Galatians Chapter 4: The Symbolism of Abraham’s Offspring
Key Verses: (Galatians 4:21–31)
21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother…
28 Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
Once again, Paul takes what many consider a historical event and interprets it figuratively as an expression of a fundamental principle he wanted to convey to the Galatians. Paul speaks of the slave, Hagar, as symbolic of the Old Covenant and Sarah, his barren wife, as symbolic of the New Covenant. The son, Ishmael, born of Hagar, was legally Abraham and Sarah’s, while the son, Isaac, born of Sarah, was the fulfillment of God’s divine promise to Abraham.
Ultimately, there was discord in Abraham’s household, and God commanded Abraham to “get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance of the free woman’s son” (v. 30).
Paul was telling the Galatians they were not children of the slave but rather of the free woman, and as such, they must make a choice between the law (the Old Covenant) and the free grace of God through faith in Jesus (the New Covenant).
A Moment to Reflect:
I’m sure you have been taught, like I was, to live by the Ten Commandments. Most certainly, righteous living and following such biblical commandments is the best way for us to live, but it is not ultimately the path to a stronger relationship with God or to your salvation. Paul was telling the Galatians that they were mistaken and being deceived if they believed that adherence to all aspects of the law was sufficient for their salvation and justification. Instead, faith in Jesus was the real path to God’s free gifts to us: unmerited grace, along with salvation and justification.
As you continue to read Paul’s letters, watch for other examples of his symbolic and metaphorical interpretation of Scripture. It can be very enlightening to realize that biblical stories can reveal such fundamental theological truths.