Difficult Questions (1)

Last time, we realized that we had to change our perception of Paul’s text in Galatians from progressive and linear to three-dimensional and seeing volume. Once we see a hologram instead of a drawing—once we agree that both covenants have their place in God’s plan today, just as both sons have their place in Abraham’s family tree today—we will be able to deal with the difficult questions that Paul’s allegory raises regarding both the covenants and the sons. And, before anything else, we need to understand why and how the Sinai covenant is symbolized by Hagar in Paul’s allegory.


Why and How Does Hagar Symbolize the Sinai Covenant?

The opening statement of Paul’s allegory tells us that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.  Then Paul continues:

But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise… which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar— for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children; but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.[1]

There are obvious things that cannot be denied. First, nobody would argue with the fact that Ishmael’s conception was “natural,” “of the flesh,” that it was the result of human planning and schemes, and therefore he does indeed represent the natural. Isaac’s conception, on the other hand, was clearly supernatural, and the result of God’s miraculous intervention and design, and therefore he represents the supernatural. From Scripture, we know that God becomes very angry when a God-made reality is replaced with a man-made one; hand-made and God-made are not to be confused or mixed. God always separates things, dividing what belongs to Him, from what belongs to the world. In the very first verses of the Book of Genesis, in the story of Creation, the verb lehavdil—to separate, to divide—occurs more than any other verb and seems to be one of the Creator’s main actions. In this case, God wanted to separate the son who was born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God,[2] from the son who was born in a natural way and was destined to be part of the natural world. Isaac was intended to belong to Him completely. Therefore, this border and this separation between Hagar/Ishmael – natural, and Sarah/ Isaac – supernatural, are clear, both in God’s eyes and in our eyes.

Second, since Hagar is a slave woman, she represents bondage, and since Sarah is a free woman, she represents freedom. This symbolism is very clear as well. None of this presents any real difficulty in interpretation, and might indeed be perceived as corresponding to the Jerusalem which now is, and the Jerusalem above dichotomy. Moreover, we know that Hagar’s son was born before Sarah’s son, just as the Sinai Covenant existed before the New Covenant. These obvious facts by themselves provide ample basis for comparison, and this is precisely the basis that Paul used for his allegory – as strange, surprising, and unexpected as it might have sounded for the  Jewish readers of Paul (both then and now).

The difficult part starts when Paul identifies Hagar with the covenant from Mount Sinai: For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. Such a comparison seems to contradict the plain fact that the Sinai covenant was given to the descendants of Isaac, and was therefore not related to Hagar and her descendants. Why then, does Paul turn her into a symbol of this covenant?


The Unique Position

In order to answer this question, we need to analyze the image of Hagar first. Was she a negative symbol for Paul? Here, I suppose, some surprises are awaiting us. Besides the obvious facts, that we just mentioned, there are several not-so-obvious facts regarding this girl that are usually overlooked – and yet, I believe they might be the key we are looking for as we try to unlock Paul’s allegory. Here are the facts: Not only was Hagar the first woman in the Bible to whom the Lord spoke, but she is actually the only woman in the Bible to whom the Lord spoke twice. She is the only woman in the Bible to have the epiphany twice!  Therefore, she occupies a completely unique position: If, as the woman addressed by the angel of the Lord, she was indeed only the first, followed by others, she holds her unique place as the only woman in the Bible who experienced epiphany twice!

If God Himself chose Hagar for this unique privilege—to speak to her twice—then clearly she cannot be a negative symbol. And if Hagar, who symbolizes the Sinai Covenant in Paul’s text, is not a negative symbol—if in fact, the opposite is true and she is actually a very unique and special person in the eyes of the Lord—then maybe,  Paul never meant for the Sinai Covenant to be presented as something negative,  either? Maybe, this is precisely the reason why Paul uses Hagar in his allegory as a symbol of the Sinai Covenant to begin with?  Since she occupies such a special and unique place in the Lord’s story and in the Lord’s heart, and since she was never replaced by anyone else in this place, then the Sinai covenant symbolized by her also holds a very special and unique place in God’s plan as well, and should not be replaced by another one.

Have you ever heard of semiotics? In the understanding of semiotics, a text is a communication conveyed by a sender to a receiver. The text sent must not only be received but also read – decoded or deciphered, so to speak. Naturally, somewhere along this path, it is possible that distortions or incorrect deciphering will occur. The recipient of the text might read into it not entirely what, or completely not what, the message-sender wanted to convey. Should not it be our task to faithfully decipher the “texts” of the Bible and to read into them the exact meaning with which their “authors” invested them?  So maybe – just maybe – when Paul uses Hagar as a symbol of the Sinai covenant, his message is very different from how we read it now?

However, what about bondage, you might ask. If God Himself redeemed His people from slavery: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,”[3] how could their whole existence under the Torah be allegorized by bondage?  Next time, we will try to understand why and how the Covenant from Mount Sinai is related to “bondage”.


Excerpts from my book “Abraham had two sons”  are included in this article, so if you like the  article, you might enjoy also the  book,   you  can get  it here

Also, if this blog whets your appetite for learning more about your Jewish roots, I would like to remind you that we offer a wonderful course, Jewish Background of the New Testament. As always,  I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher wonderful courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com).




[1]  Galatians 4:23-25

[2] John 1:13

[3] Exodus 20:2

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

You might also be interested in:

Join the conversation (9 comments)

Leave a Reply

  1. James Smith

    using your guide line this could also be applied to Jacob and Esau; Isaac had two sons but only one w.as chosen for the promise. one tree with two branches. Each with different destines yet each a part of the the whole.

    1. Julia Blum

      You are right, James, of course, this could – and probably should – be also applied to Jacob and Esau. Just the theme of Isaac and Ishmael seems to be a much more burning theme nowadays. The fact is that we do have two different peoples today: Arabs and Jews. We find evidence of their closeness and similarity in everything from their language to their DNA. And unfortunately, we also have endless tension and conflict between them. Therefore, I believe that there is a biblical story and a spiritual reality beyond our complicated visible reality, and that is what I am trying to speak about.

  2. Nick

    Of course, you realize this upsets many comfortable religious formulas. I love it! We need to think more!
    Thank you Julia!

    1. Yvonne Echo-Hawk

      Genesis 3:13 And The Lord God says to the woman…
      Isn’t this the first woman God spoke to?

      1. Julia Blum

        Definitely, she was the first woman God spoke to – but while in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived enveloped by God’s presence, and it was a very different experience. I am talking about post-Eden experience: Hagar is the first woman after the Fall, that is having Theophany (at least, it’s what Bible tells us explicitly; I personally believe that Sarah had a very profound encounter with God during her time in Egypt, but the Scripture doesn’t say anything about it).

        1. Ed

          How do you know it was a theophany? From what I see from the masoretic text the word found in Gen 16:7 describing the “Angel of God” in the word מַלְאַךְ with a root word meaning, “to dispatch as a deputy.” Am I missing something?

          1. Sorin

            I think you’re missing verse 13 where it says YHVH was the one who spoke and saw her and she saw Him.

          2. Julia Blum

            Hi Ed, in verse 13 (Gen. 16:13) we read: “Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You-Are-[e]the-God-Who-Sees”. The words “the Lord who spoke to her” accurately translate the original Hebrew text, and they are very clear as to who really spoke to Hagar, aren’t they?

    2. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Nick! Of course, I realize it. I am not trying “to upset many comfortable religious formulas”, though; together, we are trying to get to the original (God’s) meaning, aren’t we?