Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. – Galatians 4:21-31 ESV
One of the dangers of biblical interpretation is that of taking what was meant to be literal and turning it into an allegory. This is most often done with difficult passages. Because the Bible is made up of a variety of literary styles, such as history and poetry, and some passages are allegorical in nature, it can be tempting to take what God intended to be literal and to force upon it an allegorical meaning. Another thing that can make reading and interpreting the Bible difficult is that there are some passages that have both literal and allegorical messages within them. Paul provides us with a case in point. In his defense of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, Paul will use the historical account of the births of Ishmael and Isaac to explain the true nature of the law and man’s relationship to it.
Paul somewhat sarcastically asked his readers, who seemed to be set on living according to the law, why they refused to listen to what the law said. He then tells the story of the birth of Abraham’s two sons, found in the book of Genesis (located in the “law” section of the Old Testament). When a Jew referred to “the book of the law,” he was referring to not only the Mosaic law itself, but to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible as we know it today. The Genesis account tells of the birth of Ishmael to Abraham through his wife’s handmaiden, Hagar. This had been the result of Sarah’s attempt to help God fulfill His promise to give Abraham a son. The only problem was that it was not according to God’s plan. Sarah had seen her barrenness as a problem too big for God, so she had intervened and encouraged Abraham to have a child with Hagar, her handmaiden. But Paul pointed out that Ishmael, “the son of the slave was born according to the flesh” (Galatians 4:23 ESV). His was emphasizing that Ishmael’s birth was natural, not divine. And as the son of a slave, his relationship to Abraham would be completely different than that of Isaac. God later told Abraham that Ishmael would not be an acceptable substitute or proxy as his heir. God had promised to give Abraham an heir through Sarah, in spite of her barrenness, and He did. God supernaturally intervened and made it possible for Sarah to conceive and bear Abraham a son. And Isaac’s birth was the direct fulfillment of God’s long-standing promise to Abraham.
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. – Genesis 12:1-2 ESV
As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her. – Genesis 17:15-16 ESV
And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:18-19 ESV
Ishmael, the son of the slave woman, was not to be Abraham’s heir. That right and responsibility would go to Isaac, the son of the promise. It is at this point that Paul reveals the allegorical or figurative message found in this literal, historical recounting of the births of Ishmael and Isaac. “Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants” (Galatians 4:24 ESV). What Paul is really providing us with is an analogy or illustration of what these historical events foreshadowed. Ishmael represented the covenant of the law given at Mount Sinai. Because Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” or, to put it another way, according to Sarah’s cunning and Abraham’s compliance, he was disqualified from becoming the fulfillment of God’s promise. The law, though given by God, was completely dependent upon man’s ability to live up to it. It was based on self-reliance. God never intended the law to bring about man’s justification or right standing before Him. It simply revealed and exposed the depths of man’s sinfulness. The law enslaved men under sin. It condemned them for their sin, but could do nothing to relieve them from sin’s control over their lives. That is, until Christ came. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV). At one point, Jesus had told the Pharisees, the experts in the Mosaic law, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36 ESV).
Paul was attempting to contrast Judaism with Christianity and compare life under the law with life according to faith. Paul wanted his readers to know that they were children according to the promise. They had been freed from the onerous task of attempting to keep the law in an ill-fated effort to earn a right-standing before God. Jesus Christ had died to set them free and justify them before God according to His works, not theirs. So why would they ever want to go back to trying to keep the law? Ishmael would not share in the inheritance promised by God to Abraham’s heir. And those who attempt to live by keeping the law through dependence upon their own self-effort, will not inherit eternal life, promised by God to all those who have placed their faith in His Son. The temptation toward legalism and self-reliance is alive and well today. The pressure to somehow earn favor with God through our own self-effort exists for all believers. But Paul would have us remember that we are called to live our lives by faith. We are to trust in God and His indwelling Holy Spirit, not our weak and frail flesh. We must learn to say as Paul did earlier in this same letter: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).