In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul implies that his readers do not really understand the Mosaic Law (Gal 4:21), summarizes a portion of it concerning the births of Isaac and Ishmael (Gal 4:22-23; cf. Gen 16-21), announces that "this may be interpreted allegorically" (Gal 4:24; cf. 4:24-27), and applies his interpretation to the situation of the Galatians (Gal 4:28-31).
In trying to understand the difficulty of this text-Paul's use of allegory-we should remember that Paul does not deny the historicity and literal meaning of the story of Hagar and Sarah. Neither does Paul change the meaning of the story. Rather, Paul assumes the original meaning of the story in order to give it a figurative meaning that, as best I can guess, Moses himself would not have gathered.
Let's attempt a summary from the facts of Gal 4:22-23 and their allegorical interpretation in Gal 4:24-27. Hagar represents the Mosaic Covenant given at Mount Sinai. Though in Arabia, this Hagar-Sinai-Mountain represented the Jerusalem of Paul's day-a people in bondage to the Law who found no freedom by faith in Christ. As the slave woman gave birth to the enslaved, so also Jerusalem's theology enslaved its adherents to the Law. As Abraham's human effort with Hagar produced a child who persecuted the child of promise and would not receive an inheritance, so also those who persecuted the Galatians and attempted life by the Law would inherit nothing. In contrast, Sarah represents the Abrahamic covenant. Just as she had Isaac by God's initiative in fulfilling His promise to Abraham, a miracle of the Spirit through their aged bodies, so also God gives life through the Spirit of promise to those who have faith in Christ-something they can never achieve in and of themselves. An eternal inheritance will come as well.
Gal 4:28-31 then applies the allegory in Gal 4:24-27-the readers were to realize that they were truly God's children who were being persecuted and were responsible to put these false teachers out of the church.
Why did Paul use the OT in this way? Maybe he was correcting an improper use of these texts by his opponents. Maybe he was being creative to make a point. Either way, the allegory would have seized his readers' attention to highlight the truths they needed to hear.
Can we interpret texts in this way today? My answer would be this-we are prone to misunderstand a given text as it is. If we sometimes lack illumination to understand the original meaning of a text, why should we attempt a figurative meaning of a text, something done only rarely by those who were inspired? In other words, I would suggest that we let the biblical authors be the ones who interpret texts in this way. May we be faithful to understand the Word as it is and communicate it clearly to others.
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.