Understanding Paul's Allegory of Hagar and Sarah

Reading Time: 4 mins

The point is that the whole lot was wicked. And so were the Galatian Christians. And so are we.

St. Paul’s allegory of Hagar and Sarah is a tricky section of Scripture (Galatians 4:21-31) for two reasons. The first is the variety of images Paul uses. The second is our default position of reading Scripture through the lens of the law.

A little background first:

God made a promise to bring a Savior through Abraham. The problem was Abraham and his elderly wife, Sarah, had no children. So Sarah gave her maidservant Hagar to her husband to bear a child in an ill-conceived plan. It backfired, of course, causing great discord in the family. Eventually, God comes through, and Sarah gives birth to Isaac who will carry on the line of the Savior.

Now to Paul’s allegory.

Paul strings together multiple pictures in these short eleven verses. Paul compares the two women and their sons to mountains: Hagar and Ishmael are Mt. Sinai, that is, the law. Sarah and Isaac are Mt. Zion (the heavenly Jerusalem), that is, the gospel. Paul also describes Jerusalem, the church, as a mother. There is then a picture of slaves and freemen: Ishmael is the son of a slave, but Isaac is freeborn. The freeborn son - not the slave son - will inherit the family estate. Paul then speaks about the causes of their births: Ishmael was born in the ordinary way, but Isaac was born of God’s promise. And finally, there is a picture of persecution: the son born by human will (Ishmael) persecuted the son born as a result of a promise (Isaac).

Through all of these pictures, the main point emerges: the Galatians were sons of the promise, just like Isaac. The gospel made them free from sin and the death, which follows sin. They were heirs to the heavenly Jerusalem. They were not slaves, yet they were tempted to enslave themselves again. They had been betwixt by preachers who led them to believe that they needed to follow certain laws (like circumcision) to be a part of God’s family and inherit the heavenly estate.

Paul is perplexed that his spiritual children could be so easily duped. Had he not preached the gospel to them? Had he not taught them right? Why would they want to enslave themselves to the law once again? They had been set free! They did not, nor could they follow any law that would impress God. God loved them. Period. So much so that Christ became man to live a perfect life in their place. Christ’s righteousness became their righteousness. They were righteous not by cutting off that particular piece of skin (or following any other custom) but by Christ alone. They were righteous by faith.

So Paul’s allegory wasn’t really about anything else but the two kinds of righteousness. Ishmael’s birth was of human devising. It was born out of the will of two people. Sarah hatched the plan, and Abraham carried it out. Ishmael was conceived and born in the ordinary way. A human way. They thought they would do God’s work. This was flat out unbelief. “God,” they seemed to yell at the sky, “You have not been a good God. Your promises stink. We need to take matters into our own hands.” They followed the law of nature (the ordinary manner of procreating). This was an attempt at righteousness by human devising; a righteousness by law.

Paul’s allegory wasn’t really about anything else but the two kinds of righteousness.

In contrast, Isaac’s birth was anything but normal. His parents were old, like great-grandparent old. Sarah was barren and beyond menopause. But God promised. And when God speaks, it is so. There was no planning this birth. Abraham and Sarah could only trust. And even though they wavered, Abraham believed. He believed despite his and his wife’s old flesh (Rom 4:19). He looked at his body and Sarah’s body and saw impossibility. He had to go by faith because no reasonable man could believe that a child could be born of Sarah without supernatural help.

The Galatians (both Jew and Gentile) were sons of Abraham not because of their ethnicity, not because they followed the Old Testament’s ceremonial law or any other law for that matter. They were freeborn because they had been reborn in Christ. They were free. To put oneself under this burden of pleasing God by law was insane.

But insanity is our default position. This is because sin is insane. It makes no sense. We try to justify our personal hate and our collective violence, but it never benefits us, does it? This is ultimately why Paul’s allegory is hard for us to understand. It’s not because we have to sift through Paul’s string of pictures to arrive at the main point. It is because our default position is sin. Our sinful nature knows nothing but a righteousness by law. It’s our greatest insanity. We simply cannot shake this desire to be righteous by our own actions. It even affects the way we look at Scripture, especially this particular allegory.

I know that my mind first goes to the characters of Hagar and Ishmael on the one hand and Sarah and Isaac on the other. One is bad, and the other is good. There must be something about Sarah and Isaac that makes them better than the slaves. But the Genesis account gives us no such evidence. Sarah receives little sympathy from me. If anything, Hagar is the obedient one. She’s no saint but think about the position this power couple of Abraham and Sarah put her in. And Ishmael? So he picked on his little half-brother. How would you look at the golden boy Isaac?

Our default position is a righteousness by law. There must be something in these tragic characters that is redeemable. There must be some lesson for my life I can glean from this allegory. We even make the gift of faith into an accomplishment we are proud to offer to God. “Maybe that’s the lesson of Hagar and Sarah,” we think, “Sarah believed, and Hagar didn’t.” We have no evidence of that. The point is that the whole lot was wicked. And so were the Galatian Christians. And so are we. Our plans stink. Our promises are worthless. And yet, here we are, constantly trying to usurp God as if his promises were not good enough. Here we are, once again, trying to be righteous by human devising. A righteousness by law.

The point is that the whole lot was wicked. And so were the Galatian Christians. And so are we.

But here is also our Father telling us once again that we are free from that burden. We are free. Despite our constant attempts at planning, devising, lawmaking, and law following, here he is saying, “You are free because I said so.” Our Father breaks through all of our human devising, our righteous plans, and lays before us his grace. No amount of law following will set us free. It will only enslave us to this unnecessary and insane burden even more. Only Christ sets us free by his actions. This is Paul’s allegory of Hagar and Sarah. This is the message to the Galatians and to you: You are free. Period.