Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 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. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 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.”
And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 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. 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.”
So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.
–Galatians 4:21-31 (NASB)
This set of verses from Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches has been one of the most devastating commentaries used against the Torah of Moses and the Jewish people over the last two-thousand years. Torah and Judaism are slavery. Christ and his grace are freedom. The message to any Jewish person who struggles to come to faith in Jesus as Messiah is that they must give up being Jewish, Judaism, and any connection to the Torah because it is all slavery, and pursue the Christian Jesus because only the Goyim have freedom…
…or be cast out as the bondwoman and her son…her Jewish son.
But given the larger dynamics of Paul’s life, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that he would have meant to say that in this message.
And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.
–Acts 21:20-26 (NASB)
After Paul arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove, while Paul said in his own defense, “I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”
–Acts 25:7-8 (NASB)
Throughout Paul’s entire ordeal, in trial after trial, before one judge to the next, Paul continually denied that he had committed any crime against the Jewish people. He denied that he told Jewish believers not to circumcise their sons. He denied that he told Jewish believers not to walk in the customs of their fathers. He denied that he took a Gentile into the Temple or committed any crime against such a Holy place. He denied that he told the Jewish believers to forsake Moses.
So how can we interpret the statements Paul made in Galatians 4:21-31 to mean that Paul did tell the Jewish believers to forsake the Torah and that faith in Messiah was totally inconsistent with Jewish people living as Jews?
In his article A Torah-Positive Summary of Sha’ul’s Letter to the Galatians, Ariel Berkowitz defends Paul’s statement from a Jewish perspective, something most Christian Bible readers lack (please forgive the length of the following quote):
In chapter four, Sha’ul, having been thoroughly trained in the best rabbinic methods of Bible interpretation of his day, makes a midrash. A midrash is the Jewish way of saying that an allegorical or sermonic interpretation of the Scripture is about to take place.
This midrash is in 4:21–31. It is difficult to understand, as all midrashim (plural of midrash) are. Its difficulty has thrown many an earnest Bible interpreter aside. We will not analyze all of the midrash. We will only summarize the main point, because that is the point that is most pertinent to our present study of Galatians.
Sha’ul uses this midrash to illustrate the point he made in chapter three with his comparison of the two important covenants, the Abrahamic and Mosaic. Just as Abraham was putting Hagar before Sarah in order to fulfill God’s promises of descendants, so are those who are attempting a works justification putting Sinai before Abraham. Let us explain.
God called Abraham to a life of faith. God promised Abraham that He would give him children in his old age. God meant that the children would come through Sarah. Time went by and no children came.
Apparently, Abraham thought he would attempt to secure God’s promises by his own effort instead of relying on God to perform it. Thus, he had a child through Hagar. Although this was perfectly in keeping with the established customs of his day, it was not perfectly in keeping with trusting God! Abraham should have trusted God and waited for Sarah to have a child. Ishmael, therefore, was a child of works, but Isaac was the child of faith.
Sha’ul says that anyone who tries to secure God’s gracious promises of salvation and justification by obeying the Torah (going to Sinai) is like Abraham trying to secure God’s gracious promises through his own effort with Hagar. In the Galatian congregation, they were putting “Sinai” before “Abraham,” when they should have put “Abraham” before “Sinai.”
If you read my commentary on last week’s Torah portion, you’ll recognize a familiar theme from the Berkowitz article, that of justification coming through faith, not the mechanics of performing the mitzvot. Berkowitz’s interpretation of Paul’s midrash is no different.
Just as Abraham thought he could fulfill God’s promise of a son through his own efforts with Hagar, so too did some of the Jewish people (or Gentiles who thought they must convert to Judaism) believe they could secure justification before God by perfectly observing the Torah mitzvot. However, those Jewish and Gentile believers who understood that justification comes through faith and not the observance of Torah, are like Abraham when he trusted God’s promise of a son through Sarah, though it seemed completely impossible, because Sarah was so old.
This is not nullifying the Jewish responsibility of observing the Torah but rather putting faith and obedience in perspective. Obedience must follow faith, otherwise it is not in response to faith. Obedience, that is, following “the rules” for their own sake, does not provide justification before God. This is to be compared to Hagar and her son in Paul’s midrash. Only by faith in God does justification before God become achieved, not through our own performance of the mitzvot, then and only then, does Jewish obedience to the Torah of God have full meaning. This is to be compared to Sarah and her son in Paul’s midrash.
Lest I depend too much on Berkowitz for my defense of Paul, the Torah, and the Jewish people, I want to examine another, related source:
Paul develops a parable (midrash) based upon the story of Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, to point out the difference between God-Fearers and proselytes.
-D Thomas Lancaster
“Sermon Twenty-Two: Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael” pg 219
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
That’s Lancaster’s brief summary as he’s introducing this chapter and the topic of Galatians 4:21-31. He seems to be taking a somewhat different approach to Paul’s midrash, making a comparison, not between “legalistic” Torah observance for justification vs. justification by faith, but between Gentile God-fearers and those who desired to convert to Judaism for the purpose of justification.
Lancaster takes his cue from Galatians 4:22, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons.”
In the synagogue world, a “ben Avraham” is a convert. Paul used the story of Isaac and Ishmael to illustrate two different types “benei Avraham,” in other words, two different types of Gentile proselytes. He was not contrasting Jews against Christians, nor was he contracting Jews against Gentiles. He was not talking about Jews at all. Instead, he used the Isaac and Ishmael analogy to contrast two different types of Gentiles: “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and one by a free woman” (Galatians 4:22).
-Lancaster, pg 221
Lancaster says that Paul makes a big deal out of “flesh versus the promise” as in:
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.
–Galatians 3:16 (NASB)
Lancaster makes specific in his chapter that “All nations will be blessed in Abraham’s seed, the Messiah.” Abraham and Sarah conceived their son Isaac according to the promise, Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Isaac was born by faith but Ishmael was born by Abraham taking matters into his own hands, so to speak, and attempting to fulfill the promise of God, the promise that leads to Messiah, by his own efforts and not faith.
Lancaster points out something Berkowitz missed. Most Christians interpret the two covenants as Old Testament vs New Testament, which is totally untrue given the context. As should be obvious, the contrast is between the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants, which both Lancaster and Berkowitz point out, and does not allow for a replacement of one over the other.
What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.
–Galatians 3:17-18 (NASB)
It seems rather apparent that the latter law, Sinai, does not nullify the earlier law and the promise made to Abraham by God. As Lancaster says, Hagar cannot replace Sarah. From Lancaster’s perspective, the “children of Hagar” aren’t born Jewish people but rather, Gentiles who have undergone the formal process of converting to Judaism. The “children of Sarah” are the Gentile God-fearers who have come into relationship with God through faith in the Messiah. The converts are compared to Ishmael, who was conceived and born through completely human means, while the Gentiles who have come to faith in Messiah without converting to Judaism are compared to Isaac who was conceived and given life though supernatural means.
I can see where Lancaster is going with this, but I don’t think I can agree. In this case, I think Berkowitz makes the more convincing case. Lancaster rightly is addressing the Gentiles and saying that Paul is communicating that they do not need to convert to Judaism in order to inherit the promise, but he’s leaving the Jewish believers in the Galatian churches out of the equation. There are portions of the letter that could be interpreted as being directed at both Jewish and Gentile believers.
When Paul is addressing his audience in Galatians 1:2, depending on the translation you use, he is saying “brothers and sisters,” or “brothers,” or “brethren.” There’s no indication that he was singling out a specific population, either Jewish or Gentile. If Paul meant to address only the Gentiles in order to convince them not to convert to Judaism in order to be justified before God, I would expect him to have pointed more directly at his desired audience. He seems to be talking to both Jews and Gentiles explaining a unified message: “Obedience to the Law does not justify anyone (Jew or Gentile) before God. Only faith in God, faith such as Abraham had, faith in the promise of Abraham’s seed, faith in Messiah, justifies.”
I know people will say that if Paul was addressing both Jews and Gentiles, then he was telling them both that the Torah has been invalidated by the grace of Jesus Christ, however I can’t agree with that. Based on what I wrote previously and my current analysis of Paul’s Hagar and Sarah midrash, he is saying that yes, obedience does not justify a person before God, only faith. However, that does not nullify what comes next for a Jewish person, anymore than the covenant with Abraham nullified the covenant at Sinai. Jewish believers have a continuing obligation to God to obey the Torah mitzvot because of the specific promises made to Abraham, and to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Berkowitz’s interpretation of Paul’s midrash seems the better one to illustrate this point, but it should be emphasized that it does not justify being interpreted as any obligation for the Gentile believers to obey the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews. I’ve already pointed out that the Acts 15 decision offers us a different or overlapping set of responsibilities.
Paul’s Galatians 4 midrash has been terribly misused by the church over the centuries, and we’ve forgotten what Peter has said to us about Paul:
…and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand…
–2 Peter 3:15-16 (NASB)
If Peter, a contemporary of Paul and a fellow Jewish believer, could say such a thing back then, how much more can Paul be misunderstood in the present age by non-Jewish believers laboring under nearly twenty centuries of anti-Judaic doctrine about Paul?
One of the gifts of the Messianic Jewish movement is to help return the Gospels and Epistles to their original Jewish context so that we in the church can see the actual meaning of the good news of Moshiach and the role and purpose of faith, grace, and Torah for the Jewish believers as well as the Gentiles.