The Letter of Paul to the Galatians Online Commentary (20)

In the first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on Galatians, I discussed introductory matters concerning the founding of the churches to the Galatians, the situation when Paul wrote to them, when the letter might have been written and the type of letters which Paul wrote, based on the common Greco-Roman letters of his day. In the second post, I considered the basic content and breakdown of a Pauline letter. I noted the major sections of the formal letter structure and, in the context of each section, outlined the theological and ethical (as well as other) concerns of Paul, including some Greek words which will be examined more fully as we continue with the commentary. In the third entry, I looked at the salutation, which is long for Paul’s corpus (only Romans 1:1-7 is longer) and briefly commented on the lack of a Thanksgiving, the only letter of Paul’s which does not have one. The fourth entry discussed the opening of the body of the letter, a significant part of the letter especially in light of the absence of a Thanksgiving. In the fifth entry, I examined the beginning of the opening of the body of the letter, in which Paul describes his background in Judaism and I placed this in the context of Judaism in the Hellenistic period. In the sixth post in the online commentary, I continued to look at Paul’s biographical sketch of his life, this concerning his earliest life as a Christian. In the seventh post, I examined what Paul says about his subsequent visit to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the Church in Jerusalem. In the eighth entry, Paul confronts Cephas about his hypocrisy in Antioch. 

The ninth blog post started to examine the theological argument in one of Paul’s most important and complex theological letters. In the tenth entry, Paul makes an emotional appeal to the Galatians based on their past religious experiences and their relationship with Paul. In the eleventh chapter in the series, Paul began to examine Abraham in light of his faith. The twelfth blog post continued Paul’s examination of Abraham, but also claims that Christ “redeemed” his followers from the “curse” of the Law.  In the thirteenth study in the Galatians online commentary, we looked at Paul’s claim that God’s promises were to Abraham and his “offspring,” with a twist on the meaning of “offspring.” The fourteenth entry examined Paul’s question, in light of his claims about the law, as to why God gave the law. The fifteenth chapter in this commentary examines the function of the law, while the sixteenth post studied how the members of the Church are heirs to the promise.

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In the seventeenth entry, I observed what it means to be an heir in Paul’s theological scenario. And in the eighteenth installment, Paul transitions back to his relationship with the Galatians, but before he concentrates on this in full, he returns to the issue of the stoicheia, commonly known as the four cosmic powers, earth, air, water and fire. In the nineteenth blog post, Paul relies on his personal relations with the Galatians to draw them to his point of view. In this, the twentieth entry, Paul speaks of an allegory of Hagar and Sarah.

 

4. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians  

d) Body of the Letter (1:13-6:10):

iv) Theological Teaching (2:15-5:12): Allegory of Hagar and Sarah (4:21-5:1). 

 

21 Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. 23 One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. 24 Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written, "Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married." 28 Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. 29 But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the scripture say? "Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman." 31 So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. 1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (NRSV)

 

The allegory of Hagar and Sarah, which we examine here, reflects the theological issues underlying the historical origins of the Church as well as any passage in Paul’s corpus. What we are dealing with in the dispute between the Galatians and Paul is whether Gentile followers of Jesus have to do the Torah in every respect, which would certainly include the circumcision of sons. More than that, it underlies a dispute among Jewish followers of Jesus, some of whom say that such observance by Gentile followers of Jesus is essential and Paul, who says that it is not necessary for their salvation or to be considered full members of the Church. The nascent beginnings of a community set apart from Judaism might be said to emerge in this passage, though the separation of the two communities is a complex reality which played out over decades (some would argue centuries!) about which scholars continue to debate. What we can say is that Paul creates an allegory in which depending upon which side you fall in his understanding of “Hagar” and “Sarah” will lead to much different views of Torah and Torah-observance; certainly, this allegory would prompt different views among Jews, even groups of Jews who both believed Jesus was the Messiah. Even if we understand that Paul remained a Jew, loyal to the Torah, his allegory, in which the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael, represented by his mother Hagar, equals slavery and the flesh, while Isaac, represented by his mother Sarah, is freedom and Spirit (4:21-31), it is hard to understand how ultimately those who believe the Torah ought still to be followed, even by Gentiles, can accept this definition of the Law. Christ has set us free, says Paul, so do not submit to a “yoke of slavery” (5:1), but this means that the Law of Moses is a form of slavery in Paul’s mind, at least for Gentile followers of Jesus.

For much of my discussion, I will draw on Shaye J.D. Cohen’s remarks in the Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT, 340-41).  Cohen distinguishes between the two-time use of “law” (nomos)in Galatians 4:21, stating that the first instance (“tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law”) does not have an article, while the second instance does (“will you not listen to the law?”).  He states that in Hebrew “The Torah” (ha-Torah) has a more limited sense, defining the written Torah, than the use of Torah without an article, which reflects a broader meaning among the rabbis, such as an inclusion of oral Torah. I do not think Paul has in mind this distinction between written Torah and a broader sense of Torah, but wants to make that point that those who follow the written Law must follow all of the written Law.  This is especially the case since he moves immediately into a discussion of the passages found in Genesis 16 and 21.

For Galatians 4:22-23, Paul gives a basic overview of the main players in the story, writing that “Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise.”  Paul next moves quickly to state that these literal facts point in reality to “an allegory,” a type of interpretation in which the literal characters and events signify things beyond their literal meaning, generally something that has a deeper philosophical or theological meaning. Allegory, in fact, though common in Christian interpretation throughout history, began with Greek interpreters of Homer and was found in Judaism prior to Christianity, with Cohen noting an allegory in Isaiah 5 (JANT, 341).  A major Jewish proponent of allegorical interpretation around the time of Paul was Philo of Alexandria, who read almost the whole of the Hebrew Bible through the lens of allegory. What Paul is doing here, then, is not unusual, for Greek or Jewish readers. What is unusual is claiming that Hagar represents the Sinaitic covenant where God gave the Law to Moses.

Paul writes, “now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother” (Galatians 4:24-26). To associate Hagar with the Law of Moses is particularly challenging, especially based on the whole of the story of Genesis, and, frankly, the whole of the Pentateuch, but we must remember that Paul’s allegory is offered here as a particular Jewish reading, not a Christian reading. What I mean is, whatever his interlocutors thought about his allegorical interpretation, they would have accepted the form as a reasonable way to read the Genesis text.

Cohen points out that “this Pauline passage seems to be the earliest attestation of the idea that a heavenly Jerusalem corresponds to an earthly one, the former built by God, the latter built by humans…Paul understands the relationship between earthly and heavenly Jerusalem to be not complementary but adversarial” (JANT, 341). Paul in fact has created something unique in attributing the covenant at Sinai and the Temple at Jerusalem to Hagar, who with Ishmael was cast out by Abraham at Sarah’s urging. When Ishmael and Hagar are cast out, God promised Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman… As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21:12-13).  But Hagar and Ishmael are certainly not the descendants through whom the covenant with Abraham was said to be made. In Paul’s allegory, the earthly Jerusalem and the Law, represented by Hagar, are a form of slavery when contrasted with the heavenly Jerusalem and (one must suspect) Jesus Christ, represented by Sarah, who is freedom.

Paul then cites without explanation a passage from Isaiah 54:1, which offers a paean of praise to a “childless one,” which must correspond to Sarah,  whose  children “are more numerous than the children of the one who is married” (Galatians 4:27). It is an odd passage here since it is Sarah, not Hagar, who was married to Abraham, but Paul’s use of this verse must point to his belief that Sarah’s children, at least spiritually, are (or will be) more numerous than those of Hagar.

At this point, Paul draws out the implications of his allegory stating that those who follow Jesus are “children of the promise, like Isaac” (Galatians 4:28). Yet, Ishmael, “the child who was born according to the flesh,” says Paul, “persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit” (Galatians 4:29). In fact, Genesis 21:9, only says that “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac,” but Cohen notes that Paul has engaged here in a kind of midrashic reading, in which one extrapolates events from the biblical text (JANT, 341). Paul sees this kind of persecution at play in the Galatian church, for he ends verse 29 saying of this persecution of Isaac by Ishmael, “so it is now also.”

At the end of Paul’s allegory, he draws on Genesis 21:10 to counsel the same behavior as carried out by Abraham: “But what does the scripture say? ‘Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman’” (Galatians 4:30).  For Paul, it is the followers of Christ who “are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 4:31-5:1). This is, finally, the result of Paul’s allegory: the Law functions as an enslaving force for the Galatians and they need to let it go. Most Jews in Paul’s day, of course, did not find the Torah enslaving and saw the image of the “yoke” as affirming the commandments not an argument for casting them aside (Cohen offers rabbinic texts in support of this claim: Mishnah Berakot, 2.2; Sifra on Leviticus 11:43; and Babylonian Talmud Berakot 14b; JANT, 341). Paul, however, convinced that the truth resides with the freedom offered in Jesus Christ for all people, not in the Law of Moses, proposes that the covenant was always intended to be fulfilled by a people who represent the heavenly Jerusalem, associated with Sarah, and not Hagar, associated with the earthly Jerusalem and the Law.

It is, frankly, not strange that most Jews of Paul’s day were not convinced by this allegory, since it associates the covenant promises with slavery and reads Hagar as the ancestress of the Law and the Temple. So, why then does Paul make such a claim? It really goes back to his understanding that in the experience of Jesus Christ, the truth has been revealed and anything that stands against this truth must be, somehow, in opposition to it. Even if, though, Paul thought that Jews of his own day, including him, should still follow the Torah – which I am not convinced he did - it is difficult to see that the Law of Moses would continue to be revered when his claims radically undermined its ongoing function for many members of the Church. Still, Paul is not done with discussing the Law, for as we will see in coming entries, it mattered to him, since it did indeed come from God and somehow, someway, it still has a place for him among the followers of Christ.

 

Next entry, Paul speaks against circumcision.

John W. Martens

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