These Women are Two Covenants
FEBRUARY 9, 2021
Galatians 4:21-26, Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?
For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.
Paul loved his churches. One of the more notable demonstrations of his love — which may feel somewhat counter-intuitive — is the (loving) anger he expresses in his letter to the churches in Galatia. He exhibits a jealous, christ-like, husband-like love for them, as another, more seductive theology starts to flirt with them, namely, a false gospel that blended grace with the works of our hands.
Wait, what Bible story are you referencing here?
In the letter, he calls them out: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” which is another way of saying the Old Testament itself taught that it was coming to an end. But where exactly does it say this? Interestingly, he doesn’t quote from a place that explicitly predicts the coming new covenant (like, say, in Jeremiah 31:31) but goes all the way back to Genesis 16 and 21. He says, “Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. The son of the slave [Ishmael] was born according to the flesh [or, by human effort, and by adultery], while the son of the free [Isaac] was born through promise [or, by the works of God’s hands alone, apart from human effort, and through his wife].” A little background here: it’s important to remember that Abraham’s wife Sarah was 90 years old and barren at the time Isaac was conceived in her. It was impossible for her to conceive, that is until God caused her to. To all of this, Paul adds one of the more helpfully interpretational comments (and invitations) in the entire New Testament: “This may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants.”
That statement should make the earth shake beneath our understanding of the Bible. If we are concerned with how the Bible reads itself and seek not to impose our own interpretational grids over it, then we must resign ourselves to the allegorical and symbolic readings the Bible itself utilizes. And, we must see how important the theme of two covenants is to the entire biblical storyline.
In Galatians 4 (and, shockingly, Genesis 21!), the two covenants (or testaments) of the Bible are symbolically juxtaposed, ordered, and contrasted. They are juxtaposed in that Ishmael and Isaac are brothers. They are ordered in that Ishmael comes first, then Isaac comes second (more on that later). Then they are contrasted in that Ishmael and Isaac have different mothers. They are different people altogether. And they are associated with different promises and futures.
The theology is in the differences
The big “so what,” then, for Paul has to do with how the boys differ. Ishmael was associated with slavery, like his mother Hagar (who was an actual slave), and like those desiring to be under the impossible-to-keep demands and conditions of the moral law in the first century and today. Isaac, however, was associated with freedom and born miraculously through an actual marriage. And it’s Isaac who would become the genealogical line that Jesus would one day come through, the line of “God does everything; we do nothing.” In other words, Isaac is not an extension of Ishmael, nor a better version of him, just like the New Testament is not a different expression or version of the Old. Again, the point is in the differences: one was born by works, one by grace. In his initial adulterous mistake, Abraham, because he believed Sarah could not conceive, said to God, “Look what I’ve done in making Ishmael with another woman! Now you can bless the world through him! You’re welcome!” And the reality is that this is not any different from a Christian today, or in Paul’s day, who devolves into believing that we cooperate with God when it comes to salvation as if God’s promise (or his gospel) is not sufficient.
Another part of this has to do with order. Ishmael came first, then Isaac second, just like the Old Testament and the law-covenant came first, then the New Testament and the grace-covenant came second. We see this elsewhere in the Bible, too. A few examples would be the movement in the narrative from Cain (who lived by the works of his hands) to Abel (who had faith), from Ham (who exposed Noah’s nakedness like the law exposes our sin) to Shem (who covers Noah’s shame like grace), and from Rachel (who Jacob worked for) to Leah (who was given apart from work). It can also be seen in things like the movement from law to Jesus we see in Psalm 1 to Psalm 2, or the movement from covering ourselves with loincloths to God making animal skins by the works of his hands alone in Genesis 3, or from a physical circumcision made with human hands to a spiritual circumcision made by God’s hands (Col. 2:11). Can you hear Paul’s Galatians-4-words echo here? “These brothers are two covenants! These wives are two covenants! These psalms are two covenants! These clothings are two covenants! These circumcisions are two covenants!” We’re just scratching the surface. But don’t miss this: the lesser always gives way to the greater. Works always give way to grace, just like the Old Testament gives way to the New. And in the end, one thing we notice when looking for this pattern is just how common it is, and therefore how central it is to understanding the Bible.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say the very nature of the gospel itself is at stake. Is there one covenant in the Bible with different expressions that still allows for some semblance of old covenant, principle-based, law-observing-living to continue on today (just in a “redeemed way,” some might say)? Or are there two completely distinct covenants, one based on law and one based on Jesus? The Bible’s answer is the latter: Genesis is not the story of one wife or better yet one boy who “matures” (in his ability to keep God’s laws), but of two distinct boys with different mothers, one born by works one born by grace, who represent different ways of relating with God.
Jesus changes the rules
Good Galatians 4 theology helps drown out the voices who say, “Jesus is a start, but you are now obligated to keep God’s commandments in order to stay saved,” or “Your free spirituality is too simple; you need to do more!” Jesus changes the rules. We are sons and daughters of the free woman, like Isaac, who were miraculously (re)born and set free from our sins by the works of the nail-pierced hands of Jesus Christ alone.
And ultimately, the gospel works good in us in a way the law never could. Law doesn’t breed love. Only love breeds love. It reminds me of an early interaction in the first Harry Potter book between Hermione, a mountain troll, and Harry and Ron: “Hermione had become a bit more relaxed about breaking the rules since Harry and Ron had saved her from the mountain troll, and she was much nicer for it” (Sorcerer’s Stone, pg. 181). That’s great New Testament theology right there. Salvation leads us away from “the rules” to a place of rest, love, and simply getting over ourselves. This is why Paul later concludes: “Cast out the slave woman with her son!” (Gal. 4:30); that is, cast out what they represent, which is the law! — not just because he wants a pure gospel for the church, but he wants to see actual life change in them. And life change comes from the Spirit. It comes from constant orientation to and trust in Jesus’s bloody cross and glaringly empty tomb where he loved us to the uttermost, where he slew the mountain troll of sin and death for us, apart from our good works, forever.