9 October 2012

Galatians 4:21-31

"Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law?" (v. 21)


Have you ever heard (or preached!) a sermon in which a passage of Scripture is mangled beyond all recognition so it ends up meaning what the preacher wants it to mean, which is quite the opposite to what it plainly means to any sensible person? Well, here's one famous example! The original story of Hagar and Sarah is a tragic one (you can read it in Genesis chapters 16-17, 21). Sarah, Abraham's wife, could not conceive so she used her Egyptian slave, Hagar, as a surrogate. Hagar produced a son, Ishmael, as Abraham's heir. Unsurprisingly, Sarah was very jealous of Hagar and when, miraculously, Sarah herself conceived in late old age she wanted her own son, Isaac, to be the sole heir, so she got Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Ishmael became the father of the Arab tribes, who were despised and rejected by the descendants of Isaac, who ignored God's promise that he would bless Ishmael and his descendants. (Muslim Arabs still trace their ancestry back to Abraham.)

Paul well and truly mangles this story in order to make his point: it is, he says, as though the two lines of descent from Abraham have been swapped. The Jewish law ("from Mount Sinai" (v. 24), where Moses received it from God) has become a kind of slavery and so the Jews (or maybe, more specifically, Jewish Christians who insist on imposing Jewish law on gentile Christians) have become the children of Hagar ("the present Jerusalem" (v. 25)). The true descendants of Sarah, then, are those who are free from the slavery of the law. And so the Gentiles who have believed in Jesus as Lord and Christ are the true "children of the promise" (v. 28) and of "the free woman" (v. 30). Confused? Very probably! Paul's argument was not exactly coherent, but then he was extremely angry. And his argument would have been extremely, and intentionally, offensive to the Jewish Christians he was attacking because it challenged their fundamental identity as Jews. But for Paul the crucial point was that gentile Christ-followers should be free, and not have visible aspects of 'Jewishness' imposed on them by the representatives of the Jerusalem church - Paul's enemies.

To Ponder

  • How might the story of Sarah and Hagar inform our understanding of the relationships today between Jews, Christians and Muslims? Does it help, or hinder, those relationships? Why?
  • "Now this is an allegory" (v. 24). What do you think about Paul's use of the Hebrew Scriptures in this passage? Is it helpful? Under what circumstances do you think it is OK to claim that the Bible means something opposite to what it actually says?
  • Paul (and Jesus) used Scripture to attack their opponents. Should we do that too? Why?

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.