11 October 2010

Galatians 4:21-5:1

"So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman." (v.31)


If you find this passage a little confusing don't worry! This is what happens when Paul, the writer of the letter, tries to find an allegorical meaning in an Old Testament story (where each element stands for something else) and I'm not sure that it really works very well.

In the centuries after the New Testament was written this became a favourite way of interpreting Scripture, and it is still popular with many preachers today. The problem is though that it requires an extra level of meaning to be imposed on the text, which can distort the original text out of any recognisable shape. And that is what happens here. This is an early version of the argument that was going to dominate Paul's theology: salvation was for everyone, and so the people of God, the community of the saved, who were the children of Abraham, now included both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews).

In the original Old Testament story (in Genesis chapters 16-25) Isaac - the "child of promise" - is chosen as Abraham's heir, and his half brother Ishmael - the child of a slave - is sent out with his mother into the wilderness to fend for himself. Now, of course, the important and obvious point of the original story was that both Jews and Gentiles were equally Abraham's descendents. Later on, in the letter to the Romans, Paul makes precisely this point. But here he is saying that, whereas the Jews saw themselves as the free people of God, they were in fact enslaved to their own Law - the Torah - represented in this passage by Mount Sinai where the Law was received by Moses.

It was as though they had swapped ancestral mothers and, as 'children of the slave', were now cast out by God. In contrast, the truly free heirs of Abraham were those (including Gentiles) who had faith in Christ, and were not bound by the Law. Still confused? Probably!

To Ponder

Are you confused? Or do you find Paul's argument clear and easy to follow?

Which is more important to you: the original text of the Bible, or the meanings which are imposed on it by later interpreters? Why?

Paul's words here, of course, are now part of the Christian Bible. He will later argue (in the letter to the Romans) that God has not withdrawn God's promise to the Jews after all. What does that tell you about 'inspiration'?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.