D. The Allegory of Hagar and Sarah (4:21–5:1)

Paul returns to his exposition of the true rela­tionship between the Promises and the Law, concluding with a master-stroke. In these verses we are reminded of the exceptional student, engaged in his rabbinical studies at the feet of Gamaliel. He has lost none of his early brilliance. It shines still more brightly under the impulse of God’s Spirit. Reading the Old Testament allegori­cally or typologically, Paul sees the great distinction between bondage and freedom, law and promise, flesh and spirit emerging from the drama of Hagar and Sarah.

It is a very impressive piece, and perhaps even more so for his original readers, who would have been familiar with rabbinical methods, and hugely delighted to see such skill at work; especially when it was not, like many rabbinical expositions, just a fanciful exercise to show off human cleverness, but a thoughtful exposition that went to the very heart of the story. No doubt Paul completely outclassed his opponents, who were weighed down by their legalistic traditions, and largely missed the message of the Scriptures, which they obscured by their teachings; just as the Lord Jesus had impressed the crowds in Galilee and in Jerusalem with his scintil­lating exposition and authoritative instruction.

Powerfully, for Paul’s purpose, it is a message embedded in the Law itself, the torah; in the life of Abraham, in fact; indeed, in the same section of Scripture that has to do with the promises, and circumcision – the very Scriptures his opponents would have been citing as the basis for their insist­ence that the promises could only be inherited by the circumcised. It builds directly on the points he had made at the beginning of chapter 4, about the rules of inheritance; and it leads directly to a sharp practical demand that will bring the conflict with the Judaists to a head, and resolve it.

It is indeed a brilliant master-stroke, exegetically powerful and pastorally relevant; and a model for our own handling of the Scriptures.

i. The story of Hagar and Sarah (4:21–23)

21 Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? 22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.

ii. The Allegory Expounded (4:24–27)

24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gen­dereth to bondage, which is Agar. 25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. 26 But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. 27 For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.

21. The Galatians desired to be under the to­rah, but they had not themselves read it. They had been moved only by the pressure of the persuasive Judaists. But now Paul cites Scripture: “it is written.”

The story of Hagar and Sarah is found in Genesis, and stretches from chapter 16 to chapter 21. Sarai, certain that God would fulfil His promise of a son for Abram, but equally certain that she has no part in that promise, handed him her Egyptian slave-girl to wife. In due course, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Abram was very attached to his son, and it must have given Sarai great pain over the next twelve years to watch the two of them together, a relationship in which she had no part. But God had plans for her, too. He assured Abraham that she, too, would have a son (Gen 17:15–22).

Three months later, this assurance was reinforced by a special angelic visit to Abraham’s encampment, where he was again told, this time in Sarah’s hearing, “Sarah thy wife shall have a son” (Gen 18:9–16). Sarah laughed quietly to herself. Challenged by the angel, she was suddenly afraid, and denied it; but the angel knew better. The shock of being “naked and open” before the word of God was evidently what Sarah needed in order to believe. We see something like it in the interaction between the Lord Jesus and the woman of Samaria, when she tried to conceal her true situation by telling part of the truth, and perceived that she was dealing with a prophet who insisted on “spirit and truth” (John 4:16–19).

Nine months later Isaac was born, and Sarah laughed, no longer cynically, but gladly, freely, openly. Inevitably, there was tension between Hagar and Sarah, who was still her mistress, and their sons. It burst into the open at Isaac’s weaning, probably at two or three years old. Sarah saw Ishmael “mocking” Isaac (Gen 21:9). It was obvious that the two could not co­exist in Abraham’s camp; and Sarah demanded that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael. He was deeply troubled by the demand, but God supported Isaac’s claim, as the son of promise; and Abraham, dutiful as ever, rose early in the morning, and with a heavy heart, sent Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. God cared for them, and Ishmael became in time the progenitor of a powerful Arab nation.

22–23. Paul refers briefly to these events, which would be well known to Jewish members of the Galatian ecclesias. His purpose is not to tell the story as such, but to highlight the critical distinc­tions embedded in the story. Abraham had two sons. One was born to a slave-girl. The other was born to his wife, who was a “freewoman,” and a princess. The son of the slave-girl was “born after the flesh,” born in the natural way, as a result of human cus­toms and contrivances. The son of the freewoman was “by promise,” conceived miraculously, as the direct result of a divine intervention, in fulfilment of a divine promise, resurrecting the ‘dead’ bodies of an older woman and an older man to bring the son of promise into the world (cf Rom 4:18–21). Both sons were physically descended from Abraham; but which of the two would inherit the promises?

24–26. Now Paul steps back from the story, and invites his readers to see the larger picture of God’s dealings with His people.

The Law speaks of one covenant, made at Mount Sinai. It was framed around ten “words,” written on stone tablets. When these were presented to Israel, they promised perfect performance – “All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedi­ent” (Exod 24:3–8).

But the covenant became a millstone around their neck. They failed utterly to keep their promise; and it therefore condemned them as sinners, day in, day out. Paul discovered the truth of this for himself, despite his best efforts, and to his very great frustration (Rom 7:7–25). And it was not just an individual problem. The nation as a whole collapsed repeatedly into religious apostasy, moral corruption, social chaos, and political defeat. It became quite evident that the covenant was no basis for a lasting relationship between God and His people, and it could not continue.

So God, through the prophets, promised a second covenant:

“Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake . . . but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people . . . they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:31–34).

This is the New Covenant, promised in the prophets, inaugurated at the Last Supper, offered to Israel at Pentecost, and to the Gentiles in the years that followed. It is this New Covenant which is the basis for our relationship with God in Jesus Christ (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20 cf Heb 8:1–13; 10:15–18), and we reaffirm it every Sunday when we share bread and wine; though as a fundamental doctrinal framework it does not get anywhere near the attention that it deserves.

These are the two covenants that Paul refers to: the first or Old Covenant made at Mount Sinai, which corresponds in Genesis to Hagar the slave-girl and her rejected son; and in Paul’s day to the earthly Jerusalem and its then-functioning Temple, plodding blindly on toward its final destruction; and the sec­ond or New Covenant made in an upper room in a private house on Mount Zion, which corresponds in Genesis to Sarah the freewoman, princess, and true wife of Abraham, and her acknowledged son; and in Paul’s day to the “heavenly Jerusalem,” the “city on a hill,” the spiritual temple-city that God was building, the ecclesia (cf Matt 5:14; Eph 2:19–22; Heb 12:22).

We can set out Paul’s argument in a series of tables. In the first table, we have the contrast inher­ent in the Genesis account:

First or Old CovenantSecond or New Covenant
Hagar the Egyptian slave-girlSarah the free woman, princess, and true wife
Ishmael the son born as a result of human customs and contrivancesIsaac the son born as
a fulfilment of God’s promises and as a result of His miraculous intervention
Expelled from Abraham’s campAcknowledged as Abraham’s heir

In the second table, we have Paul’s bigger picture, the contrast between the two covenants represented by the two women and their sons:

First or Old CovenantSecond or New Covenant
Inaugurated at Mount Sinai “in Arabia,” in the wilderness, where Israel wanderedInaugurated on Mount Zion, in the centre of the Promised Land, where Israel were to inherit
Mediated by MosesMediated by Jesus Christ
Built around an earthly tabernacle or templeGrowing toward a heavenly temple-city
Written on tables of stoneWritten on the heart by God’s Spirit
Insisted on distance from GodEnables intimate knowledge of God
Inaugurated in the blood of bulls and goatsInaugurated in the blood of Jesus
Repeatedly convicted of sinsConfirmed the nal forgiveness of sins

In the third table, we have Paul’s application of his exposition to the situation in Galatia, the implications of which he will tease out in the final two chapters of this letter:

First or Old CovenantSecond or New Covenant
“Jerusalem that now is”“Jerusalem which is above”
In bondage to the Law because of sin, and to the RomansFree as a consequence of the gospel, and beyond human oppression, being “the kingdom of heaven”
Her children, the Judaists from JerusalemHer children, “us all,” provided we heed the gospel of grace taught by the apostles
Results in the birth of spiritual slave-children, (“gendereth to bondage . . . in bondage with her children,”) who are bound by regulation, weighed down by tradition, and doomed to continuing spiritual defeat and ultimate failureResults in the birth of spiritual promise- children, who walk in the Spirit, live life finding “freedom in service,” responding to God’s grace, and will inherit His promises at last

27. Paul concludes his exposition with a quota­tion from the prophet Isaiah (54:1): “Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.” The quotation is from the Septuagint, but does not differ markedly from the Massoretic Text that underlies English Bibles.

What an extraordinary insight! It follows di­rectly upon Isaiah’s “report” of the suffering Servant (chapter 53), who would give his life for many, who would die without descendants – “who shall declare his generation?” – and yet would live to “see his seed.” How would that come about?

The chapter that follows unfolds the story. The barren woman, Sarah as an archetype of Israel, is pictured singing and shouting for joy, because now she has such an abundance of children (Isa 54:1) that she must enlarge her tent (v2) – and even then it cannot contain the great host who “break forth on the right hand and on the left” (v3). Israel is bursting at the seams, and “inheriting the Gentiles,” prophetic code for embracing the Gentiles within the promises.

Who would be responsible for that reinvigora­tion of the barren nation, and its sudden expansion? Well, it would certainly involve a tentmaker – and no doubt Paul saw himself in the story, helping Sarah to reach out, further and further, to embrace more and more spiritual children within her tent.

Israel, the unfaithful wife who abandoned God her husband in her shameful youth, and was forsaken in turn, is urged to forget the shame and confusion of her past, and renew her relationship with God her Maker, “the LORD of hosts,” “the Redeemer,” “the Holy One of Israel,” “the God of the whole earth.” We can feel Isaiah’s soaring emotion as he is carried away with the picture he is painting of Israel’s glorious future, a future that in­cludes “the Gentiles,” “the whole earth” (v4–6). God has returned to His people with mercy, with ever­ lasting kindness, with “the covenant of my peace” (v7–10) – another term for the New Covenant. The new Jerusalem is pictured decorated with fair stones and beautiful gems (v11–12), a picture that inspired John’s vision of the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21–22).

The prophet finishes with words that must have given great comfort to Paul in his present trying situation: “All thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children . . . No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD” (v13–17).

What extraordinary insights! What a glorious vision! What a hope to look forward to with con­fidence in the God who has made such astonishing promises!