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Two Women Mean Two Covenants


After the interlude of Galatians 4:12-20, Paul leaves the reminiscence of his foundational visit to the Galatian Christians and returns to defending the gospel and the brand of Christianity that he had introduced to them on that visit. The focus this week is on 4:21-31.

Paul starts this section with a question, “Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law” (v. 21)?[1] In this sentence, he appears to use the word “law” in two different ways. First, in addressing the Christians in Galatia, he uses “law,” as he does in most of the letter, as a form of synecdoche that refers to Judaism. The visiting Jewish or Judaizing Christians were trying to convince these Gentile believers that they must embrace and practice Judaism even as Christians.To Paul’s consternation, they have abandoned the gospel that he had brought them.

His question, however, is not clearly conveyed by this NRSV translation. The Greek construction implies the following: “You hear what the law says, don’t you?” Unlike his first reference in the sentence, by “law” he here means the Torah—the Hebrew Scriptures in general or, more likely, the Pentateuch—and the story in it that he is about to discuss. The way he frames this question also implies that his opponents have already told them this story. His task, therefore, will be to put his own spin on it for them.The opponents apparently used the story to show that to be a son of Abraham one had to live according to Judaism and the Jewish Law, including the law of circumcision for males.

In vv. 22-23, Paul does not quote any specific parts of the story of Hagar and Sarah from Genesis but summarizes a set of contrasting elements drawn from the whole. “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.” This summary avoids all the complex and dubious behaviors of Sarah and Abraham, the untenable positions of Hagar the slave and Ishmael her son, and the divine assurances to Hagar. Of course, none of that would fit Paul’s purpose here.

He purports to have a much more lofty objective. He understands the story to be “an allegory” (vv. 24-26). “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.”

However, no reader of the Hagar and Sarah story in Genesis 16 and 21 before Paul would ever suspect that this constituted “an allegory”—more a type—of anything, let alone the specific set of contrasts and implications that Paul lays out here. In particular, no one would dream that Hagar had anything to do with Mount Sinai or that both Hagar and Sarah would in any way represent Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, this is Paul’s argument. On one hand, there is Hagar, the slave woman, who is from and is Mount Sinai, bears children for slavery, and represents the “present Jerusalem.” On the other hand, there is the strangely unnamed Sarah, the free woman, who is not from any mountain (unless Mount Zion is implied), presumably bears free children, and represents the “Jerusalem above.” She, not Hagar, is also “our mother.”

For some reason, Paul does no more than declare that “these women are two covenants” (v. 24). He does not describe the two covenants that he has in mind nor does he identify how the individual covenants relate to the specific women. That being said, we can infer that Hagar, whom he relates to Mount Sinai, represents the Sinai covenant based on law, in contrast to Sarah, who stands for the Abrahamic covenant based on promise.[2]

Likewise, Paul does not indicate what he means by the “present Jerusalem” and “Jerusalem above,” except to link the former to Hagar/slavery and the latter to Sarah/freedom. The first expression is easier to understand. Paul, do doubt, is thinking of the place from which his Jewish or Judaizing Christian opponents came to the Galatian churches. They want the Galatians to consider the city as their spiritual mother. By contrast, the “Jerusalem above,” or heavenly Jerusalem, must be what Paul is offering to the Galatians as their spiritual mother, along with the freedom Judaism that she brings.

As he does in this letter and elsewhere, Paul typically introduces his theological ideas and then punctuates them with a scriptural quotation that he intends to serve as biblical proof or support of what he has just said.[3] This is what he does in v. 27, with his typical introductory proof formula, “for it is written.” He has just laid out his thesis that the two women of Abraham successively stand for slavery to the law and freedom from it, birth according to flesh and promise, two contrasting covenants, and two forms of Jerusalem. He then quotes Isaiah 54:1 as his proof. His reading of the text implies (1) that Isaiah was making a historical illusion to Sarah and Hagar and (2) that Isaiah had not only two women in mind but also two cities.

Just as it is typical of Paul to insert scriptural proof texts into his arguments, so also it is common for him to manipulate such texts to suit his purposes. He does this here. Isaiah 54:1-8 metaphorically describes the restoration and renewal of Jerusalem as a woman who has been briefly forsaken by her husband and left barren as a result, only to experience incredible fertility after his return to her. There is only one woman in the metaphor, not two. She is successively barren and fertile. There is only one city implied, not two. The desolate Jerusalem will be restored and renewed. If there is any illusion there to the women of Abraham, which I think unlikely, it could only be to Sarah, who went from barren to fertile, from childless to pregnant.

In v. 28, Paul applies this “allegory” to his Galatian readers by asserting that they “are children of the promise, like Isaac.” This, of course, implies all that goes with such a designation—they are free, unrelated to Mount Sinai and its law, and oriented to the “Jerusalem above.”

However, his reference to Isaac leads him to another application of the Genesis story. In v. 29 he declares that “the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit.” This assertion is based on Genesis 21:9, which reads, “But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.”[4] That the child Ishmael “persecuted” the child Isaac suits Paul much better than that the former was “playing with” the latter. The reason for this, of course, is that Paul wants to compare this alleged persecution by Ishmael to the current situation involving his opponents—“so it is now also.” He no doubt has in mind the direct or indirect actions of his opponents in trying to discredit him and his gospel to the Galatian believers.

In v. 30, Paul reaches the climax of his Hagar and Sarah story as he loosely quotes the words of Sarah in Genesis 21:10 with some of his own characterizations, “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.” Paul is unconcerned here about the issues of morality that concern many modern readers of this story and even Abraham himself within the story. It is sufficient for Paul that he can apply this to his current situation and to that of his Galatian readers. For him, if this is what “the scripture” says, this is what must be done.

With the expression “So then” (v. 31), Paul begins the conclusion to the section: “we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.” He is hereby declaring to his readers that both he and they are the real metaphorical children of the free woman. However, this is true only if they are free from the Jewish law, unlike the interpretation of the story apparently taught by his opponents. The section actually spills over into chapter 5 and concludes with Paul’s exhortation in v. 1: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Paul supports the case for his gospel of freedom for Christians from Judaism and Jewish practices by creating what he calls an “allegory,” consisting of a set of selected contrasts from the biblical story of Hagar and Sarah, material from rabbinic tradition, and his own ideas and exegesis. It probably worked better for him and his readers than it does today.

[1] All biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

[2] He had explored the contrast between these covenants in 3:15-18.

[3] E.g., 3:10-14.

[4] There was a rabbinic tradition that Ishmael “made war” on Isaac (e.g., Gen. Rab. 53:11). The NRSV translation, “playing with her son Isaac,” is based on the Greek and Latin versions. The Hebrew lacks “with her son Isaac.” In that text, Ishmael is simply “playing” or “mocking” (King James Version and New International Version). Even if the latter is meant, it is far from the notion of persecution, as asserted by Paul.

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