Abraham had Two Sons,
Ishma’el by the Slave Woman
and Isaac by the Free Woman
DIG: What is a Midrash? Why and how did Paul use it here? What does this parable have to do with the Judaizers? How are the Judaizers like Ishmael? What is Paul pointing to when he talks about the weak and worthless principles? Does Paul’s parable bad mouth Hagar or picture the Torah as bad in any way? How are the spiritual descendants of Sarah distinguished from Hagar’s? What was the promise? How did ADONAI fulfill His promise? Can you summarize the parable?
REFLECT: Can you identify with Sarah in any way? If you can, how does her experience comfort and excite you? Has your experience as a believer been more of a growing into freedom or living under a set of rules? Why? Has your joy in Messiah ever been crushed by someone else who thought you were breaking their set of rules? Have you ever imposed standards on others that limited their freedom? How so? What difference will the fact of your justification in the eyes of ADONAI and the fullness of the indwelling Ruach ha-Kodesh make in your life and witness this week? How often do you ask, “What does the Scripture say?” You can’t ask that question enough.
The parable of Hagar and Sarah illustrates the present status of legalism and grace. You can’t press the details of a parable, which makes one main point: As the son of the slave woman gave way to the son of a free woman, so legalism has given way to grace.
In a masterful stroke, the apostle turned to a scriptural illustration to conclude his theological defense of justification by faith. Paul’s Midrash (a rabbinic interpretation of the Scriptures) from the life of Abraham enabled him to review what he had already declared about the contrasts between legalism and grace, between deeds and faith. It also provided him the opportunity to verbalize to the Galatian believers that they should throw out the Judaizers (to see link click Ag – Who Were the Judaizers).119
The preface to Paul’s Midrash begins with the provocative: Tell me, you who want to be under Torah, don’t you understand the Torah? (Galatians 4:21; Deuteronomy 6:4, 18:15; Exodus 24:7). When Paul uses the phrase under the Torah, he means a Gentile becoming a proselyte and converting to Judaism, and in the context of the Judaizers, through circumcision (see the commentary on Acts Bb – An Ethiopian Asks about Isaiah 53: The third level were Proselytes of the Covenant). It was as if Paul was saying, “You want to be a proselyte? You don’t know what it says in the Torah!” Then Paul offers us a brief parable in which he briefly retells the story of Abraham’s two wives (Sarah and Hagar) and his two sons (Isaac and Ishmael).
Paul used the story of Isaac and Ishmael to illustrate two different types of benei Abraham (sons of Abraham). He was not contrasting Jews and Christians, nor was he contrasting Jews and Gentiles. Instead, he used the Isaac and Ishmael story to contrast two different types of covenants, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and one by the free woman” (Galatians 4:22; Genesis 16:15 and 21:2).
Hagar was a slave woman. She was Sarah’s maidservant (see the commentary on Genesis Ei – Sarai Took Hagar and Gave Her to Abram to be His Wife). But one – the son by the slave woman – was born naturally, while the other – the son by the free woman – was through the promise (4:23). Abraham went to Hagar, attempting to fulfill God’s promise by himself. Therefore, Ishmael was born in the normal, natural way: by human, physical means, according to the flesh.
Abraham and Sarah, however, conceived Isaac through a supernatural miracle because Sarah was well past childbearing age. The promise would be fulfilled through Isaac, the son of promise. What was that promise? God promised to give Abraham seed (see the commentary on Genesis Et – I Will Surely Return This Time Next Year and Sarah Your Wife Will Have a Son). Paul has brought up the promise several times in Galatians already. He dedicated most of the third chapter to the subject and equated it with the whole gospel message: The Scriptures, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, proclaimed the Good News to Abraham in advance, saying: All the nations shall be blessed through you (Galatians 3:8). And again: Now, the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his Seed. It doesn’t say, “and to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “and to your Seed,” who is the Messiah (3:16). The promise was that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham’s Seed, the Messiah.
Now, to make [a midrash] on these things, the two women need to be seen as two covenants (4:24 CJB). The midrash contrasts two types of benei Abraham, or two types of proselytes. The Hebrew word midrash means study or interpretation. It comes from lidrosh, meaning to search. Most of the midrashic literature brings out ethical and devotional aspects of the Bible, sometimes drawing out and applying what is clearly there, and sometimes imposing meaning on the texts, although the norm in Judaism is not to make a midrash that violates the simple sense (Hebrew: p’shat) of the text. Here, Paul’s midrash goes beyond the p’shat of the Genesis texts, though without violating them. His application of them is bold, even shocking. For although the Judaizers claim physical descent from Sarah, Paul calls them physical descendents of Hagar. Revelation 11:8 has an equally surprising reversal of traditional Jewish identifications, but such shocking reversals are not limited to the B’rit Chadashah (see Ezeki’el 23-24, and Hosea 1-2 for comparable examples in the TaNaKh). The two women need to be seen as two covenants.
One is from Mount Sinai, the Torah of Moshe, and it gives birth to slavery, but not because the Torah is bad (for nowhere does the Genesis account badmouth Hagar); therefore, there is no need to demean the Torah on the basis of this passage. But this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem (that is, the non-Messianic Jewish community of the first century); for she is in slavery, to be enslaved by the weak and worthless principles (4:9) of legalism, because the people had perverted the Torah into a legalistic system of salvation through deeds (see the commentary on The Life of Christ Ei – The Oral Law). It was the Judaizers who insisted that the Gentile Galatians follow those same weak and worthless principles. Therefore, Hagar, the present Jerusalem, or legalism, gives birth to slavery, along with her children, the Judaizers (4:24-25).120
Paul likened the Gentile Galatians who underwent circumcision and pledged to obey the 613 commandments of Moshe to Ishmael. They had set aside the promise that God made to Abraham as a result of his faith – all the nations will be blessed through your seed. They forfeited that promise by being born according to the flesh – literally, circumcision, the removal of some flesh – the natural way of becoming part of Abraham’s family. The Judaizers wanted them to work their way to heaven. But that is the ultimate frustration because you can never reach perfection in this life. That is the first perverted covenant of legalism.
To establish his midrash, Paul quoted a proof text from Isaiah 54, a prophecy addressed to the city of Jerusalem which predicts the final Messianic Redemption, the ingathering, the building of Messianic Jerusalem, and the advent of the New Jerusalem in the world to come (see the commentary on Revelation Fs – The Eternal New Jerusalem). That prophecy depicts ruined Jerusalem as a barren woman because her children had gone into exile. At the time of the redemption, she realizes she has more children than she thought possible. The Jewish people return to her, and many Gentiles come as well. The rabbis interpreted the barren woman of Isaiah 54 as Sarah, the barren one who became the mother of the nation. Paul followed that traditional interpretation, by making Sarah symbolic for the New Jerusalem, and he proved it by quoting the first verse of Isaiah 54. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren woman who bears no children! Break forth and shout, you who suffer no labor pains! For more are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband” (Galatians 4:27; Isaiah 54:1).
Next, Paul supplies the climax to 4:1-11 (see Bo – When the Fullness of Time Came, God Send Out His Son), where he has demonstrated that the Gentile Galatian believers have become God’s heirs through grace, apart from the weak and worthless principles of legalism. This brings Paul back full circle to his central argument concerning Jewish identity: Your seed shall be called through Isaac. That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of god; rather, the children of promise are counted as seed (Romans 9:7-8).121 Paul told the Galatian Gentile believers: Now you, brothers and sisters – like Isaac, you are children of promise (4:28). He contrasts them with the Judaizers. To Paul, the Galatian Gentile believers were the children of promise that God made to Abraham when He said: All nations will be blessed through your seed (Genesis 12:3b). That is the second covenant of grace.
But the Jerusalem above, corresponding to Sarah, is free – she is our mother (4:26), the mother of all who have the faith of Abraham and Yeshua (2:16c), whether Messianic Jews or Messianic Gentiles. Ultimately, the heavenly Jerusalem will descend from heaven to the earth, which will have been made new (Revelation 21:5), to serve as the perfect home for the redeemed throughout human history (see the commentary on Revelation Fs – The Eternal New Jerusalem).122
Paul took the analogy a step further and said: But just as at that time the one born according to the flesh persecuted the one born according to the Ruach, so also it is now (4:29). When did the one born according to the flesh (Ishmael) persecute the one born according to the Ruach (Isaac)? As Moshe describes: The child grew and was weaned – Abraham made a big feast on the day Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian whom she had born to Abraham – making fun (Hebrew: from tsachaq). So, she said to Abraham, “Drive out this female slave and her son, for the son of this female slave will not be an heir with my son – with Isaac” (Genesis 21:8-10, for more detail see the commentary on Genesis Fj – Hagar and Ishmael Are Sent Away).
While the practical application relates to the Galatians’ immediate circumstances, it is based on several midrashim to mean that Abraham’s natural son of the flesh (Ishmael) behaved maliciously and immorally towards the son of promise (Isaac). Thus, rabbi Akiba lectured: But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian whom she had born to Abraham – making fun (Genesis 21:9). Now making fun refers to nothing else by immorality, as with Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: The Hebrew slave you brought to us came to make a fool (Hebrew: from tsachaq) of me” (Genesis 39:17 CSB). Thus, this teaches that Sarah saw Ishmael rape young women, seduce married women and dishonor them. Rabbi Ishmael taught this term making sport refers to idolatry when the golden calf was formed: They rose up the next morning, sacrificed burnt offerings and brought fellowship offerings. The people sat down to eat and drink, and got up to party (Hebrew: from tsachaq) (Exodus 32:6 CSB). This teaches that Sarah saw Ishmael build altars, catch locusts and sacrifice them. Rabbi Eleazar said that the term fight refers to bloodshed, as in the verse: Then Abner said to Joab, “Let’s have some of the young men get up and fight (Hebrew: sachaq, meaning sport and in this context meant to wrestle hand to hand) in front of us” (Second Samuel 2:14). Rabbi Azariah said in Rabbi Levi’s name, “Ishmael said to Isaac, ‘Let us go and see our portions in the field,” then Ishmael would take a bow and arrow and shoot them in Isaac’s direction, while pretending to be playing. This is written: Like a madman shooting deadly arrows so is one who deceives his friend, and says, “I was only joking” (Hebrew: sachaq, meaning sport and in this context means playing around (Proverbs 26:18-19). But I say, this term sport [mockery] refers to inheritance. For when our father Isaac was born all rejoiced, but Ishmael said to them, “You are fools, for I am the firstborn and I receive a double portion.” You may infer this from Sarah’s protest to Abraham: Drive out this female slave and her son, for the son of this female slave will not be an heir with my son (Genesis 21:10) (Genesis Rabbah 53:11).123 Therefore, as Ishmael acted maliciously and immorally toward Isaac, the Judaizers were acting maliciously and immorally toward the Gentile believers in Galatia.
And the Judaizers, who were behaving just like Ishmael, needed to have their claims rebutted. Just as Sarah had Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, Paul urged the Galatian Gentile believers to reject the pressure and persuasion of the Judaizers. He preached: But what does the Scripture say? What is the truth of God’s Word? “Drive out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit eternal life with the son of promise, Isaac, born of the free woman, Sarah.” They had not lost their salvation, and Paul identified them as benei Abraham. So then, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, legalism, but of the free woman, grace (4:30-31).
Legalism and grace cannot coexist. But understand this. There is nothing legalistic or wrong with living a life based upon the teachings of God’s Word. There is nothing wrong with having a set of standards with which you live your life. That is not legalism. Legalism is when you think that’s what saves you. When you think that by your “being good,” or by you “keeping the rules,” will save you, you’re lost. We need to live godly lives, but that doesn’t save us; we live that way because we have been saved.
Summary of the parable: The passage contrasts two types of proselytes: the legal proselyte and the spiritual proselyte. The one becomes part of Abraham’s family by legalism, the other through faith in Messiah, the promised Seed of Abraham, in whom all nations will find blessing. The passage does not contrast the Torah against the B’rit Chadashah. It does not equate Judaism and the Torah with slavery, nor does it pit Christians against Jews.
It means that if you are a Jewish believer, you should be proud of being Jewish because you are a child of Abraham, legally, physically, and spiritually. It means that if you are a Gentile believer, you, too, are a part of the people, the spiritual child of Abraham, and this is remarkable – miraculous even. You are a child of the promise that ADONAI made to Abraham so long ago.124
Dear Heavenly Father, How much we love You and are so grateful that Your love includes both Jews and Gentiles as Your children in the Kingdom of Your Son (Colossians 1:13). Praise You that in the genealogy of Your Son, you included Gentile women -Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah’s wife (Matthew 1:3-6).
Praise Your wonderful heart that by the blood of the Messiah you were able to create within Himself one new man from the two groups, making shalom, and to reconcile both to God in one body through the cross (Ephesians 2:13c and 16a).
Praise You that by reconciling us to the Father we now have access to Him! For through Him we both have access to the Father by the same Ruach. Also, you say that we are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:18-19).
Wow – reconciled, access to the Father, fellow citizens and then you cap it off by including the Ruach in both Jew and Gentile! In Him, you also are being built together into God’s dwelling place in the Ruach. (Ephesians 2:22). After you heard the message of truth – the Good News of your salvation – and when you put your trust in Him, you were sealed with the promised Ruach ha-Kodesh (Ephesians 1:13).We desire to respond to Your gracious offer of love by offering to you ourselves our bodies (Romans 12:1) our thoughts, our time, money and everything that we can possibly give You. We joyously place our lives humbly in Your hands, for You to use for Your honor. In the name of Your Holy Son and by the power of His resurrection. Amen