An Allegorical Illustration of the Two Covenants

Galatians 4:21-31

An allegory is using a concrete story to illustrate abstract ideas. It doesn’t mean that the story was originally written with the allegory in mind. Instead, the story contains elements that can be used to illustrate the ideas.

Do you not listen to the Law? (Galatians 4:21)

Once again, the problem is brought up that some among the Galatians are seeking a return to the Old Law (Galatians 4:9); yet, Paul contends that they are not paying attention to what the Law actually said. However, instead of turning to a clear passage, such as Jeremiah 31:31-34, Paul uses a very subtle allegory to make his point. It isn’t an allegory that most people would instantly grasp, even though it is true.

Perhaps the choice of making his point in this manner was a subtle dig at the Jewish Rabbis who love subtle, mystical interpretations of texts from the Scriptures – too often drawing conclusions that had nothing to do with the text or what is the truth (Colossians 2:8). Here, Paul uses a similar teaching method, but it is one that does illustrate the truth.

This is not the only use of allegory in the Scriptures. Some other examples are I Corinthians 10:1-4; 15:45-47.

The difference between Ishmael and Isaac (Galatians 4:22-23)

Using the story of Abraham, Paul points out that his first two sons had the following characteristics:

Ishmael's birth was a natural occurrence like any other child (“after the flesh”). His mother was a slave.

Isaac’s birth was a result of a promise of God. His mother was well past the age of having children and so his birth was clearly due to an intervention of God. Isaac’s mother was a free woman.

Hagar is the Old Covenant (Galatians 4:24-25)

Any Jew, reading Paul’s letter, would naturally connect themselves and their religion to Sarah. Therefore, Paul’s connecting the Old Covenant to Hagar would come as a shock. That shock would cause the reader to stop and think – at first in rejection of the idea. Over time, however, Paul’s reasoning would make more sense.

Paul has consistently pointed out that the Law bound people in sin (Galatians 3:10,21-23; Romans 3:9-23). Of the two, Hagar is a better representation of the Old Covenant.

This region is the one settled by Ishmael’s descendants (Genesis 21:21) and the people of the area were called Hagarenes or Hagrites (Psalms 83:6).

A Bit of Geography

Paul mentions Mount Sinai is in Arabia and this causes confusion until you realize that territorial borders don’t always remain the same. In A.D. 105, Emperor Trajan annexed the former Nabataean kingdom with the eastern side of the Jordan River to create the province of Arabia. Its western border was the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula [“Arabia: Roman Province”, Britannica]. It appears from Paul’s statement that this region was already known as Arabia prior to the official creation of the province. This makes sense since the Nabataeans were Arab traders and this region was under their control for 300 years prior to the annexation by the Roman Empire [G. W. Bowersock, “Palestine: Ancient History and Modern Politics”].

Sarah is the New Covenant (Galatians 4:26-28)

In Paul’s allegory, Sarah represents the New Covenant since she was a free woman and the New Covenant freed mankind from sin (John 8:32,36; Romans 6:6-7, 17-18). This resulting freedom was because of the promise of God (Galatians 3:14-19; II Corinthians 3:17). Paul supports his point by citing Isaiah 54:1. Isaiah finds cause to rejoice because God’s children would greatly increase and spread to the nations (Isaiah 54:3). The Gentile nations were like a barren woman. They were not producing children of God, but late in time, they produced more than the Israelites who were “married” to God (Jeremiah 31:32). Thus, Christians, such as the Galatian brethren, are like Isaac, they are children of God by promise.

Sarah’s descendants settled in Israel and so Mount Zion and the city of Jerusalem represent the land of the children of promise. By calling it “the Jerusalem above,” Paul is making sure that we understand that he is not talking about the physical city but a spiritual one (Colossians 3:1-2; John 8:23; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21:2).

Ishmael was cast out (Galatians 4:29-31)

Ishmael preceeded Isaac, just as Judaism preceeded Christianity. Just as Ishmael persecuted his younger brother (Genesis 21:9), the Jews sought to persecute Christians (Acts 8:1). The solution to the problem with Ishmael was to cast him out (Genesis 21:10). The implication is that the Jews cannot inherit the kingdom of God. They have been rejected (Romans 11:1-10).

The inheritance of salvation does not come to the Jews but to the Christians. Judaism is not compatible with Christianity. The Old Law cannot coexist with the New Law.

Class Discussion:

  1. Compare Galatians 4:23 with Galatians 4:29. How are the phrases “through the promise” and “according to the Spirit” related?
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