Difficult Questions (2)

I would like to remind you, my dear readers, that we haven’t finished our discussion of Paul’s allegory from Galatians. First of all, let us read Paul’s text again:

22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar— 25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— 26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.

Two weeks ago, we began to address the difficult questions that this text raises. Do you remember our answer to the first question: Why and How Does Hagar Symbolize the Sinai Covenant? The answer was based on Hagar’s completely unique position: she is the only woman in the Bible to whom the Lord spoke twice! If we know that Hagar is not a negative symbol, then Paul’s message might be very different from how it’s usually interpreted. In fact, he might be saying that since Hagar 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, the Sinai covenant symbolized by Hagar also holds a very special and unique place in God’s plan as well, and should not be replaced by another.

 

However, there is another question that many stumble over – the question of bondage. If God Himself redeemed His people from the slavery: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,”[1] how could their whole existence under Torah be allegorized by bondage? This is the question we will try to address today!

 

Why and how does the Mount Sinai Covenant give birth to “bondage”?

We will continue to explore the image of Hagar because I am convinced that Hagar is key to Paul’s allegory. Remember that Paul (Shaul) had been raised on the Scripture, he had studied it his whole life, and so, there were things that were obvious to him – but they would not be so obvious to the average Christian reader who rarely opens the Old Testament.  It is clear that as a slave woman, Hagar indeed represents bondage. However, Hagar’s status as a bondwoman had nothing to do with her as a person. She was a positive image, who happened to be in a negative situation. Her bondage was not a part of who she was, rather, it was a part of her circumstances—part of the situation in which she happened to be.

By connecting the Sinai covenant to Hagar, Paul seems to say that, in a similar way, the Sinai Covenant was a positive thing in a negative situation. The bondage was not part of the covenant itself; rather, it was part of the situation in which the covenant was established. According to Paul, the “bondage” was part of the people’s condition at that point (before Jesus). I am not going to elaborate much on the concepts of freedom and bondage in Paul’s writings (many theological books written on the topic and I don’t think I should, or could add anything to what has already been written). However, in a very simplified form, the “bondage” for Paul means the way we live here on this earth—in an unredeemed, corrupt form. It is the “bondage” of corruption, the “bondage” of our unredeemed flesh. This is why, according to Paul, God had to send His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh:[2] so that we could receive freedom, so that our flesh could be redeemed and freed from this bondage. Since the Sinai Covenant was in place long before Jesus’ coming, it dealt with unredeemed people and unredeemed flesh – therefore, it dealt with people who were in bondage.

Back to Hagar and Ishmael: We are now ready to discover even more surprising things through this allegory. Ishmael was Abraham’s first born. For Abraham to have a son when he was 86 years old was, in itself, absolutely amazing; and yet, that was only the beginning. God had to continue with His plan. When Isaac was born, in a sense he completed the process of redemption for Ishmael: Ishmael was freed from his bondage. Ishmael became a free man only after Isaac had been born. As paradoxical and unexpected as it sounds for those who know the story, Hagar and Ishmael ceased being slaves only after they left the house—they received freedom only after they were banished. Think of it: In order to become free, Hagar and Ishmael needed Sarah and Abraham to let them go. It didn’t happen through the nicest or easiest of circumstances, but nevertheless, it did happen: Hagar and Ishmael became free. God brought them into their freedom, into the fullness of their destiny, only after the birth of Isaac.

So, when Paul quotes Sarah’s words: “Cast out the bondwoman and her son,” – these words, in a sense, could also be read as “set them free,” because Hagar and Ishmael became free only after they were cast out. They would not have become free had they stayed. In this sense, sending them away was releasing them into the freedom – into their true destiny. The Greek verb, ekballo, that Paul uses here, among its other definitions, can mean this: “to cause a thing to move straight toward its intended goal.” For instance, the same word occurs in Mark 1:12 and refers to Jesus’ going into the wilderness: Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. The Spirit moves Him straight to the intended goal. I think this is exactly what Paul means here: “Send them away to their intended goal”– so that they can be free, so that they can become who they were always destined to become.

Let us sum up now: the arrival of Isaac meant that Hagar and Ishmael ceased being slaves and entered the freedom; they were still the same Hagar and Ishmael – but they were now free.

According to this allegory, the arrival of Jesus meant that the Sinai covenant could move “straight to its intended goal”. For a long time, Ishmael was only one son in Abraham’s family – and for a long time the Sinai Covenant was the only covenant that existed – but we know that the story had to be continued. We know that, from the very beginning, God foresaw both Isaac being born into Abraham’s family, as well as Jesus being born into this world – not to replace, but to help the older one enter their true destiny!

 

[1] Exodus 20:2

[2] Romans 8:3

 

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).

 

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.

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  1. Luis Anderson

    Thank you for your insight. I look at this bondage and freedom issue from a different angle. It’s been said often that the law (ten commandments) was impossible to keep; therefore, the sacrificial system was put in place to atone for the sin. In a sense, the law kept the Israelites in bondage to it, similar to Hagar being in bondage to Sarah. Isaac represented freedom not only because he was the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, but also in the sense of the new covenant that God had promised—I will write my law in your mind and in your heart. This new covenant occurred when Jesus came to earth. I am not in bondage to the law because the law is not imposed on me. The law is in me. It’s part of who I am.
    A good analogy is the following. In Arizona, where I live, we take Highway 17 to go to Phoenix. The speed limit is 75 miles/hour, but I find it difficult to adhere to it. I usually drive at 79 or 80 miles/hour hoping that this small difference will be ignored by the police. Most of the time it works, but sometimes one does get stopped and then an infraction is issued and the penalty has to be paid. This is similar to the law the Israelites were under and the sacrifices they had to perform. Perhaps some day I will accept the speed limit in my heart and obey it (have it written in my mind and in my heart). If and when this may happen, I will be happy to drive at 75 miles/hour maximum and there will be no concern about penalties. The speed law will have no effect on me.

  2. Gladys

    Thank you Dear Julia,
    It has been some time since I’ve thanked you for all you teach me ..I however have been reading all of your blogs and I want to thank you for helping me see Hagar in a different light .
    If I live for two more months I will be eighty years old and I find it harder to do things .
    I have all your books and I highly recommend them to everyone especially Christians . Will you be writing any new books ? I have come to know and trust in what you write .
    May you be greatly blessed and may you reach more and more people with your wonderful lessons .

    1. Julia Blum

      Dear Gladys, I’ve been wondering why I haven’t heard from you for a while, and I am so glad to hear from you! Thank you as always for your kind and generous words, they always touch my heart. Blessings!