The hagar-sarah analogy

The Apostle Paul had just been to the Galatian Church, preaching to them the message of Salvation. After leaving Galatia, he starts hearing news that the very Church that accepted his teachings was being taught something else by the Judaizers. Paul was astonished to know that the Galatians were so quick to accept the bondage of the Law as opposed to the freedom of grace. To counteract the teaching of the Judaizers, Paul uses an allegory of Hagar and Sarah. He explains this in three stages: the historical and cultural stage, the allegorical stage and the personal stage, which we will explore after which we will conclude.

The Hagar-Sarah analogy presented by the apostle Paul begins in Galatians 4:21. Paul introduces his analogy by asking his audience if they really understand what the Law says. He then starts telling the story of Abraham. In Genesis 11:27-32 we see the family record of Terah, Abraham's father. We see that, along with Sarah, they had travelled from Ur to Canaan. Then, in chapter 12, they moved yet again to Egypt. Whilst in Egypt Abraham thought it wise to lie to the Egyptians about his relationship to Sarah, which eventually got them into the trouble. They then moved from there and from Sodom and Gomorrah. They finally settled and then we get to chapter 16. God had promised Abraham he would be the father of many nations. Both Abraham and Sarah did not know how God would do this, but Abraham believed in God. Sarah, on the other hand I believe, might have been really weary of the moving and Abraham's plans and thought it would be a great idea for her Egyptian slave, Hagar, to bare him children and Sarah would adopt them as her own. The only problem with this solution was that it was not what the Lord wanted. Through this Ishmael was born and 14 years after, Isaac was born. Why does Paul use this story to defend is point? What is he trying to say in this allegory?

The apostle uses this story and mainly the two women, Hagar and Sarah to represent many things. He allegorizes and uses this as an opportunity to get the Galatians and hopefully the Judaizers to understand the Gospel. What were the things that these women represent? Let's look at the first representation: 'the two women represent two covenants'[2]. Let's first look at Hagar. Paul explains that the one, who is Hagar, is from Mount Sinai. We know that it was at this mountain that the people of Israel received the Ten Commandments, or Law. Therefore, Hagar represents the old covenant, which is the Mosaic or Sinaitic covenant. This covenant brings bondage, Paul explains, because the law keeps us in bondage for the reason that it emphasises what we need to do: 'one is from Mount Sinai and bears children into slavery'[3]. We can never get it right and if we break one, we break all and, according to the Law, we should die. How can Hagar represent Mount Sinai if the Law, as holy as the Jews saw it to be, was given at Mount Sinai? Nonetheless, this is an apt representation for Hagar as we take into account the meaning of her name, which is rock or cliff in Arabic[4]. Richard N. Longenecker goes on to explain in his commentary:

For Jews generally, the salvation-historical line of Scripture began with Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, extended on through Moses and the Torah given at Mt. Sinai, and came to focus in the present city of Jerusalem as the epitome of Israel's hopes regarding the law, the land and the temple. [...] For Paul, however, slavery and freedom were the most important factors to be taken into consideration [...]. So Paul, in what was undoubtedly a shocking realignment of personages and places [...] sets out the line of slavery as follows: Hagar and her son Ishmael, who have to do with Mount Sinai, are to be associated with the present city of Jerusalem [...][5]

The new covenant, however, which Sarah represents, is the Messianic covenant which gives birth to freedom. It is important to note that as opposed to the old covenant, this covenant emphasises who we need to be, not what we need to do.

The second representation is that of two Jerusalems. Hagar corresponds to the current Jerusalem and Judaism. This earthly Jerusalem is enslaved and fleshly. Paul supports this by explaining that Hagar, just like Jerusalem at the time, was enslaved. Jerusalem was a dependant nation of the Roman Empire. Although Jews held not only the law but Jerusalem in such high esteem, it was actually under roman authority and was not free. The Jerusalem from above, which is compared to Sarah, is free. It is here that the apostle then quotes Isaiah 54 verse1 which actually referred to the desolate Israel in the Old Testament which was restored. This can be a representative of the Gentiles, who were barren and with no spiritual children but now can rejoice because they can now bare children through the supernatural act of God, just as Isaac was born through a supernatural act of God. Paul makes clear what Sarah represents: '[...] but the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother'[6]. Charles R. Swindoll explains it in his book 'Galatians, letter of liberation':

Hagar represents the old covenant of the Mosaic Law, given at Mount Sinai. Just as Hagar's son Ishmael was a slave, so those who live under the law are slaves. [...]Hagar also corresponds to the 'present Jerusalem'. Jerusalem in Paul's day was not only enslaved to Rome, it was enslaved to the Law. [...]Sarah [...] symbolizes freedom in Christ [and] the 'Jerusalem above' [which represents] the nonearthly Jerusalem and all those saved by grace.[7]

The third representation, which is not explicitly mentioned here by Paul, is the two attitudes towards God: faith and unbelief. Isaac was a man of faith, like his father. Ishmael however, did not learn this and was a man of unbelief and works. Paul was trying to get the Galatians to understand that they could be saved by grace through faith, 'lest any man should boast'[8]. In doing works, we can boast. In grace, we give God the praise.

After reviewing these three points of his argument, let's conclude what Paul was trying say. Paul was trying to explain to the Galatians, as well as the Judaizers, the nature of each son's birth was representative. First, Ishmael was born into slavery and had a normal birth. Isaac's birth however was miraculous and he was therefore born into freedom. He was the result of the God's promise. Representing the Law as being related to Ishmael was a form of disrespect for the Jews, because they have always held the law in such high esteem and have always linked the law to Abraham through Isaac. Paul however proves them wrong by trying to illustrate "the incompatibility of salvation by natural means (the keeping of the Law) and salvation by supernatural means (the grace of God)"[9]. Paul points out to the Judaizers and especially the Church in Galatia that depending on the Law for salvation would lead to bondage. In essence, Paul was trying to elucidate that the Law only brought condemnation, just as the mother was a slave so the child is a slave. Another important factor is the issue of Abraham's faith, which saved him, and this was before the Law was given. This would mean then that obedience to law was not the main factor of salvation, but faith is and works are just an aftermath. If one is truly saved, he automatically obeys the Law. What was Paul's personal reasoning for this?

The third part of this essay is the personal stage of Paul's argument. Up until now, the apostle had been very annoyed with the Galatians. After all, they had been so easily deceived and he was beginning to wonder if they were even saved at all, if he might have laboured in vain. As we can see here, everything about these two women are different and they completely oppose each other. One was negative and the other positive. One brought life, the other condemnation and death. Paul begins to make things really personal when he points out that just as Ishmael persecuted, harassed and teased Isaac, so the Judaizers and other Jews were treating Christians. Paul employs them to get rid of them the same way Abraham was asked to get rid of Ishmael and Hagar. Paul was asking them to rid themselves of vain Judaism and following the Law and to embrace the free gift of Salvation through Christ. Ronald Y. Fung:

The argument which Paul employs here does not determine his view but only confirms an understanding already reached in some other way. The contrast between slavery and freedom corresponds to and illustrate the contrast between righteousness by the Law and righteousness by faith; that those who are under legal bondage correspond to Hagar the slave woman simply illustrates the truth that righteousness and blessing do not come by way of the law; that Christians are the children of promise, as was Isaac, confirms the fact that it is people of faith [...] who are the true offspring of Abraham.[10]

Indeed, the apostle made clear that the true spiritual offspring of Abraham were Christians, whether Jew or Gentile. Let's note here that John the Baptist and even Jesus make clear the reality that physical descent was not important. The Jews were proud of their physical descent, but it was the spiritual descent that really mattered. Scholars believe that the Judaizers might have used this same story of Abraham to support their teachings and point of view but it the fact remains the new covenant is superior to the old, that is salvation through grace and not the Law. Was the Apostle now saying that the Law has no significance in the new covenant? If we look at Hagar's story, even her son as given the promise of many nations, as this promise was meant to be for Abraham's offspring, although it was not intended to be for Ishmael. In the same manner the Law is there because of human effort and sin, it was not God's intention or original plan for us to live under the Law. After all, the law brings condemnation and yet He promises that there is no condemnation once we are in Christ. In verse 29 he only defines Ishmael as 'the son born human effort' and Isaac by 'the son born by the power of the Spirit' (NIV). In the same way, those who live under the Law persecute those who live by the Spirit, he reasons. He finally states that just as Hagar and Ishmael where sent away from Abraham and his family, so we are urged to put off that which binds us, for if we are bound we cannot inherit the freedom available to us. The Galatians however seem very eager to follow the Mosaic Laws, but Paul is trying to get them to realise that they are not aware of what the Law says and how it applies. He clearly wants to identify the Galatian Christians as true children of Abraham and the free woman. He seems to be using the same Scripture the Judaizers would've used, which to some may have sounded like a contradiction to Scripture, which is why he mentions that this story can be taking figuratively or allegorically.

Paul obviously knew how important Abraham is to the Jewish people and used this allegory to explain the freedom and equality we all have in Christ, a very disturbing thought to the Judaizers. Paul is trying to get the Galatians to understand the grace of God. In essence, the Apostle is relating the supremacy of a son born according to the Spirit over the son born according to the flesh. In other words, those who choose to live under the old covenant ultimately choose to live under bondage and slavery. On the other hand, those who choose to live under the new covenant, made possible by Christ, choose to live in freedom. Paul says it well when he writes: 'Christ has liberated us into freedom. Therefore stand firm and don't submit again to a yoke of slavery'[11].


  • The Holman Illustrated Study Bible, Holman Bible Publishers, Tennessee, 2006.
  • Swindoll, C. R., Galatians: Letter of Liberation, (California: Insight for Living Publishers, 1998)
  • Longenecker, R. N., Word Biblical Commentary Galatians, (Dallas: Word Books Publishers, 1990)
  • Fung, R. Y., The Epistle to the Galatians, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994.)
  1. Footnotes should use 10 pt Arial with single line spacing.
  2. Gal. 4: 24, The Holman Illustrated Study Bible, p. 1706
  3. Gen. 16:1, The Holman Illustrated Study Bible, p. 20
  4. Richard N. Longenecker, Word Biblical Commentary Galatians, p. 211
  5. Richard N. Longenecker, Word Biblical Commentary Galatians, p. 213
  6. Richard N. Longenecker, Word Biblical Commentary Galatians, p. 1766
  7. Charles R. Swindoll, Galatians: Letter of Liberation, pp. 93, 94
  8. Eph. 2:9, The Holman Illustrated Study Bible, p.1713
  9. Charles R. Swindoll, Galatians: Letter of Liberation, p. 92
  10. Ronald Y. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, p. 219
  11. Gal. 5:1, The Holman Illustrated Study Bible, p. 1706

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