In order to read Paul’s allegory in the way it has been read for centuries by the Church, some beliefs had to be presupposed: First, Ishmael was just a byproduct on the way to Isaac, and only Isaac was essential in God’s plan; secondly, the Sinai Covenant (and Old Testament) was just a byproduct on the way to the New Covenant, and only the New Covenant was essential in God’s plan. In this scenario, Galatians 4 can really be read as an allegory of bad and good—as an equation where the byproducts all point only to the final, essential parts. This two-dimensional, linear, reading sees only two parallel lines in Paul’s text: the Ishmael–Isaac line and the Sinai Covenant/New Covenant line, where the latter and better parts replace the former “imperfect” ones. Sadly, many traditional Christian commentators throughout history have read these verses in precisely such a way, using this allegory as a “biblical” means of rejecting the importance of the Sinai covenant, Torah, and Israel.
Yet, we can’t ignore Paul’s text, even though it is not an easy one. We need to understand exactly what Paul meant by it and not be discouraged or misled by traditional Christian interpretation. Yes, it has been read and interpreted wrongly for centuries, but there are many verses in Scripture that have been read and interpreted wrongly for centuries, and we cannot ignore them or fear them simply because of this centuries-long misinterpretation. It is time to restore the original interpretation—it is time for a paradigm shift.
Personally, I believe there is much more to this passage than a simple two-dimensional allegory, as the Church has commonly viewed it. Let’s turn to an analogy from geometry: try placing a three-dimensional figure on a flat surface – lumpy and bulging, it will never be able to shed the additional dimension. Of course, this analogy is limited: it’s impossible to compare a revelation from the living God to a lifeless geometric figure. Yet, it gives us a glimpse of this ‘additional’ dimension which is always present when comparing the revelations of God with the logic of men. It gives us a sense of the multi-dimensional character of God’s truths, which can only be confined to the flat and two-dimensional plane of our understanding in such a way that renders them devoid of their original volume.
I think this has been the main problem with this text all along: Although all Scripture undoubtedly has additional ‘dimensions’ beyond our human reading and comprehension, some especially significant and prophetic pieces just refuse to fit into two-dimensional human interpretation, and therefore cannot be understood without revelation. Paul’s allegory is one such text. That is why we need to approach it with awe and humility—seeking to restore the original dimensions, volume, and meaning that the Lord intended to be there in the first place.
It’s like seeing a hologram instead of drawing. First, you are absolutely overwhelmed with this additional dimension, this unexpected and surprising depth in something that you expected to see as flat and two-dimensional. Then, gradually you begin to distinguish the details that you never knew were there. And if, instead of a flat linear comparison between the sons and the covenants—where “the better son” replaces the first one, and “the better covenant” replaces the old one—we begin to perceive a multi-dimensional piece of God’s revelation, we have to be very careful in order not to devoid it of its original volume, and in order to distinguish the details!
Paul opens his text with the statement: “Abraham had two sons.” We have every reason to believe that this statement is extremely important to him—and to God. Once again, we need a paradigm shift here. There are two columns in this allegory. Therefore, we need to see a dual pattern in this text, which is completely different from the traditional parallel linear reading we just spoke about (where “the better son” replaces the first one, and “the better covenant” replaces the old one). Imagine a family tree with two lines coming down from the father: The different sons have different families, and each should be presented as a separate branch of this tree. In no family tree would one son replace the other. The same is true here: Abraham’s two sons have two completely different families and destinies, and the family tree, with its two branches, reflects this—but it still has to have two branches, not one!
Yes, Abraham had two sons, therefore, God’s plan cannot include only one. The prophetic picture would not be complete if there were only one son. Any picture of God’s plan for humanity is one-sided and incomplete if Ishmael and his descendants are not part of the picture. The same is true of the covenants: They both belong in the picture of God’s plan, just as both sons belong in Abraham’s family tree. We cannot see it if we read Paul’s text as just a linear and progressive comparison. However, once we restore the original meaning and the original volume, once we change the paradigm, and once we see a hologram and not a drawing, we can recognize that both sons are there, and both covenants are also there.
Indeed, we must be very clear regarding the objective of Paul’s allegory: He is trying to explain to his readers (mostly Gentiles, but also some Jewish believers) the relationship between the two covenants, not the relationship between Sarah and Hagar or Isaac and Ishmael. The personages from Genesis are just symbols for Paul. They are the constants in the equation he is building; the unknown in this equation is the relationship between the covenants. However, today we were able to establish the fact that Paul’s allegory has two columns: just as Abraham had two sons, and one does not replace the other, the same is true of the covenants—there are two covenants, but the latter does not replace the former. Next time, we will try to answer some difficult questions raised by this text: for example, why and how does Hagar symbolize the Sinai Covenant? And, are there any hints in the Hagar/Ishmael story that allude to Paul’s allegory?
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
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