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An Exegetical Examination of Galatians 4.21-5.1

1. Introduction

The passage at hand is one that has generated no small amount of discussion over the nearly two millennia of church history. Paul's 'allegorical' use of the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their respective sons in Gal 4.21-5.1 has given rise to all manner of speculation with regards to Paul's use of Scripture, and whether or not it is appropriate--either for him or for those who have followed him.

In the paper at hand, though limited in scope, we will seek to examine the most pertinent questions in scholarly debate, with regard to this section of Paul's letter to the Galatian churches.1 Firstly, then, we will probe the text itself to determine the correct readings where disputed, and determine where the paragraph fits in the logic of Paul's argument in the letter as a whole. Attention will then be focused on defining a verb which seems pivotal to our understanding of the passage. Next, it will be asked why Paul chose the texts that he did, in order to make the statements that he did. Having questioned his reasoning for his selection of proof-texts, the focus will be shifted to discerning whether or not Paul's use of the Old Testament texts is justified. We will conclude by examining the contribution of this unit of thought to Galatians particularly, and the Pauline corpus more broadly. It will be shown that the study of Gal 4.21-5.1 has implications for our understanding of the gospel, salvation-history, and the interpretation of Scripture in general.

2. Delimitation of the Section

a. Gal 4.21-5.1 in the flow of Galatians as a whole.

Paul begins this epistle from the outset with a strong sense of purpose, foregoing his usual giving of thanks for the recipients. He is quick to repeat pronouncements of curses on any who preach a different gospel than the one he has preached and spends up until the end of chapter two recounting to the Galatians historical events which bear witness to his unrivalled authority to preach the gospel of Christ as an apostle. He tells of his private revelations wherein he received from God directly the gospel which he preaches among the nations, his journeys to Jerusalem, and his confrontation with Cephas, James, and John, all to the end of defending his apostleship.

He begins a new section, pleading with the Galatians in chapter three. The gospel that he had revealed to him was the means of their receiving the Spirit (3.1-5), and is in line with Abraham's blessing (3.6-9). This is contrasted with the law of Moses which brings a curse that Christ had to take on in their place (3.10-14), and which was given merely as a parenthesis (Gal 3.24ὥστε οÌ” νόμος παιδαγωγοÌ€ς ηÌ”μωÍ‚ν γέγονεν ειÌ“ς Χριστόν, ἵνα εÌ“κ πίστεως δικαιωθωÍ‚μεν·) until all reached maturity and could become one family (3.15-29). Since they have been brought to maturity by Christ's redeeming work, they now function as sons and heirs (4.1-7), but yet they have still continued to subject themselves to their harsh pedagogue, rejecting Paul's teaching (4.8-20).

Building on both the analogy of children and the use of Abraham in his Heilsgeschichte the apostle 'allegorically' interprets the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah. Here he explains that while there are children of Abraham destined for slavery, those who are children of promise are free indeed; in fact, they have been set free for this reason, that they might live like as freed people (4.21-5.1)!

From 5.2 on, Paul speaks specifically and practically about the way they should live as free children, by the Spirit, not according to the flesh (5.2-6.10). They are in the eschatological present of God's new creation, and ought to live that way (6.11-18).2

b. Why 4.21-5.1 is a distinct section.

Barrett, describing the transition from chapter three to chapter four writes,


it is at this point that Paul turns aside from the main line of argument, remembering that though in any context the biblical basis of his position remains of fundamental importance, his readers are in the main Gentiles, and may be expected to be more familiar with other realms than that of the Old Testament, and giving an example from the ordinary legal provisions of the hellenistic world' (4.1-7).3

In 4.8-10 he relates observance of days, months, and years, to the stoicei:a. Then 4.11-20 is a personal appeal based on his earlier relationship with the Galatians. It is at this point, in verse 21 of chapter four where Paul returns to making biblical arguments after he had broken away for a short time. So, Fung:


The personal appeal ended, Paul makes a fresh attempt to convince his readers of the correctness of his position over against that of his opponents by turning once more to the Scriptures. He refers to certain facts in the story of Hagar and Sarah (4:21-23), expounds their spiritual meaning (vv. 24-27), applies their significance (vv. 28-30), and concludes with a summary and appeal (4:31-5:1).4

The commentators are typically divided as to where they should place 5.1. Many attach it to the end of this section, while others aver that it functions as an introduction to the next section. The difficulty is that this is a syntactically independent verse 'with no connective particle to mark its relation to what precedes or follows.'5 Thus it functions both as a summary of 4.21-31 (if not chapters 3-4 altogether) and as an introduction to the exhortations that will follow in chapter five. On account of 'the slavery motif'6 particularly at play in chapter 4, but picked up in 5.1, it makes the most sense to allow it its summarizing force, and leave it attached to 4.21ff.7

3. The Crucial Matters

a. Issues dealing with the text.

(i) Gal 4.25 has several variant readings. The substitution of γαÌ€ρ for δεÌ€ is of little consequence; the presence of absence of the proper name, ΑÌ”γαÌ€ρ, in the original is more difficult to ascertain. With Metzger, it seems apparent that the stronger attestation is for the δεÌ€. Once the γαÌ€ρ has been substituted, however, the ΑÌ”γαÌ€ρ is easily lost on account of the similarity of the two words.8 From an intrinsic perspective as well, it should be seen that based purely on relevance to its own immediate context, the name ΑÌ”γαÌ€ρ is required.9 As Bruce sums up, 'There would be little point in the shorter reading.'10

(ii) The second issue under this heading is the meaning of the word ajllhgorevw. According to Bauer, it is simply 'to use analogy or likeness to express someth.,' or to 'speak allegorically'.11 Büchsel argues that rather than Paul's interpretation simply being allegorical, 'the story of Sarah and Hagar' itself is allegorical. He traces the method of understanding narratives as allegory back over centuries and finds that 'allegorical interpretation was supposed to constitute an antidote or a "healing" of myth.'12 Allegory, he posits, was developed in light of perceived falsities in the myth in question.13 Surely this could not be the case in Paul's usage here, however, since he everywhere espouses a high view of Scripture and in the immediate context is seen to be citing the words of Scripture as well as his interpretation as authoritative.

Most scholars believe that when Paul uses the verb here, he intends to mean something in between allegory and typology. In typology 'persons, events, and institutions of Scripture and tradition are taken as prototypes of present persons, events, and institutions,' and then 'explained as the fulfillment, repetition, or completion within a framework of salvation history.'14 Bruce--citing the prophets speaking of a new Exodus, Paul's use of Israel's Red Sea passage, manna, and water from rock--adds that 'typology presupposes that salvation-history displays a recurring pattern of divine action.'15 This seems to fit better with Paul's Heilsgeschichte. Allegory, however, 'takes concrete matters mentioned in Scripture and tradition (mythology) to be the surface appearance or vestige of underlying deeper truths which the method claims to bring to light.'16

The best solution, it seems, is to simply determine what Paul means when he uses the word by examining what he does in the context, rather than by studying the word's etymology, or the allegorizations of fanciful church fathers hundreds of years down the road from Paul. We will endeavour to 'fill-up' our understanding of the word, then, as we deal with the passage as a whole.17

b. Theological issues.

While there are several theological issues which could be dealt with from this text, the discussion here will necessarily be limited to Paul's use of the OT.18 Hansen in no way overstates his case when he says that 'in this section, we encounter a strange allegorical interpretation' that 'has often been used to accuse Paul of twisting and distorting Scripture.'19 Betz goes so far as to say that what Paul offers as proof in this allegory 'has strained the credulity of the readers beyond what many people can bear.'20 In an attempt to justify the apostle, we will briefly explain his choice of texts, and then draw out the content of his 'allegory' so as to examine his seemingly suspicious citation of Scripture.

The question has often been asked by scholar and layman, 'Why would the apostle choose these texts from Genesis and Isaiah to prove his point? Were there no simpler texts that could have been chosen?' The most widely accepted explanation is that which is offered by C.K. Barrett.21 After a survey of the attempted answers and historical reconstructions, in which he shows the pitfalls of each, Barrett presents his own reconstruction of the occasion for Paul's letter. He posits that


Paul's words can be best explained if we may suppose that he is taking up passages that had been used by his opponents, correcting their exegesis, and showing that their Old Testament prooftexts were on his side rather than on theirs.22

In this view, which appears to remain unrivalled, the apostle is shown to be not randomly drawing loosely related OT texts and then misconstruing them for his own purposes, but rather, he is correctly applying them in refutation of those who really would twist these Scriptures for their own purposes. This is especially likely to be the case with these texts from Genesis, where Paul's opponents were likely to have referred to themselves as the true children of Abraham.

Barrett reconstructs the argument of the 'false brothers' in this way:


The promise was made to Abraham and to his seed; and the obligations of the seed were revealed in the law, fulfilment of which was made the necessary condition for receipt of the promised blessing. The scriptural argument on which this position rested reached its climax in the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Only the Sarah-Isaac line could count as seed; this was the line that included Moses and therefore the law, and it had its seat in Jerusalem. It had its fulfilment in Jesus and his disciples, notably James, Cephas and John, and was still administered in terms of the law from Jerusalem. If the Gentiles were to participate in it they must be adopted into the family by circumcision, and recognize the overlordship of Jerusalem.

This wonderfully ties together all the arguments of Paul both from Scripture and from his own experience in the epistle so far and presents the letter as one which is carefully crafted rather than poorly proof-texted.23

We now come to the actual interpretation of the allegory. To begin with, we would do well to heed Hansen's advice: 'You can often tell the purpose of a book simply by reading its introduction and conclusion.'24 In other words, since Paul begins and ends this section in strikingly similar terms, it seems that he is stating and then restating his intended purpose. Whatever comes in between (in the allegory) should be governed by Paul's parenthetical remarks. He says in 22-23 that Abraham had one son by a slave woman 'in the ordinary way' (καταÌ€ σάρκα) and one son by the free woman 'as the result of a promise' (δι' εÌ“παγγελίας). He likewise concludes by saying that ουÌ“κ εÌ“σμεÌ€ν παιδίσκης τέκνα αÌ“λλαÌ€ τηÍ‚ς εÌ“λευθέρας. However confusing the allegory may be to our 21st century, Western minds, we must not lose sight of the fact that Paul intends for the allegorical interpretation to show us that the true children of Abraham, through Sarah, who are the recipients of the promise of God, are not under law.

It seems that visual aids are most helpful for understanding the sometimes confusing linguistic connections.




Son of the slave woman

son of the free woman



"according to flesh"

"through promise"

old covenant

new covenant



present Jerusalem

heavenly Jerusalem



"according to the flesh"

"according to the Spirit"











Hagar Covenant


Sarah Covenant

Ishmael ("flesh")


Isaac ("promise")






Children-Free ones

Mount Sinai


(Mount Zion? Golgotha? Heaven?)

Earthly Jerusalem


Heavenly Jerusalem

in slavery


In freedom




Old Covenant


New Covenant


Longenecker25 prefers to chart out Paul's allegory in a chiastic structure:26


A Hagar
                      B Mount Sinai
                        C slavery
                            D the present city of Jerusalem
                            D' the heavenly Jerusalem
                        C' freedom
                      B' (Mount Zion)
                A' our mother

When charted out in this manner one can see the logic of Paul's correspondences. What must not be missed here is that Paul 'disrupts the theology of Judaism and Jewish Christianity by severing the connection between the covenant and promises on one side and the Sinaitic legislation on the other. No longer does the law serve within a gracious framework.'27 Paul flatly opposes the notion that one could inherit the promised blessing of God while remaining under the law. 'The Sarah/Isaac covenant is the only one of value and is not to be associated with the Mosaic law/Sinai. The Sinaitic covenant is a covenant of slavery associated with Hagar and Ishmael.'28

The question remains, however, of how Isa 54.1 could be interjected into this argument, without doing it violence. Here Silva is particularly helpful.


Isaiah's words are strongly reminiscent of the description of Sarah's barrenness in Gen 11:30 lxx. Moreover, Isaiah had earlier referred to the (true) children of Sarah as the inhabitants of Zion who "pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord" (Isa. 52:1-3). In between these two chapters, of course, is the well-known Suffering Servant passage, to which Paul seems to allude in Gal. 3:1 (cf. Gal. 3:2 with Isa. 53:1 lxx). These and other features suggest that Paul is in fact exploiting important associations already present in the OT itself.29

Thus, far from abusing the text, Paul is seen to be drawing together God's revealed work in salvation-history to show his opponents that this is in fact what God had been planning all along!30 Those who have been justified by faith, and are not under the law are the true 'children of promise,' because they live in the eschatological age of fulfilment.31

There are some novel interpretations suggested for the translation of Ἔκβαλε τηÌ€ν παιδίσκην καιÌ€ τοÌ€ν υιÌ”οÌ€ν αυÌ“τηÍ‚ς·.32 In the end, however, we conclude with Bruce that Paul cites the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael to 'enshrine the basic gospel truth: legal bondage and spiritual freedom cannot coexist.'33

4. Significance of Conclusions Drawn

The importance of understanding this passage aright should not be underestimated. Within the book of Galatians--and within Paul's theology as a whole--it is clear that God has one purpose in history, which has begun to be realized in the eschatological present of the 'heavenly Jerusalem'. As Ridderbos says, 'Paul has saved this part of his argument for purposes of climax and capstone.'34 This is so not on account of his desire for rhetorical flourish, but because of his desire to show that God has woven all of his purposes in redemptive-history together to bring about the freedom of the children of promise by the 'Spirit as the power of the age to come over against the law as the power of the age past.'35 God has established his purpose with his people, through his Son, and now Paul cannot help but read the OT in light of this truth: 'His reading of the Bible is "Christocentric" through and through,'36 as ours should be as well.

Far from seeing Paul as a man who wildly allegorizes texts on a whim, Evangelicals can rest assured that he has done the text no harm, but has treated it with greatest mastery and reverence. We can see now that 'even in the case of quotations that appear somewhat arbitrary, patient consideration of the broad context can be enlightening',37 and will help us to see the great unity of God's redemptive plan.

Through all of this, then, we must see that the 'point is simply--but profoundly--that redemptive history came to a climax with the people of the new covenant, for whom OT events were recorded as "examples" (1 Cor. 10:6, 11 NIV).'38 Paul could interpret his OT this way because he saw God as the Sovereign Lord of all history. And since that same God who rules over history also inspired the biblical texts,


it was therefore inevitable that the text of Scripture would include a certain undercurrent--a "deeper meaning"?--that could become clear only after the fulfillment of the promises. Such a view implies that the whole OT was a witness to Christ, and for that reason Paul's use of Scripture was most distinctively guided by his Christological orientation.39


And we conclude with Silva, that 'whatever else may be said about the subject, the hermeneutics of the Apostle to the Gentiles flowed ultimately from Christ, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3 NIV).'40 The preservation of a correct understanding of this passage then, ensures that the law-free gospel of justification by faith will never be lost, since it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

5. Conclusion

We have seen, ultimately, where Gal 4.21-5.1 fits in the context of the book; it functions as a capstone to Paul's argument against his opponents, and also as a springboard for his practical admonitions for living uprightly, by the Spirit, not the flesh. It has also been shown that Paul chose these OT texts to use likely in response and rebuttal to his opponents' arguments from these same verses. Moreover, far from being arbitrary, his use of Scripture has been seen to be right in line with God's grand plan for his people, promised to Abraham and now delivered through the Spirit.



1 Given the scope of this paper, any discussion on matters relevant to the broader context of the epistle (as opposed to those which pertain directly to the passage at hand) must foregone, as it cannot be engaged in here at length. The author will assume Pauline authorship, an early dating of the epistle, and the South Galatian hypothesis. For a brief, but competent defence of this stance, see "Galatians" in D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).

2 Outline largely adapted from Carson and Moo, "Galatians", 456-457.

3 C.K. Barrett, Essays on Paul (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 160-161.

4 Ronald Y.K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 204.

5 Ibid., 216.

6 Cf. James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 147, who identifies the slavery motif as running from 4.1-5.1. ''The slavery motif is represented by the verb douleuō ("be a slave"--4.25), the nouns douleia ("slavery"--4.24) and paidiskē ("slave-girl"--4.22, 23, 26, 30-31). Note also how 5.1 picks up the theme.'

7 Moreover, as we will see, if the historical reconstruction proposed by Barrett is to be accepted, then 5.1 makes much more sense when attached to 4.21-31. According to Barrett, in 5.1 Paul 'sums up' and only then 'begins to write freely, and not as a respondent. Look! I Paul tell you...' (Essays,165).

8 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd rev. ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006), 527.

9 Barrett, Essays, 163-164.

10 F.F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 219. Others somehow seem to see the exact opposite. Herman N. Ridderbos, for example, denies that ΑÌ”γαÌ€ρ is original, since he cannot find a reason to correspond Hagar to Mt. Sinai as Paul does (St. Paul's Epistle to the Churches of Galatia [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953], 177 n.8).

11 Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. "ajllhgorevw". A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

12 Friedrich Büchsel, "ajllhgorevw", TDNT, v.1: 260-261 (Kittel, Gerhard, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964], 260-263).

13 Ibid., 260-261.

14 Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 239.

15 Bruce, Galatians, 217.

16 Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 239.

17 Betz disagrees, insisting that before we even read the passage we can 'know quite well from other sources which method Paul intends to apply' (Galatians, 243). This author cannot agree with this assessment, however, since both the source (contrast Betz here with Büchsel ["ajllhgorevw", TDNT, 260-261] on the Greek origin vs. Hebrew origin of Paul's use of 'allegory') and the nature of Paul's 'allegorical' interpretation are disputed. Fung (Galatians, 217)--while insisting that Paul's allegorical method must not be associated with either Philo or Josephus (contra Betz)--reveals the divided nature of scholarship on this issue: 'some scholars prefer to regard Paul's treatment as typological, while others consider it to be a mixture of allegory and typology, and still others speak of it as both allegorical and typological as if the terms were interchangeable' (emphasis original).

18 However, as it will be shown, this discussion will have implications on many other pertinent theological issues.

19 G. Walter Hansen, Galatians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), 138. He adds, 'In all of the New Testament, there is perhaps not a more difficult passage to interpret.'

20 Betz, Galatians, 244.

21 This argument is presented at length in his Essays, 154-170.

22 Ibid., 158.

23 This option is better by far than the alternative of Paul's simply desiring to flash some rhetorical muscle by finishing his argument in a 'fancy allegory' as suggested by McKnight (Galatians 228), who follows Betz. This line of argumentation is based on some discussion on the effectiveness of certain rhetorical methods by some of the fathers some time after Paul (Galatians, 239-240).

24 Hansen, Galatians, 138.

25 The above charts are taken from Betz, Galatians, 245, and McKnight, Galatians, 229, respectively.

26 Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (Dallas: Word, 1990), 213. The copulae used throughout are Paul's way of equating the 'type' with the 'antitype.' Cf. Bruce, Galatians, 218-219. Likewise, συστοιχειÍ‚ in v.25 (Betz, Galatians, 245).

27 A. Andrew Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2001), 75.

28 Ibid., 76.

29 Moisés Silva, Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 163-164.

30 See also Bruce, Galatians, 222, where we are told that Paul cites this verse 'not only because it is a locus classicus for this theme but also because the mother here congratulated is Zion/Jerusalem.'

31 Silva, Interpreting Galatians, 180-181.

32 For example, see Susan G. Eastman, "'Cast Out the Slave Woman and her Son': The Dynamics of Exclusion and Inclusion in Galatians 4.30," JSNT 28.3 (2006), 309-336.

33 Bruce, Galatians, 225.

34 Ridderbos, Galatians, 173.

35 James D.G. Dunn, Paul and the Mosaic Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 319.

36 McKnight, Galatians, 230.

37 Silva, Interpreting Galatians, 163.

38 Ibid., 164.

39 Ibid., 165.

40 Ibid.


Works Consulted


Bauer, Walter, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. "ajllhgorevw". A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.


Barrett, C.K. "Galatians as an 'Apologetic Letter'." Interpretation 34.4 (1980), 414-417.


Barrett, C.K. Essays on Paul. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982.


Betz, Hans Dieter. Galatians. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.


Bruce, F.F. Commentary on Galatians. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.


Bruce, F. F. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.


Büchsel, Friedrich. "ajllhgorevw". TDNT 1:260-263. Kittel, Gerhard, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.


Burton, Ernest DeWitt. The Epistle to the Galatians. ICC. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1921.


Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament, 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.


Das, A. Andrew. Paul, the Law, and the Covenant. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2001.


de Boer, Martinus C. "Isaiah 54.1 in Galatians 4.27." NTS 50.3 (2004), 370-389.


Dunn, James D.G., "In Search of Common Ground", in James D.G. Dunn ed., Paul and the Mosaic Law. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.


Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.


Eastman, Susan G. "'Cast Out the Slave Woman and her Son': The Dynamics of Exclusion and Inclusion in Galatians 4.30." JSNT 28.3 (2006), 309-336.


Elliott, Susan M. "Choose Your Mother, Choose Your Master: Galatians 4:21-5:1 in the Shadow of th