Home > Biblical Theology > Isaac and Ishmael: Paul’s Use of Allegory in Galatians 4

Isaac and Ishmael: Paul’s Use of Allegory in Galatians 4

I have been puzzled by Paul's allegorical use of the Isaac and Ishmael storyThere are a lot of passages in scripture that have puzzled me.

Perhaps the most puzzling is Paul’s allegorical use of the story of Isaac and Ishmael in Galatians 4.

Paul’s goal in the letter is to convince the Gentiles that gentile converts did not need to be circumcised. His opponents have been arguing strongly that they do.

Here is the argument that Paul uses in Galatians 4.21-31:

21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.

24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; For more numerous are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband.” (Isaiah 54.1)

28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” (Gen 21.10-12) 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.

Would that convince you? Paul pulls out a random story from the Penteteuch, reads a foreign and arbitrary meaning into it, and then expects that his critics will buy it? I don’t think so.

“You who want to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” Oh sure, all they need to do is re-read the passage about Isaac and Ishmael and they will suddenly understand that gentiles don’t need to be circumcised. No, I don’t think so.

If you have read this passage in the past and it has never bothered you, I want to suggest that perhaps you are not taking your Bible seriously enough.

Inadequate explanations

Has Paul distorted scripture and gotten away with it? Is he asserting some apostolic right to read into the scriptures any interpretation he feels the Holy Spirit has shown him? Some interpreters have given up and accepted that he did.

Other commentators speculate that perhaps Paul’s opponents were using the Sarah-Hagar story in their own rhetoric, and Paul is attempting to turn their own logic back at them. If so, he did a lousy job. Using an allegory to try to convince someone who disagrees is a stupid argument.

I have come to think there is a better explanation.

Context, context, context

We must start by recounting Paul’s argument so far, beginning back in 3.6. He has been arguing that those who have faith are Abraham’s true descendants according to the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12. They are therefore no longer slaves, but are now Abraham’s heirs.

Here are the relevant verses leading up to our passage:

3.7 – Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
3.9 – So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
3.14 – …in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
3.29 – And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
4.7 – Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

So what’s going on in this passage?

The first thing to notice is that the use of Isaac and Ishmael is not a “random story,” as I suggested above. Paul has been talking about being Abraham’s true descendants. This story is about Abraham’s first descendants. Isaac and Ishmael literally embodied the point Paul was making. Isaac was born in accordance with the promise of Genesis 12; Ishmael wasn’t. What happened to Isaac is paradigmatic for what it means to be Abraham’s descendant by faith through the promise.

The second thing to notice is that, in typical Pauline style, he states his conclusion at the beginning of the passage, and then jumps back to show the logic that leads to the conclusion. In this case, his summary statement (v.21) is, “Do you not listen to the law?” The only quotation from the law (the Penteteuch) will not come until the end of the passage (v.30): “Cast out the bondwoman and her son. For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”

The argument is that Abraham’s children are not all Abraham’s heirs – only the sons of the promise are heirs. Paul uses this verse to confirm the argument he has been making thus far. It is theologically relevant to his overall argument.  Believers are brothers with Isaac in some true sense that is not merely metaphorical (v.28). Just as Paul applies Abraham’s blessing to believers (3.9), so he also applies Isaac’s promise to believers.

But there is still the question of the gap between v.21 and v.28. Why didn’t he go straight to this verse? Why digress into a discussion of Sarah and Hagar? And why complicate it by saying they are allegorical?

Changing perspective

The answer, I believe, is best found by starting at the end of the passage and tracing Paul’s logic backwards.

The first clue is to notice that Paul has altered the Genesis quotation in v.30 by replacing the phrase “my son Isaac,” with “the son of the free woman.” Of course this does not change the sense of the passage, since both phrases refer to the same person, Isaac. But Paul uses the new vocabulary to draw out the implicit dichotomy between bondslave and free. The language of “bondslave” in reference to Hagar was already explicit in the Genesis text.

The dichotomy between slave and free is exactly the theme he has been discussing until this point in the letter. But Genesis 21.10 introduces a new element into Paul’s discussion – two mothers. So before he can give the quotation, he must first set up the significance of the mothers for Abraham’s heirs. After all, believers may be Isaac’s brothers, but they are not Sarah’s sons. This part of the verse would be meaningless in the Galatian’s context – unless Paul can find a valid scriptural interpretation of the mother that applies theologically to believers.

What does Isaiah have to say about it?

Paul finds just such an interpretation in Isaiah 54.1 (v.27), where Jerusalem is depicted as a barren woman who suddenly has numerous children. This provides Paul with theological grounds for associating “the free woman” with “Jerusalem” in reference to believers.

But everybody knows that gentile believers are not accepted by the Jews in Jerusalem. So before he can introduce the Isaiah passage, he must make one more move. Paul looks to Jewish theology that says that the earthly temple is a copy of the heavenly temple (cf. Ex 25.12, Is 6), and thus the earthly Jerusalem is a copy of the heavenly Jerusalem. He calls them the “Now-Jerusalem,” (Νυν Ἰερουσαλήμ) and the “Above-Jerusalem,” (Ἄνω Ἰερουσαλήμ). So he explicitly links the bondwoman with the earthly Jerusalem and the free woman with the heavenly Jerusalem (v.25-6).

At the same time, he ties all of this back to his argument in chapter 2, that Abraham and Moses represent two covenants (v.24). Notice that this is not a contrast between a new and an old covenant, since Abraham’s covenant of faith is older than the Mosaic covenant.


The important thing to recognize is that every logical move makes is theologically justified, either by (a) the argument he has already made in the earlier part of the letter, or (b) interpretations made by the prophets, specifically Isaiah. But while it is theologically justified, it is not textually justified by the Genesis text alone. Paul is aware that his argument is not exegetically sound apart from the theological argument. Thus he introduces this section of Galatians (v.24) by declaring that he has allegorized (ἀλληγορούμενα) the account.

So Galatians 4.21-31 is allegory but it is not fanciful allegory. It is an interpretation that is theologically warranted by an intertextual reading of scripture. Paul was merely drawing out implications which were inherent in the Old Testament itself. It is not the stupid argument I once thought it to be.

  1. fred
    August 29, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    Paul (who was called a liar in the dead sea scrolls) was just answering his enemies aka the true followers of Jesus aka James who were telling them to stop lying and that the last prophet will be an Ishmaelite aka Mohammed as prophesied and as described in the quran.

  2. August 6, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Very simple, because it IS an allegory.

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