Paul's story about Hager and Sarah will be perfectly understood if the letter to the Galatians is place on a wider context. This epistle was called forth by the doctrines of the Judaizers. These legalists had condemned Paul and his gospel and they urged many to turn away from Christianity to Judaism. They claimed that the Jewish law was an act of principle upon Christians and that salvation must be attained by the works of the law. They teach the Galatians to submit to ceremonial, civil, and moral laws. The purpose of the epistle was to root out the errors of these legalistic doctrines, and to win back the convert to Christ, and to set forth the doctrine of justification by faith. Paul taught that the purpose of the law is not for acquiring salvation but as a tutor to lead one to Christ, for salvation comes and only through Christ. Paul's argument continues in the fourth chapter as he describes the condition of those under the law prior to the son-ship in Christ. His tone change dramatically in (Gal 4:21), law is certainly implied for the first time in the letter and addressed directly to those who desire to be under the law. He reminds them of Abraham's two sons by Sarah and Hagar, and contends there are analogical implications concerning the two covenants. Hagar, the bondwoman who gave birth to Ishmael, and Sarah, the freewoman who gave birth to Isaac, Paul analogical argument concludes his defense of the gospel of justification by faith in Christ by proclaiming that those in Christ are of not of the bondwoman but of the freewoman.
Historical and cultural background of Hager and Sarah
Abraham was born in Ur a town in the southern part of Mesopotamia present day Iraq, near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. His father Terah moved the family several hundred miles northwest to a place called Haran in what is now southern Turkey. When his father died, God called Abraham to leave Haran and make a journey to the southwest, down to a land called Canaan present day Israel and Palestine. In obedience to God's command Abraham made the journey with his wife and some slaves, including his mistress, and his nephew Lot. Sarah Abraham's wife was barren and had now reached an age when she was unlikely ever to have a child and decided to give her husband one through Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant which is culturally accepted in the days of the patriarchs. In due course Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, who was his aged father's pride and joy. But the time came, years later, when Abraham and Sarah received the promise of Yahweh that Sarah herself would have a son, and the promise was fulfilled the following year in the birth of Isaac. Abraham had great affection for his children's and loves them all despite the confrontations and misunderstandings between the mothers and their sons. Sarah asked Abraham to send the maid and her son away, although he was distressed about the idea God intervened with a promised that Ishmael would become the ancestor of a great nation, because he is his offspring. Sarah is known as the lawful bride of Abraham and her child Isaac therefore is the legitimate heirs. In the ancient Hebrew culture the children of slaves were born slaves, and the children of free persons were born free. If the mother were a slave and the father free, the child would acquire the status of a free person. The children of freedmen, those who had bought their freedom, were also born free. Never could the children born of a free man be born slaves. The analogical implication revolves around the spiritual children of God and the physical children of the flesh. Hagar portrays all who are born into the flesh and Sarah is seen (according to Paul) as the New Jerusalem, the spiritual mother who gives life in the eternal kingdom of God. Hagar and Sarah analogy in Galatians chapter four carried historical and cultural themes of the flesh and promise as represented by the two women, Sinai and Zion, and the Jerusalem of the second temple and the Jerusalem above. With the Mosaic account of the similarity of Ishmael to Israel at Sinai, both Ishmael and disobedient Israel can boast in Abrahamic paternity. They are circumcised, yet idolatrous Israel is in danger of not inheriting the blessing due to unbelief like that of Ishmael. In significant the story of Moses is inviting us to compare the two narratives of faithless Israel and Ishmael, in parallel of Ishmael and idolatrous Israel at Sinai makes Paul's argument against the Judaizers an affording proof, like Ishmael they too claimed both Abrahamic paternity and covenant circumcision.
Hager-Sarah analogy in Galatians 4
The apostle Paul was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as firmly regarded and acknowledged in all sacred writers of the Bible. God inspired the apostle to use the Old Testament story to represent the truth, it was an inspiration given to the New Testament writers to communicate about the difference between the Law and Faith as means to justification. This inspiration was demonstrated in the life of Christ during His ministerial work on earth as recorded in the synoptic gospels. Christ used such analogies to reveal Himself to the world, for example the 'I am' sayings in John's gospel 'manna' and 'bread of life', 'candelabra' and 'the light of the world'. Paul used such figurative language in the story of these two women and the experience of their pregnancy and childbirth to represent the difference between the two opposing principles of Law and Faith. His vision was to reveal the two major covenants of God. The Abrahamic Covenant which was a set of unconditional offer made by God to Abraham, his descendants, and to all nations, and the Mosaic Covenant involving the law given to the nation of Israel for a particular time and purpose through Moses at Mount Sinai. Paul focuses on the Mosaic Covenant, representing those under the system of the law; they are in bondage to the law. Hagar, the slave woman, represents the law and the nation of Israel which is under bondage to the law. The law was given to the nation of Israel at mountain Sinai in the geographical area of Arabia. The city of Jerusalem also represents the focus on the law since the city was the capital of Judaism under the Mosaic Law. The Judaizers represent Hagar; they are kept in slavery as the woman in bondage. To the Abrahamic Covenant, Paul compares the unconditional promises given to Abraham with the heavenly Jerusalem he quotes Isaiah 54:1 implying the rejoicing in this passage to Sarah, the passage in Isaiah was originally written to comfort the Jews in captivity in Babylon as a free nation. Just as the Jews returned from captivity, so Sarah will be able to rejoice because God's promise to her will also come to pass. Just as Isaac was conceived and born, so do those who believe the promise of God are children of promise, Paul identifies those justified by faith with Sarah and her descendants through the son of promise. Those who related to God by promise will inherit His blessings. Those who are hoping to be justifying by works of the law will be outcasts like Ishmael, and they will miss the inheritance, even though they intensely desired it. Paul concludes his illustration by stating that those seeking justification by faith in God's promise are not in bondage, but are truly free.
Some theological views in the analogy
The Hagar and Sarah analogy in the epistle to the Galatians supported Paul's arguments, as explained earlier he constructed the nature of slavery and son-ship by demonstrated the basic distinctions between slave-woman and free-woman, born of flesh and of spirit, earthly Jerusalem and Jerusalem above, law and faith. He indicated how these things are to be understood, and teaches the distinctions between the flesh and the promise, from Paul's illustration, Isaac was born according to the flesh and was circumcised in the flesh as Ishmael was. The interpretation in his argument is remarkably in the sense that he analogically outlines that which occurs according to the flesh and how it should be understood. For his opponents it was very easy to affirm that Abraham's true free children were the Jews, therefore the gentiles had to become Jews through obedience to the law in order to obtain the promises of God to Abraham. Paul affirmed the truth in his argument by showing that real children of Abraham are those who have faith, for Abraham himself was saved by faith. The apostle's passionate defence of the gospel of grace can be understood in the analogy. As he earlier said the law is a specialist to bring us to Christ. His interpretation of the Genesis narrative indicates that the believers in Galatians are accordingly part of the promise God made to Abraham and his offspring, Paul assures the Galatians believers that those who have acknowledge Christ in faith are no longer enslave but have inherited the promise. He clearly demonstrated the eternal inheritance mentioned in the Abrahamic Covenant, and argued that Abraham's seed could not receive this inheritance through the law. For the law had fulfilled the intermediary step in God's plan through His son, Paul explained that all who are baptized into Jesus Christ therefore become the 'seed' and the 'heirs' of the inheritance, because they are in Christ. The heaven rejoice for now men can be born again and enter the New Jerusalem without struggle, without effort, no birth pains, only faith in the finished work of Christ. Therefore, out of the bondage of the earthly Jerusalem children are being born again into the New Jerusalem. In contrast Paul's analogy revealed the idea of persecution that the Gentile Christians were facing from the Judaizers who insisted on keeping the law in order to be saved.
Paul's epistle to the Galatians represents the most urgent and passionate defence of the gospel of grace. The situation could have been higher for the infant church in that controversy. Paul's concern for the young believers in Christ was critical because of the threat imposed by the Judaized doctrines, which he calls no gospel. Within the Hager and Sarah analogy Paul's revelation was calling on the Galatians to cast out the Judaizers and their teachings, not necessary as the symbolic Ishmael's descendants, but because they were enslaving Galatians into bondage under the law. Hagar and Ishmael served as useful analogical symbols for Paul to illustrate this theological truth. He makes use of names and places with respect to literal and historical contexts. The Judaizers were under a curse because they were slaves to the law; Paul's point of comparison between the two is slavery. The Judaizers were slaves of the law. Therefore one cannot say Paul condemned Hagar and Ishmael, he merely referred to them as analogical symbols to curse the Judaizers. At the same time it is argued that Abraham's true descendants are his spiritual descendants, those who reproduce his faith, whether they are uncircumcised or circumcised rather than those who specifically claim him as their biological ancestor.
The purpose of the Hager and Sarah analogy made it clear that the gospel was in the true succession to the religion of the patriarchs, a teaching of faith in response to promise, not of works in obedience to law.
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- William Barclay, The letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) 3.
- Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Published, 2009) 85.
- James Maxwell Miller, John Haralson Hayes, A history of ancient Israel and Judah (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986) 55.
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- Roland De Vaux, Ancient Israel: its life and institutions (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Published, 1997) 82.
- S. Leyla Gurkan, The Jews as a Chosen People: Tradition and Transformation (Florence, KY: Routledge Published, 2008) 16.
- Donald G. Bloesch, A Theology of Word & Spirit: Authority & Method in Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005)113.
- Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Published, 1988)217.
- Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, 220.
- Frederick Fyvie Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: a commentary on the Greek text (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1982)218.
- Frederick Fyvie Bruce, The letter of Paul to the Romans: an introduction and commentary(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985) 108.
- Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Published, 1988) 727.
- Sven K. Soderlund, N. T. Wright, Romans and the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Published, 1999) 210.