The Expositor's Bible

Epistle to the Galatians

Rev. Prof. G. G. Findlay, B.A.

The Doctrinal Polemic
Chapter 3:1 - 5:12

Chapter 19


"Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, one by the handmaid, and one by the freewoman. Howbeit the sonby the handmaid is born after the flesh; but the son by the freewoman is born through promise. Which things contain an allegory: for these women are two covenants; one from mount Sinai, bearing children unto bondage, which is Hagar. For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia, and answereth to the Jerusalem that now is: for she is in bondage with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is our mother. For it is written,

Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not;
Break forth and cry, thou that travailest not:
For more are the children of the desolate than of her which hath the husband.

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Howbeit what saith the scripture? Cast out the handmaid and her son; for the son of the handmaid shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman. Wherefore, brethren, we are not children of a handmaid, but of the freewoman. For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage."—Ga 4:21-5:1

THE Apostle wishes that he could "change his voice" (ver. 20). Indeed he has changed it more than once. "Any one who looks closely may see that there is much change and alteration of feeling in what the Apostle has previously written" (Theodorus). Now he will try another tone; he proceeds in fact to address his readers in a style which we find nowhere else in his Epistles. He will tell his "children" a story! Perhaps he may thus succeed better than by graver argument. Their quick fancy will readily apprehend the bearing of the illustration; it may bring home to them the force of his doctrinal contention, and the peril of their own position, as he fears they have not seen them yet. And so, after the pathetic appeal of the last paragraph, and before he delivers his decisive, official protest to the Galatians against their circumcision, he interjects this "allegory" of the two sons of Abraham.

Paul cites the history of the sons of Abraham. No other example would have served his purpose. The controversy between himself and the Judaisers turned on the question, Who are the true heirs of Abraham? (Ga 3:7,16,29) He made faith in Christ, they circumcision and law-keeping, the ground of sonship. So the inheritance was claimed in a double sense. But now, if it should appear that this antithesis existed in principle in the bosom of the patriarchal family, if we should find that there was an elder son of Abraham’s flesh opposed to the child of promise, how powerfully will this analogy sustain the Apostle’s position. Judaism will then be seen to be playing over again the part of Ishmael; and "the Jerusalem that now is" takes the place of Hagar, the slave-mother. The moral situation created by the Judaic controversy had been rehearsed in the family life of Abraham.

"Tell me," the Apostle asks, "you that would fain be subject to the law, do you not know what it relates concerning Abraham? He had two sons, one of free, and the other of servile birth. Do you wish to belong to the line of Ishmael, or Isaac?" In this way Paul resumes the thread of his discourse dropped in ver. 7. Faith, he had told his readers, had made them sons of God. They were, in Christ, of Abraham’s spiritual seed, heirs of his promise. God had sent His Son to redeem them, and the Spirit of His Son to attest their adoption. But they were not content. They were ambitious of Jewish privileges. The Legalists persuaded them that they must be circumcised and conform to Moses, in order to be Abraham’s children in full title. "Very well," the Apostle says, "you may become Abraham’s sons in this fashion. Only you must observe that Abraham had two sons. And the Law will make you his sons by Hagar, whose home is Sinai—not Israelites, but Ishmaelites!"

Paul’s Galatian allegory has greatly exercised the minds of his critics. The word is one of ill repute in exegesis. Allegory was the instrument of Rabbinical and Alexandrine Scripturists, an infallible device for extracting the predetermined sense from the letter of the sacred text. The "spiritualising" of Christian interpreters has been carried, in many instances, to equal excess of riot. For the honest meaning of the word of God anything and everything has been substituted that lawless fancy and verbal ingenuity could read into it. The most arbitrary and grotesque distortions of the facts of Scripture have passed current under cover of the clause, "which things are an allegory." But Paul’s allegory, and that of Philo and the Allegorical school, are very different things, as widely removed as the "words of truth and soberness" from the intoxications of mystical idealism.

With Paul the spiritual sense of Scripture is based on the historical, is in fact the moral content and import thereof; for he sees in history a continuous manifestation of God’s will. With the Allegorists the spiritual sense, arrived at by priori means, replaces the historical, destroyed to make room for it. The Apostle points out in the story of Hagar a spiritual intent, such as exists in every scene of human life if we had eyes to see it, something other than the literal relation of the facts, but nowise alien from it. Here lies the difference between legitimate and illegitimate allegory. The utmost freedom may be given to this employment of the imagination, so long as it is true to the moral of the narrative which it applies. In principle the Pauline allegory does not differ from the type. In the type the correspondence of the sign and thing signified centres in a single figure or event; in such an allegory as this it is extended to a group of figures and a series of events. But the force of the application depends on the actuality of the original story, which in the illicit allegory is matter of indifference.

"Which things are allegorised"—so the Apostle literally writes in ver. 24—made matters of allegory. The phrase intimates, as Bishop Lightfoot suggests, that the Hagarene episode in Genesis (Ge 16:21:1-21) was commonly interpreted in a figurative way. The Galatians had heard from their Jewish teachers specimens of this popular mode of exposition. Paul will employ it too; and will give his own reading of the famous story of Ishmael and Isaac. Philo of Alexandria, the greatest allegorist of the day, has expounded the same history. These eminent interpreters both make Sarah the mother of the spiritual, Hagar of the worldly offspring; both point out how the barren is exalted over the fruitful wife. So far, we may imagine, Paul is moving on the accepted lines of Jewish exegesis. But Philo knows nothing of the correspondence between Isaac and Christ, which lies at the back of the Apostle’s allegory. And there is this vital difference of method between the two divines, that whereas Paul’s comparison is the illustration of a doctrine proved on other grounds—the painting which decorates the house already built (Luther)—with the Alexandrine idealist it forms the substance and staple of his teaching.

Under this allegorical dress the Apostle expounds once more his doctrine, already inculcated, of the difference between the Legal and Christian state. The former constitutes, as he now puts the matter, a bastard sonship like that of Ishmael, conferring only an external and provisional tenure in the Abrahamic inheritance. It is contrasted with the spiritual sonship of the true Israel in the following respects:—It is a state of nature as opposed to grace; of bondage as opposed to freedom; and further, it is temporary and soon to be ended by the Divine decree.

I "He who is of the maid-servant is after the flesh; but he that is of the free-woman is through promise…Just as then he that was after the flesh persecuted him that was after the Spirit, So now" (vv. 23, 29). The Apostle sees in the different parentage of Abraham’s sons the ground of a radical divergence of character. One was the child of nature, the other was the son of a spiritual faith.

Ishmael was in truth the fruit of unbelief; his birth was due to a natural but impatient misreading of the promise. The patriarch’s union with Hagar was ill-assorted and ill-advised. It brought its natural penalty by introducing an alien element into his family, life. The low-bred insolence which the serving-woman, in the prospect of becoming a mother, showed toward the mistress to whom she owed her preferment, gave a foretaste of the unhappy consequences. The promise of posterity made to Abraham with a childless wife, was expressly designed to try his faith; and he had allowed it to be overborne by the reasonings of nature. It was no wonder that the son of the Egyptian slave, born under such conditions, proved to be of a lower type, and had to be finally excluded from the house.

In Ishmael’s relation to his father there was nothing but the ordinary play of human motives. "The son of the handmaid was born after the flesh." He was a natural son. But Ishmael was not on that account cut off from the Divine mercies. Nor did his father’s prayer, "O that Ishmael might live before Thee," (Ge 17:18) remain unanswered. A great career was reserved by Divine Providence for his race. The Arabs, the fiery sons of the desert, through him claim descent from Abraham. They have carved their name deeply upon the history and the faith of the world. But sensuousness and lawlessness are everywhere the stamp of the Ishmaelite. With high gifts and some generous qualities, such as attracted to his eldest boy the love of Abraham, their fierce animal passion has been the curse of the sons of Hagar. Mohammedanism is a bastard Judaism; it is the religion of Abraham sensualised. Ishmael stands forth as the type of the carnal man. On outward grounds of flesh and blood he seeks inheritance in the kingdom of God; and with fleshly weapons passionately fights its battles.

To a similar position Judaism, in the Apostle’s view, had now reduced itself. And to this footing the Galatian Churches would be brought if they yielded to the Judaistic solicitations. To be circumcised would be for them to be born again after the flesh, to link themselves to Abraham in the unspiritual fashion of Hagar’s son. Ishmael was the first to be circumcised. (Ge 17:23 26) It was to renounce salvation by faith and the renewing of the Holy Spirit. This course could only have one result. The Judaic ritualism they were adopting would bear fruit after its kind, in a worldly, sensuous life. Like Ishmael they would claim kinship with the Church of God on fleshly grounds; and their claims must prove as futile as did his.

The persecution of the Church by Judaism gave proof of the Ishmaelite spirit, the carnal animus by which it was possessed. A religion of externalism naturally becomes repressive. It knows not "the demonstration of the Spirit"; it has "confidence in the flesh." It relies on outward means for the propagation of its faith; and naturally resorts to the secular arm. The Inquisition and the Auto-da-fe are a not unfitting accompaniment of the gorgeous ceremonial of the Mass. Ritualism and priestly autocracy go hand in hand. "So now," says Paul, pointing to Ishmael’s "persecution" of the infant Isaac, hinted at in Ge 21:8-10.

The laughter of Hagar’s boy at Sarah’s weaning-feast seems but a slight offence to be visited with the punishment of expulsion; and the incident one beneath the dignity of theological argument. But the principle for which Paul contends is there; and it is the more easily apprehended when exhibited on this homely scale. The family is the germ and the mirror of society. In it are first called into play the motives which determine the course of history, the rise and fall of empires or churches. The gravamen of the charge against Ishmael lies in the last word of Ge 21:9, rendered in the Authorised Version mocking, and by the Revisers playing, after the Septaguint and the Vulgate. This word in the Hebrew is evidently a play on the name Isaac, i.e., laughter, given by Sarah to her boy with genial motherly delight (vv. 6, 7). Ishmael, now a youth of fourteen, takes up the child’s name and turns it, on this public and festive occasion, into ridicule. Such an act was not only an insult to the mistress of the house and the young heir at a most untimely moment, it betrayed a jealousy and contempt on the part of Hagar’s son towards his half-brother which gravely compromised Isaac’s future. "The wild, ungovernable and pugnacious character ascribed to his descendants began to display itself in Ishmael, and to appear in language of provoking insolence; offended at the comparative indifference with which he was treated, he indulged in mockery, especially against Isaac, whose very name furnished him with satirical sneers."126 Ishmael’s jest cost him dear. The indignation of Sarah was reasonable; and Abraham was compelled to recognise in her demand the voice of God (vv. 10-12). The two boys, like Esau and Jacob in the next generation, represented opposite principles and ways of life, whose counter-working was to run through the course of future history. Their incompatibility was already manifest.

The Apostle’s comparison must have been mortifying in the extreme to the Judaists. They are told in plain terms that they are in the position of outcast Ishmael; while uncircumcised Gentiles, without a drop of Abraham’s blood in their veins, have received the promise forfeited by their unbelief. Paul could not have put his conclusion in a form more unwelcome to Jewish pride. But without this radical exposure of the legalist position it was impossible for him adequately to vindicate his gospel and defend his Gentile children in the faith.

II From this contrast of birth "according to flesh" and "through promise" is deduced the opposition between the slave-born and free-born sons. "For these (the slave-mother and the free-woman) are two covenants, one indeed bearing children unto bondage—which is Hagar" (ver. 24). The other side of the antithesis is not formally expressed; it is obvious. Sarah the princess, Abraham’s true wife, has her counterpart in the original covenant of promise renewed in Christ, and in "the Jerusalem above, which is our mother" (ver. 26). Sarah is the typical mother,127 as Abraham is the father of the children of faith. In the systoichia, or tabular comparison, which the Apostle draws up after the manner of the schools, Hagar and the Mosaic covenant, Sinai and the Jerusalem that now is stand in one file and "answer to" each other; Sarah and the Abrahamic covenant, Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem succeed in the same order, opposite to them. "Zion" is wanting in the second file; but "Sinai and Zion" form a standing antithesis; (Heb 12:18-22) the second is implied in the first. It was to Zion that the words of Isaiah cited in ver. 27 were addressed.

The first clause of ver. 25 is best understood in the shorter, marginal reading of the R. V, also preferred by Bishop Lightfoot (τὸ γὰρ Σινᾶ ὄρος ἐστίν κ.τ.λ.).  It is a parenthesis—"for mount Sinai128 is in Arabia"—covenant running on in the mind from ver. 24 as the continued subject of ver. 25b: "and it answereth to the present Jerusalem." This is the simplest and most consistent construction of the passage. The interjected geographical reference serves to support the identification of the Sinaitic covenant with Hagar, Arabia being the well-known abode of the Hagarenes. Paul had met them in his wanderings there. Some scholars have attempted to establish a verbal agreement between the name of the slave-mother and that locally given to the Sinaitic range; but this explanation is precarious, and after all unnecessary. There was a real correspondence between place and people on the one hand, as between place and covenant on the other. Sinai formed a visible and imposing link between the race of Ishmael and the Mosaic law-giving. That awful, desolate mountain, whose aspect, as we can imagine, had vividly impressed itself on Paul’s memory, (Ga 1:17) spoke to him of bondage and terror. It was a true symbol of the working of the law of Moses, exhibited in the present condition of Judaism. And round the base of Sinai Hagar’s wild sons had found their dwelling.

Jerusalem was no longer the mother of freemen. The boast, "we are Abraham’s sons; we were never in bondage," (Joh 8:33) was an unconscious irony. Her sons chafed under the Roman yoke. They were loaded with self-inflicted legal burdens. Above all, they were, notwithstanding their professed law-keeping, enslaved to sin, in servitude to their pride and evil lusts. The spirit of the nation was that of rebellious, discontented slaves. They were Ishmaelite sons of Abraham, with none of the nobleness, the reverence, the calm and elevated faith of their father. In the Judaism of the Apostle’s day the Sinaitic dispensation, uncontrolled by the higher patriarchal and prophetic faith, had worked out its natural result. It "gendered to bondage." A system of repression and routine, it had produced men punctual in tithes of mint and anise, but without justice, mercy, or faith; vaunting their liberty while they were "servants of corruption." The law of Moses could not form a "new creature." It left the Ishmael of nature unchanged at heart, a child of the flesh, with whatever robes of outward decorum his nakedness was covered. The Pharisee was the typical product of law apart from grace. Under the garb of a freeman he carried the soul of a slave.

But ver. 26 sounds the note of deliverance: "The Jerusalem above is free; and she is our mother!" Paul has escaped from the prison of Legalism, from the confines of Sinai; he has left behind the perishing, earthly Jerusalem, and with it the bitterness and gloom of his Pharisaic days. He is a citizen of the heavenly Zion, breathing the air of a Divine freedom. The yoke is broken from the neck of the Church of God; the desolation is gone from her heart. There come to the Apostle’s lips the words of the great prophet of the Exile, depicting the deliverance of the spiritual Zion, despised and counted barren, but now to be the mother of a numberless offspring. In Isaiah’s song, "Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not" (54.), the laughter of the childless Sarah bursts forth again, to be gloriously renewed in the persecuted Church of Jesus. Robbed of all outward means, mocked and thrust out as she is by Israel after the flesh, her rejection is a release, an emancipation. Conscious of the spirit of sonship and freedom, looking out on the boundless conquests lying before her in the Gentile world, the Church of the New Covenant glories in her tribulations. In Paul is fulfilled the joy of prophet and psalmist, who sang in former days of gloom concerning Israel’s enlargement and world-wide victories. No legalist could understand words like these. "The veil" was upon his heart "in the reading of the Old Testament." But with "the Spirit of the Lord" comes "liberty." The prophetic inspiration has returned. The voice of rejoicing is heard again in the dwellings of Israel. "If the Son make you free," said Jesus, "ye shall be free indeed." This Epistle proves it.

III "And the bondman abideth not in the house for ever; the Son abideth for ever". (Joh 8:35) This also the Lord had testified: the Apostle repeats His warning in the terms of this allegory.

Sooner or later the slave-boy was bound to go. He has no proper birthright, no permanent footing in the house. One day he exceeds his license, he makes himself intolerable; he must begone. "What saith the Scripture? Cast out the maidservant and her son; for the son of the maidservant shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman" (ver. 30). Paul has pronounced the doom of Judaism. His words echo those of Christ: "Behold your house is left unto you desolate"; (Mt 23 38) they are taken up again in the language of Heb 13:13,14, uttered on the eve of the fall of Jerusalem: "Let us go forth unto Jesus without the camp, bearing His reproach. We have here no continuing city, but we seek that which is to come." On the walls of Jerusalem ichabod was plainly written. Since it "crucified our Lord" it was no longer the Holy City; it was "spiritually Sodom and Egypt" (Re 11:8), -Egypt,  the country of Hagar. Condemning Him, the Jewish nation passed sentence on itself. They were slaves who in blind rage slew their Master when He came to free them.

The Israelitish people showed more than Ishmael’s jealousy toward the infant Church of the Spirit. No weapon of violence or calumny was too base to be used against it. The cup of their iniquity was filling fast. They were ripening for the judgment which Christ predicted. (1Th 2:16) Year by year they became more hardened against spiritual truth, more malignant towards Christianity, and more furious and fanatical in their hatred towards their civil rulers. The cause of Judaism was hopelessly lost. In Ro 9-11., written shortly after this Epistle, Paul assumes this as a settled thing, which he has to account for and to reconcile with Scripture. In the demand of Sarah for the expulsion of her rival, complied with by Abraham against his will, the Apostle reads the secret judgment of the Almighty on the proud city which he himself so ardently loved, but which had crucified his Lord and repented not. "Cut it down," Jesus cried, "why cumbereth it the ground?". (Lu 13:7) The voice of Scripture speaks again: "Cast her out; she and her sons are slaves. They have no place amongst the sons of God." Ishmael was in the way of Isaac’s safety and prosperity. And the Judaic ascendency was no less a danger to the Church. The blow which shattered Judaism at once cleared the ground for the outward progress of the gospel and arrested the legalistic reaction which hindered its internal development. The two systems were irreconcilable. It was Paul’s merit to have first apprehended this contradiction in its full import. The time had come to apply in all its rigour Christ’s principle of combat, "He that is not with Me is against Me." It is the same rule of exclusion which Paul announces: "If any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His". (Ro 8:9) Out of Christ is no salvation. When the day of judgment comes, whether for men or nations, this is the touchstone: Have we, or have we not "the Spirit of God’s Son"? Is our character that of sons of God, or slaves of sin? On the latter falls inevitably the sentence of expulsion. "He will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them that do iniquity". (Mt 13:41)

This passage signalises the definite breach of Christianity with Judaism. The elder Apostles lingered in the porch of the Temple; the primitive Church clung to the ancient worship. Paul does not blame them for doing so. In their case this was but the survival of a past order, in principle acknowledged to be obsolete. But the Church of the future, the spiritual seed of Abraham gathered out of all nations, had no part in Legalism. The Apostle bends all his efforts to convince his readers of this, to make them sensible of the impassable gulf lying between them and outworn Mosaism. Again he repeats, "We are not children of a maidservant, but of her that is free" (ver. 31). The Church of Christ can no more hold fellowship with Judaism than could Isaac with the spiteful, mocking Ishmael. Paul leads the Church across the Rubicon. There is no turning back.

Ver. 1 of chap. 5. is the application of the allegory. It is a triumphant assertion of liberty, a ringing summons to its defence. Its separation from chap. 4. is ill-judged, and runs counter to the ancient divisions of the Epistle. "Christ set us free," Paul declares; "and it was for freedom129—not that we might fall under a new servitude. Stand fast therefore; do not let yourselves be made bondmen over again." Bondmen the Galatians had been before, (Ga 4:8) bowing down to false and vile gods. Bondmen they will be again, if they are beguiled by the Legalists to accept the yoke of circumcision, if they take "the Jerusalem that now is" for their mother. They have tasted the joys of freedom; they know what it is to be sons of God, heirs of His kingdom and partakers of His Spirit; why do they stoop from their high estate? Why should Christ’s freemen put a yoke upon their own neck? Let them only know their happiness and security in Christ, and refuse to be cheated out of the substance of their spiritual blessings by the illusive shadows which the Judaists offer them. Freedom once gained is a prize never to be lost. No care, no vigilance in its preservation can be too great. Such liberty inspires courage and good hope in its defence. "Stand fast therefore. Quit yourselves like men."

How the Galatians responded to the Apostle’s challenge, we do not know. But it has found an echo in many a heart since. The Lutheran Reformation was an answer to it; so was the Scottish Covenant. The spirit of Christian liberty is eternal. Jerusalem or Rome may strive to imprison it. They might as well seek to bind the winds of heaven. Its home is with God. Its seat is the throne of Christ. It lives by the breath of His Spirit. The earthly powers mock at it, and drive it into the wilderness. They do but assure their own ruin. It leaves the house of the oppressor desolate. Whosoever he be, Judaist or Papist, priest, or king, or demagogue—that makes himself lord of God’s heritage and would despoil His children of the liberties of faith, let him beware lest of him also it be spoken, "Cast out the bondwoman and her son."   


[126] Kalisch, Commentary, on Genesis xxi. 9.

[127] Comp. Heb. xi. 11, 12; 1 Pet. iii. 6.

[128] Paul writes "the Sinaimountain" (τὸ Σινᾶ ὄρος) in tacit opposition to the other, familiar Mount Zion (Hofmann in loc.). In Heb. xii. 22 the same inversion appears, with the same significance.

[129] The reading of this clause is doubtful. The ancient witnesses disagree. Dr. Hort suggests that the Revised reading—the best attested, but scarcely grammatical—may be due to a primitive corruption, ΤΗ— for ΕΠ  (ἐλευθερίᾳ). This emendation gives an excellent and apposite sense: for (with a view to) freedom Christ set us free. The phrase ἐπ᾿ ἐλευθερίᾳ is found in ver. 13, and would gain additional force there, if read as a repetition of what is affirmed here. The confusion of letters involved is a natural one; and once made at an early time in some standard copy, it would account for the extraordinary confusion of reading into which the verse has fallen. If conjectural emendation may be admitted anywhere in the N. T., it is legitimate in this instance.