Forcing God's Hand
He then begins to expound some of those basic principles, returning to the story of Abraham’s sons and how they illustrate the principles of spiritual slavery and freedom. He assumes that the Galatians are familiar with the Old Testament stories (for though they were Gentiles, there were Jewish communities in the area, and probably some Jews in the Christian communities themselves). He begins by recounting that Abraham had two sons—Ishmael (born from Hagar, their servant-girl; Gr. paidiskes, “young girl”) and Isaac (born from his legal wife Sarah, the free woman; Gr. eleuthera). (It may be noted in passing that this arrangement, that of a childless wife giving her handmaid to her husband in order to claim the resultant child as legally her own, was not exceptional in those days.) Ishmael was born by Hagar the servant-girl according to the flesh (Gen. 16). That is, Ishmael was the fruit of Abraham trying to get a son and heir through his own efforts. Isaac, however, was born later through a promise. That is, God had promised that Abraham and Sarah would miraculously conceive (for they were both well past childbearing age) and that this divinely promised son would be the heir of all His promises (Gen. 17:15–19).
St. Paul, in typical rabbinic fashion, shows how these things are allegorized and contain symbolic, allegorical significance. That is, he brings out the principles inherent in the story and its lessons and applications for today. St. Paul is not ingeniously reading meanings into the text in an arbitrary way in order to make his point. Rather, it is the opposite: he truly reads hidden meanings out of the text, discerning the underlying principles already latent there.
The two women, Hagar and Sarah, are two covenants, the old Jewish covenant originating in Mount Sinai and the new Christian covenant originating in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. That is, they illustrate Judaism and Christianity, the Law and the Gospel. Abraham’s action with Hagar shows what happens when one tries to establish oneself by one’s own efforts and power. This is the same motivation and method pursued by the contemporary Judaism the Galatians are accepting: by accepting the Law, they are trying to establish themselves by their own efforts.
One can see the result of such methods. Hagar, as a servant-girl, bore a son who was also a slave. The old Jewish covenant also bore spiritual children for slavery. This covenant of Mount Sinai in Arabia (St. Paul mentions its geographical location to stress that it is of the earth) was imaged and embodied by the earthly city of Jerusalem (the vaunted center of the Judaizers). The spiritual children of the earthly Jerusalem are in slavery. That is, those under the Law maintain the mentality of the slave, not enjoying the dignity and boldness of sons (compare 4:1–7). There is a servility to their approach to God and a lack of free access to His Holy Presence. Hagar and her slave-child are a fitting allegory for the old Jewish Law, originating at Sinai, corresponding to present Jerusalem. Her slave-child shows what results when one tries to establish oneself by merely human efforts.
It is otherwise with Sarah, the free woman and legal wife of Abraham. Through a promise and by the power and Spirit of God, she bore Isaac (Gen. 21:1–5). He was free and no slave, but was the divinely promised heir and carried the divine destiny of the Chosen People. As such, Sarah was a fitting symbol for the New Covenant in Christ, who was Himself the true Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). Sarah and this New Covenant correspond with the Jerusalem above, the heavenly Zion, the abode of God (see Heb. 12:22–24). This heavenly Jerusalem is the true mother of all the Christians and source of their life. Unlike the present earthly Jerusalem, which partakes of the slavery of the Law (like the slave-girl Hagar), our mother is free. Heavenly Jerusalem has no trace of slavery, but has free access to the Father, nobility of bearing, and enjoyment of the inheritance. Like our free mother, we Christians are also free.
St. Paul then quotes from Isaiah 54:1 (LXX). In its original context, it was a prophecy of how exilic Israel, sad and forlorn like a barren and desolate woman, would after the Babylonian Exile be glad, burst out with joy and shout in jubilation. Though they had only a few children and a sparse population during the Exile, God would restore them so that postexilic Israel would abound with population and prosperity, having many more children than before. It was thus a prophecy of Israel’s salvation by the power of God after her return from Exile.
The apostle takes these prophecies and principles and applies them to the previous discussion. The prophecies of the glory and salvation of postexilic Israel are fulfilled in Christ and the Gospel. Therefore, the barren woman who is to rejoice over many children is the Church, our spiritual mother, the Jerusalem above. She is the fulfillment of which barren and desolate Sarah was the type. Sarah was saved from childlessness by the power of God, even as postexilic Israel was saved and restored by the power of God, and even as the Church multiplies her children by the power of God. Once again, St. Paul is not being arbitrary in his handling of the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather, he is revealing their unifying themes and principles—in this case, the divine power that multiplies, restores, and gives joy. It is seen in Sarah, in the prophesied glory of Israel, and in its fulfillment in the Church.
St. Paul continues to apply these principles to the Galatians’ own experience, addressing them now more mildly, as brothers. They, the Christians, like Isaac, are children of a promise. That is, even as Isaac (who was born in fulfillment of God’s Promise) was born by the Power of God (Gen. 18:9–14), so were the Christians born according to the Spirit and Power of God (John 3:6). Both Isaac (the type) and the Christians (the antitype or fulfillment) owe their existence to the divine Promise and Word, which brings miracles to pass. And just as Isaac, born according to the Spirit (i.e. by God’s miraculous provision), was persecuted and opposed by his rival Ishmael, who was born according to the flesh (i.e. through human effort and planning), so it is now with St. Paul and the Judaizers. There is a timeless enmity and incompatibility between light and darkness, between prideful self-vindication and humble faith, between the Spirit and the flesh. This is seen in the rivalry of Isaac and Ishmael (see Gen. 21:9; 37:25) and in the persecution of true believers (like St. Paul) by the Judaizers.
What then is the final result? What does the Scripture say? The answer is clear: “Cast out the servant-girl and her son” (Gen. 21:10). For the son of slavery (Ishmael) shall not inherit along with the son of freedom (Isaac)—that is, those of the Old Covenant, the Jewish Law, will not inherit the Abrahamic promises and salvation along with those of Christ’s New Covenant. Reliance on the Law cannot be combined with the Gospel, any more than slavery can be combined with freedom. By banishing the son of the servant-girl, the slave Ishmael, from Abraham’s household, God revealed that reliance on one’s own efforts (the essence of the Judaizers’ religion) leads to slavery, and that reliance on God leads to inheriting Abraham’s promise of salvation.
The Galatians are the true heirs of Abraham, the children of promise, the spiritual descendants of Sarah, the free woman, not of the servant-girl. As such, they should heed the Word of the Law and cast out all spiritual slavery, all reliance on the Law. They should have nothing to do with the Judaizers, those sons of the servant-girl, spiritual descendants of Hagar. They are so keen for the Law—this is what the Law says (see 4:21). Its own underlying principles point to its eventual abolition by the Gospel. Christ made them children of the free woman and free sons (4:7). They must stand firm in that freedom and not submit to the yoke of slavery by returning to the Law.