[Text: Galatians, especially ch. 4]
Paul’s impassioned letter to the Galatians can be a tricky one to track with. Our vast cultural and historical distance from the peculiar concerns of the newborn Church leaves us baffled in the dense theological sections, and probably lets us off too easily as we sail through the “more relevant” practical parts. In this post I want to offer some guidance through the mountainous terrain of Galatians 4, where biblical history and allegory collide; in a future post I hope to take a second look at the way we’ve always read Paul’s instructions in Galatians about “keeping in step with the Spirit.”
If you’ve read as far as Galatians 4, you’ve probably already figured out Paul’s chief concern: these Gentile believers, who originally received the gospel message and the Holy Spirit with no strings attached, have come under the influence of some Jewish believers who insist that Hebrew law-keeping is a necessary component of everybody’s conversion. Specifically, circumcision is being proclaimed as an imperative for these non-Jewish followers of Jesus.
Paul’s letter hits them in the middle of these deliberations. He urges the Galatian Gentiles to reconsider the theological reality of their already-accomplished salvation, and to turn aside from the temptation to upgrade their status by way of religious requirements like circumcision.
Since circumcision is a representative example of following Jewish law, you’d think that Paul would have a lot to say about that law, and how its specific life-ordering rules had been rendered obsolete by the coming of the Messiah Jesus. And you’d be right – in fact, that’s the gist of our Galatians 3. In chapter 4, though, Paul does some fancy rabbinical-rhetorical footwork, playing with the flexible word “law” (Greek nomos, Hebrew torah) and making our heads spin.
Just before launching in on that difficult bit about Hagar and Sarah, he writes:
“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…”
Pause here, before we hit the two Jerusalems that are these sons’ mothers, and consider how Paul is playing with the word “law.” Maybe these Gentiles (and maybe many of us reading today!) would typically define “law” in the Bible as all of those Jewish regulations and statutes and rituals. But the Hebrew Torah, the big-L Law, is actually a collection of five books that includes both law (in a legal sense) and story. And it’s the Story part of the Law that holds the key to unlocking the chains of the (legal) law that threatens the Galatians’ freedom.
Paul proceeds to identify the five dramatis personae in the part of the Story that he’s talking about: Abraham, the slave woman and the free woman, and each woman’s firstborn son. It must have been a familiar narrative by now even to the Galatians, who had, after all, hosted the great storyteller Paul himself on more than one occasion. Here Paul is claiming that this Patriarch and his family history have repercussions even for former pagan Gentiles in Asia Minor: through the continuity of the promise, even those outside Abraham’s bloodline are included now in God’s people.
So that’s the first curve ball in Galatians: “Law” includes “story,” and it’s Story that matters in this wrestling match between faith and law-keeping.
The second curve ball involves another bit of rhetoric condoned by rabbinical scholars: the allegorical use of real historical figures to convey a point. Hagar and Sarah are convenient place-holders for the “law-keeping” and “promise-believing” contingents; and the respective locales, Sinai/earthly-Jerusalem and heavenly-Jerusalem, reinforce the contrast.
What ought to take the reader by surprise (but probably doesn’t, in our case) is that the Hagar/slave-woman/earthly-Jerusalem figure is the one associated with Mount Sinai, and therefore Jewish law-keeping. There is NO WAY that this would be a comfortable allegory for a pious first-century Jew (or Jewish Christian). Of the two women, Hagar is exactly the wrong figure to associate with all that defines Jewish identity, religion, and obligation.
And this discomfort is precisely Paul’s reason for structuring the allegory in this way. Hagar and her son are cast off in the story, made strangers to the covenant that God had sworn to Abraham. In the same way, God through Jesus has “cast off” Jewish law-keeping. You don’t want to be associated with lost and abandoned Hagar, Paul insists. And you always were associated with the other one, the Sarah/free-woman/heavenly-Jerusalem figure, because when you came into the family of faith you did it in a Sarah-way, by believing!
There is irony upon irony here, if we have eyes to see it: the law, the pride of Judaism, linked allegorically to a despised slave woman; the law-keepers, now cut off from the covenant; non-Jewish believers in Jesus, identified with the ultra-Jewish heroine Sarah; and the despised Gentiles, now heirs of the promise.
Paul wraps up this rhetorical excursion to the two Jerusalems with these firm words:
“So, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”
Interesting that he includes himself in this statement: the former Pharisee here implicitly distances himself from Jewish law-keeping, at least as it relates to salvation (i.e., being counted among the people of God).* Through the allegory of the two Jerusalems, each identified with one of the women in the story of the promise, Paul has mapped out for the Galatians the alternatives presented to them by the true and the false gospels they have heard. He prays that they will realize once and for all that they already belong to Sarah’s side of the family.
*Though Paul internalized the implications of the gospel so radically that he could behave as a Gentile among Gentiles, it was often deemed prudent (by Paul and by other Church leaders) for him to maintain Jewish practices when among Jews.
Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter, @GrassRootsTheo!