Summary: The Galatian converts defined themselves as children of Abraham; but Paul reminds them that Abraham had two kinds of children, one by a handmaid (Hagar), and one by a freewoman (Sarah).
November 23, 2013
The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians
Chapter III.C.2: An Appeal from Allegory (4:21-31)
Galatians 4.21-31 (KJV)
The Historical Facts
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 in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
Perhaps the best way to understand this historical account is to go over briefly the biblical narrative of Abrahams experiences recorded in Genesis 12-21. We will trace the events which Paul is using as the basis for his argument for Christian liberty using his age as our point of reference.
Age 75—Abram is called by God and told to go to Canaan, and God makes him several promises, including the assurance that he will have many descendants (Ge. 12.1-9). Abraham’s wife Sarah is barren, but she and Abraham have been hoping and praying for children. Childlessness, particularly the failure to bear sons was a disgrace that caused sorrow in the home. God had not answered their prayers, because He was waiting until both of them were “as good as dead;” then he would perform the miracle of sending them a son (Rom. 4.16-25).
Age 85—Sarah seems to have given up hope, because the son God promised them had not yet arrived, and she was far past the age of for bearing children. Now this is shocking to us, she asks Abraham to marry her handmaid, Hagar, and to have a son by her; she would regret this later. This was a legal act in that ancient society, but it was not acceptable in God’s eyes. But Abraham did as she asked and married Hagar (Ge. 16.1-3).
Age 86—Hagar is soon pregnant, and, of course, Sarah becomes Jealous! There is friction and discontent within the household, which results in Sarah throwing Hagar out of the home. But the Lord intercedes on behalf of Hagar; He sends her back and promises to take care of her and her son. The new son is born when Abraham is 86 and he calls him Ishmael (Ge 16.4-16).
Age 99—Once again the Lord speaks to Abraham and promises him that he will have a son by Sarah, and tells him to name the child Isaac. Later Got appears to Sarah and He reaffirms the promise He made to her as well (Ge. 17-18).
Age 100—The son of promise is born, and they name him Isaac (“laughter”), just as God had commanded. But, everything is not all happiness and joy in the home, because the arrival of the new child creates a new problem for this family—Ishmael has a rival. For fourteen years Ishmael had been Abraham’s only son and Abraham loved and spoiled him. Ishmael views Isaac as a rival and his reaction to the new son threatens to split the home. The extraordinary thing in this Genesis story is that Sarah was over ninety years old when Isaac was born.
Age 103—It was customary for the Jews to wean their children when they were around three years old, and they made it a big occasion. At the least, Ishmael begins to ridicule Isaac (Ge. 21.8), and to make trouble in the home. There is only one solution to the problem, and it’s one that will be painful for all concerned; Hagar and Ishmael must go. Abraham sends them away because that is what the Lord tells him to do, but it breaks his heart (Ge. 21.9-14).
On the surface, this narrative seems to simply picture a family with a problem, which is nothing unusual for any age. But when you scratch the surface you can see what lies just below the surface; implications that carry tremendous spiritual power. Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael represent spiritual realities; and their relationships teach us some important lessons.
The story of Abraham and Hagar and the birth of Ishmael after the flesh is not a mere incident in the history of Abraham but is recorded to teach a far deeper, more profound lesson. It is this—Ishmael was born of the will of the flesh and revealed Abraham’s terrible failure and weakness in trying to help God fulfill His promise to give him a son. Abraham had given up hope that Sarah would give birth to a seed. But God had promised to give Abraham a seed, and so Abraham seeks to help God keep his promise by producing a seed through Sarah’s handmaid Hagar—a symbol of bondage, failure, and doubt. This act of Abraham, says Paul, is illustrative of Man’s attempt to please God by the works of the Law. Hagar corresponds to the Law. Ishmael is representative of the works of the flesh.