Isaac And Ishmael: The Allegory (1)

My dear readers, Passover is over, and I thought we would go back to our Acts series after the Festival. However, since Shavuot is coming in just a few weeks – and I can never miss this biblical Festival either – I decided that we would go back to Acts after Shavuot. Meanwhile, we will continue with the topic that I started in my last article – “Isaac and Ishmael”.  As some of you may know, this theme is very special for me, and I would like to show that, not only is the theme itself greatly overlooked but that everything this is connected to, has been largely misinterpreted. My main mission here still remains the same: together, we will reread and reinterpret some pieces of Scripture!

Paul’s Allegory

Does the New Testament say anything about Isaac and Ishmael? The only place in the New Testament that refers to Abraham’s sons is the allegorical interpretation of the story of Isaac and Ishmael found in the fourth chapter of Paul’s Epistle to Galatians. Undoubtedly, it is a very difficult section, and some New Testament commentators actually state that “in all of the New Testament, there is perhaps not a more difficult passage to interpret.”[1] But before we begin to deal with the commentaries, let us read the passage of Scripture itself.

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 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. For it is written:

“Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear!
Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor!
For the desolate has many more children
Than she who has a husband.”

 Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.[2]

Even a cursory reading of this text makes it clear that Paul’s allegorical interpretation is an extremely complex one. The text seems to link the laws of the Torah given on Mount Sinai, as well as “Jerusalem which now is,” to bondage, implying that it was signified by Hagar’s condition as a bondwoman, while the “free” heavenly Jerusalem is signified by the free Sarah and her child. One can imagine that this interpretation would have come as a complete shock to all the Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus); to all those who had been raised on Torah and had known the stories of Genesis from childhood. How can Paul make Hagar = “Mount Sinai” and Sinai = “the present Jerusalem” equations, in the face of the fundamental Jewish conviction that the Mosaic Law was given to the descendants of Isaac at Mount Sinai and had nothing to do with Hagar?[3] I can imagine some of them actually asking this question, and perhaps some still ask the same question today. It is no wonder that “this passage has often been used to accuse Paul of twisting and distorting Scripture.”[4] The gap between traditional Jewish understanding and Paul’s allegory seems huge: it seemed huge even in the first century and has been growing larger ever since, having taken on a life of its own during the two millennia-old Christian traditions.
For centuries, traditional Christian interpretation has read Paul’s text as an allegory of the difference between law and grace – or between Jews and Christians. The Church has always seen the primary purpose of this allegory as identifying the Galatian Christians, and Christians as a whole, as the true children of Abraham and Sarah—the children of freedom, the children of promise—whereas Hagar represents the covenant made at Sinai and the Jewish people as “children born of slavery”.

Starting with this allegory, the figures of Sarah and Isaac, originally the very symbols of the Jewish people, the very foundation of the identity of Israel as a people set apart, were gradually claimed by Christians as their own symbols. They became equated with the promise that included the blessing of Abraham[5] for the Gentiles: that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith,[6] whereas Hagar became a symbol of the covenant at Mount Sinai. By the third century, in Christian literature, “Hagar” and “Sarah” became code words for “synagogue” and “church,” respectively. For instance, Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) claims that the Jews, contrary to their claim, descend from Hagar, while the Christians are the true “seed of Abraham”.

I have to admit that for a long time, I myself wrestled with this passage of Scripture. How could Paul, himself a Jew, use such strong anti-Jewish rhetoric? It seems that the only way we can make real sense of this text is to try to understand what Paul originally meant. What did he want his readers to understand? In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (the Chronicles of Narnia), when the old professor responds in a completely unexpected way to children seeking his advice, he says, looking at their stunned faces: “Logic! …Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”[7] I would repeat the same thing here. We have only two possibilities: Either Paul contradicts the Word of God, or the traditional reading of this text is wrong. We know that the Word of God cannot contradict itself, hence, our only option here is to admit that the traditional interpretation may be wrong. Was the original meaning of the text very different from its meaning in today’s Christian tradition? Next time, we will try to understand together what Paul originally meant with his words.

 

 

[1] InterVarsity Press New Testament Commentaries: Galatians 4

[2] Galatians 4:21-31

[3] Ibid.

[4] InterVarsity Press New Testament Commentaries: Galatians 4

[5] Galatians 3:14

[6] Ibid.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, ch.5

 

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 discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI 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. Justin

    I’ve struggled with this very passage ever since I became a Jesus follower. I am so looking forward to the next piece. Thank you and blessings to you Julia!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your comment, Justin. Yes, I know, many people have struggled with this passage, that’s why I really felt that it was an important theme to discuss.

  2. Nick

    So, no doubt, replacement theology gains credence with the traditional interpretation of this passage.
    Looking forward to next week!
    Thanks Julia,
    Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      Absolutely! The traditional interpretation of this passage became one of the pillars of the replacement theology – that’s why it’s so important to restore the correct and original interpretation!

  3. Francois Aerts

    Shalom Julia, I have the conviction that the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Torah (& Tanach) has resulted in a rigid framework of Laws, written or oral, that does not allow sufficient space for alternative interpretation, and for that reason the Covenant of Mount Sinai gives birth to bondage. F.i. because “someone who dies on a beam is a cursed man”, thus this man cannot be the (Suffering) Messiah. I am convinced that the Yeshua-mission is one of the possible interpretations of the Tanach, but the rigid framework of jewish Law does not allow for that interpretation. In the heavenly Yerushalayim, the spirits will be free of bondage by the misinterpreted Law ( and i don’t reject the Law, because Yeshua came to make it PERFECT.). Amen.

    1. Julia Blum

      Shalom Francois, it’s good to hear from you! In a sense, I might agree with you regarding the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Torah (& Tanach): indeed, it “has resulted in a rigid framework of Laws, written or oral, that does not allow sufficient space for alternative interpretation” (although there are many alternative interpretations within Judaism, you are definitely familiar with 70 faces of the Torah concept). The problem is, however, that the traditional Christian interpretation of the Torah, Tanach, and New Testament, has also “resulted in a rigid framework of Laws” and beliefs and “does not allow sufficient space for alternative interpretations” either – as we can see from the traditional interpretation of this particular passage of Paul. In my next article, I will try to show “the alternative interpretation” of Paul’s words – and I really hope that the readers raised on the traditional interpretation, will be open to this one!