“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:21-31)
Allegory, the idea behind it is that you take details of a story and give them meaning, so that you can given an interpretation of the story that is quite a bit different than what was originally written. Paul doesn’t make use of this very often it seems, not in his letters anyway. It can be a really dangerous way of approaching scripture. It doesn’t let the scripture speak plainly. Often times people use it to justify all sorts of things that aren’t there at all. It was a favorite past time for Gnostics, who would do all sorts of weird numerological tricks with a text. Really what it amounts to most of the time is what theologians call eisogesis which is the art of reading thoughts into scripture. This happens a lot actually. A common eisogesis is to say your body is a temple and therefore you shouldn’t smoke, when the text talking about our body being a temple says nothing about what we should eat or drink or smoke. Monogamy is another one that is often read into scripture, though there is little to no support for it in scripture. You are free to be monogamous, but it is in no way a command anywhere. Allegory though is even more outlandish than that, at least it can be.
It would be like explaining that the fish in the feeding of the five thousand were representative of the Zodiac sign for pisces, and thus Jesus was saying if you were born on the fifth day or the sign of pisces you would never go hungry. OK, that is my best attempt at allegory. I’m not good at it and don’t mean to be. But you get the point. The church father Origen was really good at that sort of thing, and people latch on to it pretty fast often times, looking for hidden meaning in scripture. It’s popular, because we don’t want scripture to say what it says. That would be boring. We naturally think that if something is sacred it should be mysterious and full of hidden meaning, and we do that to the detriment of the mysteries that are there. Mysteries such as God becoming man, or the Lord’s Supper being Christ’s body and blood because he says so, or baptism sanctifying us with the work of the Holy Spirit apart from a liver shiver. There is plenty of fascinating mystery in scripture. Thing is we want it to be about us, so we would rather work the astrological sign under which we were born into it, or do a word search to divine some other meaning from it, as in the Bible Code that was so popular a decade and a half ago, or as Dan Brown does over and over again in The Da Vinci Code, not only with scripture but even with a deck of cards.
In any case Paul makes use of allegory once or twice, and he does so here. He has good reason. He spent some time in Arabia, three years actually. And it was one of those strange things that he learns down there as he is studying God’s word. The Arabs had named Sinai after Hagar. They had a different name for that mountain from which God had given his law, and the name corresponded to the slave woman by whom Abraham had sired Ishmael who was not able to receive any of the inheritance when Sara gave birth to Isaac. One child was born of law, under the law, and another child born of promise despite all expectation. One by a slave woman, one by a woman who was free. And the mountain from which the law was given has Hagar’s name. Coincidence? Not likely. Paul is going to use it as an illustration. The law is for the slave.
The law is for those who are slaves to sin. Whoever sins is a slave to sin. There is no life, there is no freedom with the law. There is only death. If you want to live by the law, you will die by it, just as sure as those who try to save their lives will lose it, but those who lose their lives for Christ’s sake will save it. And finally that is the crux of the issue, in order to save our life, we must do that which is counter-intuitive, we must lose it in Christ, let him take it from us, and redeem it. And this is what happens to us in baptism. There we lose our life. There in baptism our life is buried with Christ into death. There it is crucified. There it is squashed.
But then there we are reborn, born of water and spirit. There we are resurrected to walk in the newness of life, just as Jesus Christ was resurrected to the glory of the father. And so we live this new life, we walk in the newness of life to his glory. We who were once slaves to sin, are now born free, born of the free woman, Christ’s beloved bride whom he has sanctified with water and the word. Yes, we are born of the free woman, born of the church. Now we carry our Lord’s name, Christian, one who belongs to Christ’s family. Now we have the Father’s name put upon us by adoption through his son. Yes, now we receive our inheritance through him, eternal life.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.