Isaac and Ishmael in Galatians 4

Following on from a fascinating facebook discussion, I thought it useful to revisit this interesting little subject. What exactly is going on here?

Galatians 4:21-31 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. 24 These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.

25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written:

“Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” { Isaiah 54:1}

28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does the Scripture say?

“Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son.” {Gen. 21:10}

31 Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to have a look at this passage as part of a 15,000 “thesis” at Moore Theological College. You can read the whole thing here [pdf].

All the passages that we have considered so far are thus seen to be typological, given the close historical relationship or recapitulation that the New Testament authors draw our attention to. But in other places we must handle the question with some care, for the distinction may not be obvious. In particular there is the question of Paul’s usage
of the term αλληγορουμενα in Gal 4:24. While it is commonly translated “allegorically”, does Paul actually intend a typological understanding? As Goldingay observes, ‘Paul himself uses the verb allegoreo in Galatians 4:24 in connection with an interpretation which many modern interpreters regard as typological’. Here the dichotomy between works and faith is explained by contrasting the children Abraham had by the slave girl Hagar and his wife Sarah. Again, we see a reference to a particular event in salvation history, in this case the examination of Abraham’s paradigmatic faith. We do not have space here to examine Paul’s argument in detail but it is worth noting that the women serve as perfect tools for his task. Ishmael, whose mother represents the Law (i.e. works), was born out of Abraham’s decision to take the matter of producing a seed into his own hands (Gen 16:1-4). Isaac, representing promise, was the product of simple trust in God – Abraham did nothing to contribute. They are historical precursors to the distinction between faith in Christ (and the freedom that such faith brings: “the Jerusalem above is free” 4:26) and works (and the slavery that they bring: 4:25) that Paul is making in the letter (4:31). This is, then, more than simply playing with words – Paul is drawing out resonances with the actual events that he describes and so his method is not allegorical but typological.
What do you think?

Leave a Comment - but please pay careful attention to the commenting rules