Galatians 4: 21 – 31 Hagar and Sarah
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
These things are being taken figuratively: the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: this is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written:
‘Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; break forth and cry aloud you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.’
Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time, the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does 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.’ Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
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I’m not at all sure that I’ve understood this correctly, but this is what I think the passage means. Paul is looking back in Jewish history to Abraham. He uses the story of Hagar and Sarah to create a parable. We know that this is the case, because Paul writes, “These things are being taken figuratively.”
This, very much shortened, is the story he uses.
Abraham was a righteous man because he believed in God’s promises and obeyed God’s commands. He was childless, and his wife, Sarah, was old. Nevertheless, God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as grains of sand on the beach. Sarah could see there was no biological way in which they were going to have children together, so she suggested to Abraham that he should have sex with her slave, Hagar, in order to have a son who could inherit his wealth.
Abraham did this, Hagar became pregnant and bore a child, Ishmael. But this wasn’t God’s plan. He intended Abraham’s inheritance to pass on through a son of Sarah. And, sure enough, twelve years later, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90, Sarah conceived and gave birth to a son for Abraham. This was Isaac, through whom all Jews claimed descent.
Acting under God’s instructions, Abraham sent Ishmael away. However, because Abraham was so distressed at the callous act, God promised that Ishmael, too, would father a nation.
You can find this story in Genesis 17: 1 – 27; 18: 1 – 15; and 21: 1 – 20.
In Paul’s parable, Hagar stands for the covenant of the law through Moses. Sarah stands for the covenant of God’s grace, first to Abraham, and then to all mankind through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus. Paul says that Ishmael is born of the flesh. He means more than merely the carnal act; he means that Abraham and Sarah had tried to bring about God’s will by human planning. Isaac, on the other hand, was born purely as a result of God’s grace. He was born by the power of the Spirit.
Paul identifies the earthly city of Jerusalem with Mount Sinai (the place where the law was given to Moses and the Jews), and with Hagar and Ishmael. He is not saying that the inhabitants of earthly Jerusalem are literally the descendants of Ishmael. He is saying that because they still adhere to the law after God’s grace has come in Jesus, they are slaves. In that way, they are figuratively the descendants of Ishmael.
Paul identifies the Christians to whom he is writing as spiritual descendants of Isaac. They are children of God’s promise; they were born by the power of the Spirit; theirs is the inheritance.
And that applies to us, too. When we were baptised, we were born again by the Spirit. By God’s free grace, we are heirs of the promise made by God to Abraham. We are free, not slaves. Alleluia!
Thank you for your grace towards us. Thank you that we are free.
In Jesus’ name, Amen