On a Limb

In Galatians 4: 21 – 31, Paul raises this issue: who is a child of Abraham? If you read this passage quickly, at a surface glance he is comparing the free child and a slave child to someone born according to promise and someone born “according to the flesh.” Two mothers, two different covenants. In other words, Sarah is good, Hagar is bad.

Looking at this passage carefully, I am not so sure this contrast between Sarah and Hagar, and their children, is what Paul is getting at. I’ve read this passage dozens of times, and I thought I understood the general thrust of Paul’s point.

But here’s the problem: Scripture gets you like that. It’s like a cut fastball in baseball, which looks like it is coming straight at you, but then breaks at the end.

The problem here, for me at least, is that I checked up on Paul’s reference in 4.29. Go back to Genesis, to which this verse refers, and see if the two match up. They don’t. Genesis 21. 9 – 12 does not deal with a child persecuting another child. So, was Paul reading something in the Bible that isn’t there, was he making something up, or have we just been dealt a cut fastball?

I’ll go out on a limb here, I admit, and try to make sense of this passage.

First, a recap. As we saw in Whose Story is It? Ishmael is conceived and born according to the manipulations of Sarah. She has Abraham be with her slave-girl Hagar to produce a child. She attempts to hijack God’s plan and control it. Ishmael is the child born out of this attempt.

Isaac’s conception comes from God, but to to be clear, he is not the result of Abraham and Sarah’s efforts. He is born to Sarah, and is acknowledged as Abraham’s son because he was promised by God and because he was born into Abraham’s house. God’s purpose is still fulfilled, in spite of Sarah’s efforts.

Yes, both children were born into Abraham’s house, and they are both his.

In Genesis 21. 9 – 12, we encounter a situation where Ishmael, the biological son of Hagar and Abraham, is playing with Isaac, the child of promise. All Genesis says is that Ishmael was playing. That’s it. There is nothing there about persecution.

Sarah wants Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, because she is jealous of Ishmael and wants her son Isaac to be “the one.” She gets her way; God intervenes and calls on Abraham to listen to the voice of his wife. Hagar and Ishmael leave the home, but they never leave the household of Abraham.

What just happened?

Well, Ishmael’s descendants, too, can become children of Abraham, whether or not they physically live in the same home. Ishmael’s descendants will eventually become part of the nations who will be called to become precisely those children. In this way, God’s purpose is fulfilled, regardless of what Sarah wants.

But why does Paul mention persecution in Galatians 4. 29 when this isn’t mentioned at all in Genesis? It’s just two boys playing.

I think what is happening is that Paul is drawing our attention to Sarah as the constant in both these births. It is her manipulations that led to Ishamel’s birth and exile, but it is also her failure that showed how God’s will cannot be thwarted by humans.

So, it is Sarah who is the one doing the persecuting. She persecutes Hagar and Ishmael. It is also Sarah who, without realizing it, shows how God’s will and purpose will prosper no matter the will of man.

Sarah is, therefore, a metaphor in many ways. She can be the one who persecutes; she can be the one tries to outdo God and control His will. As the master of a slave woman, she can be cruel to another human being.

The free woman to which Paul refers in 4.23 is therefore not Sarah. He does not name Sarah at all in Galatians 4. 21 – 31. The free woman of Galatians is the New Jerusalem, out of which the Spirit comes.

Therefore, the path between the will of the flesh (i.e., our will) and that of God wholly resides with us. What direction will our life take? I think this is part of what Saint Paul was getting at. I also think he is saying that even the children of slavery can become free children, full members of the household of God. Your path is not predetermined. All it takes is to be born according to the Spirit, whoever you are, whatever your social status, and wherever you may live.

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