Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Exegetical Notes on Galatians 4:21-5:1



21 Λέγετέ μοι, οἱ ὑπὸ νόμον θέλοντες εἶναι, τὸν νόμον οὐκ ἀκούετε; 22 γέγραπται γὰρ ὅτι Ἀβραὰμ δύο υἱοὺς ἔσχεν, ἕνα ἐκ τῆς παιδίσκης καὶ ἕνα ἐκ τῆς ἐλευθέρας. 23 ἀλλʼ μὲν ἐκ τῆς παιδίσκης κατὰ σάρκα γεγέννηται, δὲ ἐκ τῆς ἐλευθέρας διʼ ἐπαγγελίας. 24 ἅτινά ἐστιν ἀλληγορούμενα· αὗται γάρ εἰσιν δύο διαθῆκαι, μία μὲν ἀπὸ ὄρους Σινᾶ εἰς δουλείαν γεννῶσα, ἥτις ἐστὶν Ἁγάρ. 25 τὸ δὲ Ἁγὰρ Σινᾶ ὄρος ἐστὶν ἐν τῇ Ἀραβίᾳ· συστοιχεῖ δὲ τῇ νῦν Ἰερουσαλήμ, δουλεύει γὰρ μετὰ τῶν τέκνων αὐτῆς. 26 δὲ ἄνω Ἰερουσαλὴμ ἐλευθέρα ἐστίν, ἥτις ἐστὶν μήτηρ ἡμῶν· 27 γέγραπται γάρ·
εὐφράνθητι, στεῖρα ἡ οὐ τίκτουσα,
ῥῆξον καὶ βόησον, ἡ οὐκ ὠδίνουσα·
ὅτι πολλὰ τὰ τέκνα τῆς ἐρήμου
μᾶλλον ἢ τῆς ἐχούσης τὸν ἄνδρα.
28 Ὑμεῖς δέ, ἀδελφοί, κατὰ Ἰσαὰκ ἐπαγγελίας τέκνα ἐστέ. 29 ἀλλʼ ὥσπερ τότε ὁ κατὰ σάρκα γεννηθεὶς ἐδίωκεν τὸν κατὰ πνεῦμα, οὕτως καὶ νῦν. 30 ἀλλὰ τί λέγει ἡ γραφή; ἔκβαλε τὴν παιδίσκην καὶ τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς· οὐ γὰρ μὴ κληρονομήσει ὁ υἱὸς τῆς παιδίσκης μετὰ τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἐλευθέρας. 31 διό, ἀδελφοί, οὐκ ἐσμὲν παιδίσκης τέκνα ἀλλὰ τῆς ἐλευθέρας.
5 Τῇ ἐλευθερίᾳ ἡμᾶς Χριστὸς ἠλευθέρωσεν· στήκετε οὖν καὶ μὴ πάλιν ζυγῷ δουλείας ἐνέχεσθε.


21 Tell me, you who wish to be under the Law, do you not heed the Law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one from the slavegirl and one from the free-woman. 23 But the one from the slavegirl is born according to the flesh, but the one [born] of the free-woman through promise. 24 Which things are allegorical: for these are two covenants, one from Mount Sinai born unto slavery, which is Hagar. 25 And the Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; it corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is enslaved with her children. 26 But the above-Jerusalem is free, which is our mother: 27 for it is written:

               Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear,
                 Burst and cry out, woman who does not birth;
               Because many are the children of the desolate
                 More than those of she who has a man.”[2]

28 But you, brothers, are children of promise according to Isaac. 29 But just as then the one born according to the flesh persecuted the one [born] according to the Spirit, so also now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? Cast out the slavegirl and her son; for the son of the slavegirl will not inherit with the son of the free.[3] 13 Wherefore, brothers, we are not children of the slavegirl but of the free-woman. 5:1 In freedom Christ has set us free: stand then and do not again be ensnared to the yoke of slavery.


Paul’s use of what is often called an allegorical reading of the Hagar/Ishmael/Isaac narrative is the ground for considerable debate and argument. Before approaching it, it is worth locating his treatment of it within the flow of the letter itself. Just as the previous section ends with Paul seemingly throwing his hands up in despair, Paul again redoubles his efforts to persuade his audience. In v21 Paul lines up his target again, Galatian believers who are being swayed to take up Law-observance. He raises a line of argument that cannot be prima facie set aside – if they want to be under the Law, they need to listen to the Law itself, and so Paul’s argument in this section relies entirely upon uncontroverted Scripture, the narrative of Genesis with an interlude from Isaiah.

v22 refers to no particular passage of scripture, but the narrative of Genesis 16 sets up the situation. Abram, having failed to secure a child by his wife Sarai, is offered Sarai’s Egyptian servant, Hagar, as a surrogate. Hagar bears a son, Ishmael, but in chapter 17 the reader discovers that such an attempt to fulfil God’s promise of a son is not God’s plan for the fulfilment, and that the line of promise, and the covenant with Abraham, will pass to Isaac, who will be Sarah’s son.

So Paul sets up the significant data with the brief statement that Abraham had two sons, even though Genesis 25:1-6 indicates further children born to Keturah, who alternatively is named wife and concubine. For the purposes of the narrative, only the two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, are in view.

In v23 Paul offers up what is the key distinction between Ishmael and Isaac, at least according to the narrative here employed. Ishmael is born according to the flesh, the son of a slavegirl. ‘Flesh’ here reads as ‘in the natural way’, but the contrast is not with ‘spiritual’ in an incorporeal sense, but with the child of the promise. So the dichotomy set up is between flesh and promise.  At this point Paul says these things are ‘allegorical’. There are X good reasons for understanding Paul to mean ‘typological’.

1.      The word ‘allegorical’ here is probably better translated ‘figurative’. Our understanding of allegory represents a later delineation of figurative language into categories that Paul probably did not work with. Despite Paul’s immense learning, it seems unlikely that he was trained in classical rhetoric per se, and so the distinction between typology and allegory is not relevant to understanding what Paul would have meant by ‘allegory’.
2.      Typology is distinct from allegory in two main features. Firstly, it is grounded in historical events, so that if you change the history, the meaning of the figure changes. Allegory is not so bounded – if you want to change the meaning of the figure, you can change the story that the allegory rests upon. Secondly, typology depends upon the historical narrative already having been given meaning. Arguable, the narrative of freedom and slavery, promise and flesh, subsists in the Genesis narrative before Paul provides a Christocentric interpretation of the same.
3.      No less a figure than Chrysostom declares that this is typology, and that Paul simply didn’t know what he was saying. This is an appeal to authority, but a worthy one. If anybody understands the difference between typology and allegory, it’s Chrysostom.

A fourth argument, which is not really an argument for it being typology, but an argument from mistaken conclusions, is that if Paul is using allegory, either (a) Paul is using what we consider an illegitimate exegetical technique (and so either we are wrong or he is wrong), or (b) Paul is using a legitimate exegetical technique, which legitimates allegorical readings for us and basically throws off the limits. The key difference between typology and allegory is precisely that typology is a figurative reading that has a number of constraints inherent in it, which allegory does not.

It is at this point in the passage that Paul’s manoeuvre seems most audacious. He identifies the two sons with two covenants, and the natural ‘lining up’ of types here would seem to be: Isaac -> Moses/Sinai -> Law -> Jews/the free over against Ishmael -> not-Jerusalem -> excluded from Law -> Gentiles/slaves. But this is decidedly not how Paul lines up the patterns here. Instead, he aligns Hagar with Mount Sinai, slavery, Arabia, and the present Jerusalem. Paul’s radical re-ordering of the figurative reading suggests that physical, earthly, fleshly Jerusalem, because of its Law-obedience, and because of its Christ-rejection, is the figurative covenant of slavery. This, of course, picks up the earlier thrust of the letter that identifies being under the Law as being enslaved to and by the Law.

On the other hand, the true descendants of Isaac, the sons of Abraham, are not the physical descendants of Abraham, who show themselves to be slaves by their slavery to the Law, but are the children of promise. And, as we have seen in chapter 3, it is those ‘of faith’ that are the children of the promise, the children of Abraham. Paul establishes, now figuratively, the superiority and priority of the promise over the Law, and so the free over the slaves. This argument is grounded in the Law, and so those who desire to be under the Law ought to listen!

Part of the genius of Paul’s argument is to make a distinction between physical, earthly, temporal Jerusalem, which the line of logic might lead one to think should be the one aligned with freedom, and the ‘Jerusalem from above’. Rather, it is the present temporal Jerusalem that has rejected the promise, rejected the fulfilment of the covenant, and so remains under slavery. The heirs of promise and covenant both have been translated to the children of promise, the sons of Abraham who are so by faith.

The quotation of Isaiah 54:1 identifies the Galatian believers as the spiritual offspring promised to Jerusalem, but the figurative/spiritual reality of Jerusalem. The link here is with Sarah’s barrenness, which fits a regular theme of the barren woman who is given a miraculous child (Sarah being but the first, but cf. Rebekah in Gen 25:21, Rachel in Gen 30:1, Hannah, and typologically speaking Mary). There is ironic and paradoxical fulfilment that the barren woman produces far more children than the married, fruitful woman.

In v28 Paul brings the discussion back to his audience. By sympathetically identifying them as children of promise, of the lineage of Isaac (spiritually speaking, at the least), he accomplishes two things. Firstly, nothing is lacking in their present spiritual condition, and so nothing is gained by going ‘under the Law’. That measure would not gain them status as children of promise or descendants, by covenant incorporation, of Isaac. Rather, it would effect the opposite, they would lose their status as children of promise, by becoming instead children of slavery, and figuratively speaking would place themselves outside the line of blessing/promise that reaches back to Isaac. Secondly, Paul presumes so as to persuade. By identifying them in such a manner, he presumes that they will indeed reject the persuasions of the Judaisers.

Going on, Paul draws them into the typological circumstance, though his means of doing so are not readily reconcilable with the Genesis narrative. According to v29 Ishmael persecuted Isaac, and the same situation obtains today. How and where does Ishmael do this? It seems likely that Paul is drawing upon interpretive traditions regarding Gen 21, where Ishmael is said to be ‘laughing’ (Gen 21:9). This might be taken, as some have, to mean that Ishmael was ‘mocking’ Isaac. Alternatively, there is the suggesting that in ‘laughing’ Ishmael is usurping Isaac’s place. Regardless, Paul understands the circumstances to be an attempt by Ishmael to supplant Isaac, and that it corresponds to the present Galatian situation. His response is to creatively draw upon the 21:10, the words of Sarah to Abraham, and treat them as an impersonal (read: divine) mandate. While it would not be obvious from a reading of the Genesis 21 narrative that this is how they are to be understood, the flow of redemptive history in that book gives them a warrant as part of God’s purpose and plan, which leaves space and blessing for Ishmael, but by no means offers him as a partner in the promise and the covenant – it is all through Isaac.

So too, the Galatians ought to cast out the Judaisers. Insofar as Paul applies the figurative meaning of the narrative, the Galatian community of believers should be read of those who are in slavery, not children of promise, fleshly, and in fact persecuting them. Paul’s summation in v31 returns again to the subject of identity, but now inclusively, ‘we’, are the children of the free-woman. v31 should be read in conjunction with 5:1, which picks up the preceding as the basis for its injunction to stand firm, and not submit to slavery. No one who is freed desires, or should, go back to slavery, and Paul sees this as categorical in the case of those liberated by Christ. The very goal of that liberation is a freedom that is to be lived qua freedom, and so the desire to return to the Law, return to slavery, is antithetical to everything Christ has accomplished.

[2] Isa 54:1
[3] Gen 21:10

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