K. Barrett, “The Allegory of Abraham,” in Essays on Paul 118-31). Accordingly, J. D. G. Dunn observes:
Paul’s allegory is therefore most likely intended as a response to the argument of the other missionaries. That is to say, the purpose was to remove it from the armoury of the other missionaries, not as a primary expression of his own theology; to disarm the other missionaries by demonstrating how the same episode in sacred scripture could be read in a way completely opposed to the other missionaries’ gospel. That is why, presumably, it comes at the end of his main argument, as a kind of addendum to it, rather than as a principal part of his own argument; it was not intended as a plank in his own platform…. This is the language of polemic … rather than sober theological argument. (Theology of Galatians 96-97, cf. 122-24)4
Interpretation or Illustration?
Another question concerns what Paul actually does with the Sarah-Hagar story. He uses the term allēgoréō (“speak allegorically”) to describe what he is doing (v. 24). Consequently, a number of interpreters have been quick to equate this with “the allegorical method of exposition, loved by Philo and the Alexandrian school of exegetes” (D. Coggan, Paul: Portrait of a Revolutionary 117).5 Hellenistic Jews borrowed from Greek philosophy this hermeneutical approach, a “mythical interpretation” (BAGD 39) that seeks to draw out assumed “spiritual” meanings from biblical narratives. However, the term allēgoréō (its only occurrence here in the NT) is a broad expression that should not be limited to the technical sense of the English word “allegorize.” There are much greater differences than similarities between the respective hermeneutics of Philo and Paul, as a comparison of the two bodies of literature clearly shows (see M. Silva, “Old Testament in Paul,” in DPL 635-36).6
E. E. Ellis rightly states: “The similarity of Pauline allegory to that of the Jewish world depends on the definition of the word. Taken merely as an extended metaphor (as contrasted with the parable or extended simile),7 the method is employed by the apostle in connexion with a divinely designed type or with the illustrative use of an OT passage” (Paul’s Use of the OT 51).
Note, for example, that when Paul began his sermon on Mars Hill in Athens, he alluded to an altar inscribed with the phrase, “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). In so doing he was certainly not suggesting that the original aim of the inscription’s author was to reveal the truth about the monotheistic God of the Bible. Paul merely used these words as a starting point and for the purpose of illustration. When he went on in v. 28 to quote Athenian poets, even though the statements in their initial setting applied to Zeus, the apostle simply borrowed the terminology to reinforce his message, with no intention of offering a commentary on the original intent of the expressions. Likewise, by employing the Sarah-Hagar narrative, Paul’s objective was not to explicate some hidden, allegorical meaning from the story. He does not claim that the historical account was written allegorically (as, e.g., Psa. 80:8-13; Eccl. 12:2-6), but rather he is treating it allegorically (cf. J. M. Boice, Galatians EBC 485 n.). The details of the narrative simply corresponded to the points he was seeking to make. Thus, the Holman CSB renders v. 24, “These things are illustrations …”8
Although in the end Abraham had more than just two sons (Gen. 26:1-6), for the purpose of the argument Paul is focusing only on the first two, with particular concern for whom the rightful heir is. The “maidservant” is Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-16), and the “free woman” is Sarah, who gave birth to Isaac (Gen. 21:1-3). That Ishmael was born katà sárka (“according to flesh”) simply means that his conception was the result of human initiative apart from God’s plan (cf. v. 29).9 It was Isaac who was always meant to be the son of “the promise” (see Gen. 17:15-21; 18:9-14).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Galatians 4:21–5:1 continues a number of themes that were introduced earlier in the letter, viz. “giving birth (3:19), slavery (3:8), freedom (3:25), Abraham (3:6-8, 16-18, 29), the promise (3:14, 18, 21-22, 29), sonship (4:5-7), a covenant (cf. 3:15), persecution of believers in Christ by Jews (1:13), and inheritance (3:18; 4:1-7)” (L. A. Jervis, Galatians [NIBC] 122).
2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
This conclusion is much more reasonable than the proposal of many commentators that “Paul has saved this part of his argument for purposes of climax and capstone” (H. N. Ridderbos, Epistle to Galatia NICNT 173; cf. J. M. Boice, Galatians EBC 10:482). See also J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul 146-47; R. N. Longenecker, Galatians WBC 41:212.
Related Posts: Hagar-Sarah Allegory Part 2, Part 3
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