Paul's method of interpretation in Galatians 4:21-31 seems a bit unusual as compared to most modern methods. He says these things may be "interpreted allegorically." What is his method of exegesis? How, for example, does he connect Hagar to Mount Sinai in Arabia?


10 Answers 10


Good question. There are many fascinating aspects of Paul's hermeneutic that come to the fore here, and we need to do some digging to recognize the source of the connections which he makes.

  1. How is Hagar connected to Sinai? First, the connection is there simply in terms of Paul's own controlling metaphor. Throughout Gal 3:22 and onward, Paul has been connecting Torah to slavery (e.g. it is a paidagogos, which was a trusted household slave who served as a child custodian; being under a slave implied a form of servitude for the child himself/herself).

  2. There is also a geographical connection between Hagar and Sinai; Hagar came from Egypt, the other side of Sinai; and when Sarah mistreated her, she fled to Shur, just north of Sinai (Gen 16:7); and later, following the permanent expulsion, she took Ishmael to the wildnerness of Paran—next to Sinai (Gen 21:21). So basically, her life circled around Sinai. Moreover, the fact that Hagar was an Egyptian aligns with how Paul is depicting the redemption of Israel from Torah as the eschatological form of how Yahweh redeemed Israel from Egypt. Christ has brought a new exodus from Egypt.

  3. Like Moses at Sinai, Hagar saw God (Gen 16:13; see James Jordan, "Call Me Ishmael," Pt 2 here: http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-118-call-me-ishmael-part-2/). This is a due reminder that Paul's point is not simple denigration of either Hagar or Torah; rather, he is making a point about the eschatological significance of the Abrahamic promises, Isaac, and Christ, over against Torah, Ishmael, and Hagar.

  4. What about the basic manner in which Paul connects to Ishmael and Isaac here? Although there is no record in Genesis that Ishmael was treated as a slave in Abraham's household, yet there are two important points of contact with Paul's argument: (a) Ishmael's was a child of a slave; and (b) Ishmael, while blessed in many respects, did not inherit the things which God promised Abraham. Abraham's "seed," and therefore the connected promise, would not be placed in Ishmael but in Isaac (Gen 21:12). Isaac was the seed through whom the covenant with Abraham would be established (Gen 17:18–21) and thus becomes a sort of second point between Abraham (discussed in Gal 3:6–9) and the ultimate Seed, Christ, for whom the promise was given (3:16). Given this Abraham-Isaac-Christ connection, the contrast to Ishmael, both as the son of a slave, and as the son who does not inherit, is fairly straightforward for Paul's typology.

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    Tim, I'm a part-time student at MARS and also a frequent user here. Had to say hi
    – Dan
    May 30, 2013 at 15:05

The context is the most important clue to Paul’s line of thinking. He has been telling the Galatians that to turn back to the Law after being set free of it through the grace of Christ is foolish. If the righteous live by faith, those that rely on the law are under condemnation, because man cannot be justified by the law.

With that background, his thinking is more clear. When Paul says, “Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants,” he is setting up Sarah as the new covenant in Christ, and Hagar as the old covenant of the Law. As a result, their sons are compared to the fruits of each covenant.

Ishmael, the literal son of a slave, is a slave to the covenant of the Law. The comparison of Hagar to Sinai firmly roots this metaphor, as Sinai is the location where Moses received the Law.

Isaac (v. 28), however, is a child of promise, of the covenant of Christ and has the promise of grace upon him.

Essentially Paul’s working thesis boils down to this: Ishmael is a slave to the law which cannot justify him, and Isaac is the son of the promise of justification by faith in Christ which will save. Paul hopes to encourage the Galatians to see the law as bondage, and faith as freedom.


Dockery, David S. "The Pauline Letters". Holman Concise Bible Commentary: Simple, Straightforward Commentary on Every Book of the Bible. Ed. David S. Dockery. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998.

  • I somehow missed this last week. Thanks for the answer; somehow I've never made the analogy Hagar:slave::law:slavery. Jun 8, 2012 at 2:27

Martin Luther gives a good explanation in his Commentary on Galatians:

[In Romans 9, Paul] argues that all the children of Abraham are not the children of God. For Abraham had two kinds of children, children born of the promise, like Isaac, and other children born without the promise, as Ishmael. With this argument Paul squelched the proud Jews who gloried that they were the children of God because they were the seed and the children of Abraham. Paul makes it clear enough that it takes more than an Abrahamic pedigree to be a child of God. To be a child of God requires faith in Christ.

Basically the faith in God's promise of a Messiah, that ancient promise to reverse the sin and 'curse' of Adam and Eve was bound up in in symbol, type, metaphor, in Isaac and God's 'blessing' through that seed. The idea Paul uses in 'exegesis' is that patterns and themes of the Old Testament were prophetic, predicting future realities. The reality of his day is that Jews born of Abraham were rejecting the freedom of Jews converted to God by faith in Christ. These Jews no longer had to carry the burden of so many ceremonial rules and the Jews without faith (associated to the slave woman) persecuted the Jewish Christians and tried to bring them down. Hagar was tying to get power over Sarah by making her son the firstborn over Isaac. The firstborn had double rights of inheritance. Sarah argued with her husband because the promise was from her womb so they decided the only way to have peace was cast out the salve family. In the same way Jewish Christians were to cast out those laws and jealous judgments that the legalistic Jews who had no faith in the promised seed, Christ.

So Paul's method is accurate and convincing, helping the new Jewish believers at that time.

  • Hi Mike! Welcome to the site and thanks for the answer. I did a little editing to help make your point a little more clear. Feel free to re-edit if you want to change anything I did. Out of curiosity, which answer helped you? Jun 8, 2012 at 2:14
  • Hi Jon,I was reading Leviticus about skin disease and noticed a misprint in the NIV. I found it confirmed on this site ---Does a leper have yellow hair or black hair? Funny, first misprint that I have noticed.
    – Mike
    Jun 8, 2012 at 3:11

I will try to answer your first question, What is his method of exegesis?

If we figure that the Apostle Paul was "educated at the feet of Gamaliel" about Jewish religious law Acts 23:3. He had to use the the Jewish traditions of interpretation· and exegesis that were used at the time, a very common is the Pardes, an acronym formed from the name initials of the following four approaches:

  1. Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — "plain" ("simple") or the direct meaning
  2. Remez (רֶמֶז) — "hints" or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.
  3. Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: "inquire" ("seek") — the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.
  4. Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in 'bone') — "secret" ("mystery") or the mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.

I suggest Paul is using the second level of interpretation: Remez(allegoric)

Why pardes? because it was a basic method of the time of Paul and his school (Hillel, Gamaliel), ignore the traditions of interpretation· and exegesis that were used at the time, is to miss a very important tool for understanding the Word of God. Apostle Paul used a lot of references from Rabbinic traditions

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    Can you support that Paul actually uses this hermeneutic in his writings? He had a rather radical break with Judaism when he was knocked off his horse by the Lord.
    – Kazark
    Jun 20, 2012 at 23:12
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    Hello Hazark, that is a whole question, very discussed. Please, lets see Paul in his context and not in our context. But imaging one studied in the best business school, but years later one disagree with them, Will you forget all their methods of doing business? No. So my support is his own verse, Paul says "Which things are an allegory" and allegory in his scholar context is Remez.
    – Wlanez
    Jun 21, 2012 at 16:52
  • @Wlanez: Can you prove that PARDES was a 1st century A.D. method of hermeneutics? When was PARDES first mentioned?
    – user862
    Jan 10, 2013 at 6:19

In conjunction with Romans 4:14, natural Jews, as a company or corporate whole (thus, natural Israel) have no claim to the promises of God; moreover, natural Israel plays no part in eschatology. The only "Israel" that has a place in eschatology is the Israel of God described for us by Paul in Ephesians 2 and 3. This is why the Jews hounded, hassled, and sought to kill this little turncoat tent-maker.

Part and parcel of Paul's gospel ("my gospel, received not from men but by direct relevation...") is the complete loss of distinction between Jews and Gentiles, both inside and outside of Christ and within the redemption transaction described in Ephesians 2. The middle wall of partition was removed and THEN that resulting group was reconciled to the Father. The punch-line to the allegory in Galatians makes it plain: The son of the bondwoman (present Jerusalem in bondage with her children) will NOT be heirs with the son of the freewoman.

Now, individual Jews certainly can and certainly have come to Christ ("...when one turns to the Lord the veil is removed" and not vice-versa, by the way). But as to the idea of some last-day, post-Rapture turning of God's attention BACK to "His people"? That is a myth, unsupported by any NT passage, aside from a misunderstanding of Romans 11:25-26.

Again, no wonder they wanted to kill Paul who, by these two passages (Romans 4:14 and Galatians 4:30-31) was in fact, to cite the Jews themselves, "preaching against our people." (Acts 21:28). Most commentators/teachers simply dance around the text, afraid to be labeled "anti-Semitic" if they let the text (and the writer...) simply speak for itself (himself). One might pay attention to Romans 9:6b... "They are not all (the) Israel (of God) who are descendants of Jacob..."

It might be helpful to inquire, "Why did Paul write this epistle (Galatians); what problem or circumstance is he addressing?" The commonly-held/believed answer is that Paul was dealing with a tendency to try to supplement or improve one's "saved-ness" by an admixture of "good works." A little stricture life-style, more Bible-reading/praying, more giving, more visiting the elderly in nursing homes.

But Paul was addressing something more sinister and specific. Jews were telling Gentiles that they (the latter) must themselves become Jewish (Both Acts 15:1 and 5 express synecdoche, wherein the part represents the whole. What the Judaizers were actually saying - both in Acts 15 and in the Galatian churches was this: "We Jews have all the promises. Unless you Gentiles become Jews, you'll miss out on those promises. This is the 'full' gospel.")

Paul's response is a hard-hitting, far-reaching objection that has implications for both ecclesiology and eschatology... "Not only do you Gentiles NOT have to become Jewish in order to experience the fullness of the Gospel and be full participants in the promise(s), but natural Jews who refuse to believe the Word (Heb. 1:1) spoken in these last days, but who historically have rejected the word of God (see Jeremiah 7, et al., for example); not only do you not have to become Jews, but natural Jews, natural Israel is NOT a participant and will NOT be a participant; again, because "the son of the bondwoman will NOT be an heir with the son of the freewoman."

In Romans 4, Paul contrasts two groups: Jews (those who have had the benefit of the Law and circumcision) and Gentiles (those who, while on occasion actually performing the righteous requirements of the Law as a reflection of the law written on their hearts..., those who do not have the Law). Paul tells us that "...if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is void and the promise is nullified." But "it is of faith" and the promise has been realized in Christ (Acts 13:23, 31-32).

This is what makes Galatians relevant for today, when so much of the Church-world casts a ga-ga glance at the Middle East, as though present Jerusalem and her bound children are the barometer for eschatology. Paul must be turning over in his grave.

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    – enegue
    Dec 12, 2017 at 3:50

The entire bible is about two views. The book is a compare and contrast. We have two main covenants in play. The covenant of Law vs Grace. What do these represent?

Law - you currently are not and have to become. Grace - you already are.

Law - came by moses (written) at mount Sinai Grace - came by Jesus, represented as zion. Zion is the promise.

Abraham had two sons in question (yes he later had more). The two in question are Ishmael and issac.

Ishmael came from Hagar who was an Egyptian handmaiden. Egypt represents slavery and confusion. While in Egypt the Israelites via their belief felt separated from god. Abraham had to use his own effort and trusted his wife's suggestion, similar to Eve.

Issac came from sarah and was a promise. It came from God's effort due to Sarah's condition of barrenness.

Ismael represents law and issac represents grace. Paul is trying to teach the galatians that the covenant to follow is grace and not law. That's the entire context of galatians. Paul is teaching the groups of people in the new testament that they believed they were separated from god and had to get back into his good graces by following the law, but they can't because the law was given to show them that they can't earn something they already have. That's the message of law and grace he's teaching and he's using issac and ishmael as an example of the two views.


Galatians 4:21-31 (KJV)

21 Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?

22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.

23-24 BUT HE WHO WAS OF THE BONDWOMAN WAS BORN AFTER THE FLESH; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory (allégoreó): for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.

25-26 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all..

28-29 Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.

30 Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: FOR THE SON of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.

  • (Bondswoman) Agar is figuratively likened to the Old Covenant (Mount Sinai) and represents individuals of her whom are bound to sin and born by the flesh.
  • (Freewoman) Sarah is figuratively likened to the New Covenant (New Jerusalem) and represents individuals of her whom are free from sin and born by the spirit.

In Genesis, God promised Abraham a son through his wife Sarai (Sarah) whom was infertile (Ge. 15:2-4, 16:1-2, 18:12-15). This son was Isaac, who was born because of a divine promise from God and God made his covenant with him (Ge. 17:15-21) and the 12 tribe tribes of Israel descended from him. Abraham and Sarah decided for Abraham to have another son with his other wife who was a bondwoman (Ge. 16:15). This son he had by Agar was Ishmael, who did not come about due to a divine promise but a natural fleshly way. Ishmael also mocked Isaac, and was cast out of Abraham’s house which God approved of (Ge. 21:8-12).

It should be made clear that the meaning of this story is at the forefront: that God will toss out the bondwoman’s son (those born after the flesh: v23, 30). Ultimately, this allegory boils down to being a child of promise accepted by God for New Jerusalem, while the story’s persons, then these person’s traits which are assigned to the covenants are used together to illustrate this hidden lesson. This is not about God’s promises made to the national body of Israel (Ro. 9:3-4), and the assigned traits are not all inclusive for every individual. David, Moses and the other prophets from the Old Covenant will still be ‘children of the free women,’ (He. 11:24-26; Mk. 9:4; 2 Sam. 12:23; Mt. 22:43-45; Acts 2:29-30; Lu. 13:28; Ro. 4:2-3) and so will Abraham because he had faith in God’s word despite not being under either covenant. This allegory seems to have been given as a warning to those Galatians seen in the previous chapter (Gal. 3:1-5) who had gone back to walking by the flesh (being under the law).

A1: Agar/the bondwoman represented by Sinai/Old Covenant (v. 23-24) and bondage to sin is used to show those of the flesh are being tossed out:

  • (Gal. 4:23) he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh...
  • (Gal. 4:24) ...which gendereth to bondage... (v. 30) Cast out the bondwoman and her son: For the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.

A2: v. 28-29 reaffirms the focus here is those not born of the spirit.

B1: The law/bondage being referring to is the law of sin/bondage by serving sin: (Gal. 4:21) ...ye that desire to be under the law... (v. 24) which genererth to bondage (douleia).

  • (Ro. 6:13-14) Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God... For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Jn. 8:34): ...Whosoever committeth sin is the servant (doulos) of sin.

  • (Ro. 7:5-6) [v. 4 personal reading: just as the wife was freed from the law of sin in regards to the law of adultery, we too become free to the law of sin in regards to all commands] 5 For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sinS, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. 6 But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter [v. 7 personal reading: 5-6 are connected with but (and no grammar/verse numbers exist in Greek): a callback is made to "by the law [of God]" in v. 5].

  • (Ro. 7:25) ...I myself serve... with the flesh the law of sin.

  • (2 Cor. 3:6) who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills [personal exegesis: because it serves sin], but the Spirit gives life.

  • (Ps. 119:133) Order my steps in thy word: and let not any iniquity have dominion over me.

  • Please edit this to more clearly mark out what is quoted and what is your original text.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 1, 2019 at 3:03

The entire thrust of Galatians 3 and 4 is to explain who is who. This is God's allegory. God did this completely on purpose. Gal. 3:16 is pretty clear, the promises are not to Abraham, Isach, Jacob and the 12 tribes. The promises are to Abraham and Christ alone. Full stop. The Allegory is that just like Abraham and his two wives and their two sons. This is a completely intentional picture of God's two marriages (covenants) the Abraham covenant (salvation through faith) in stark contrast to the mosaic Covenant (salvation through works) God's first covenant bears the second born son, Gods second covenant bears the first born son. The second born son receives the inheritance...not the first born.

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The nation of Israel (God's first people) were born in bondage under the law (second covenant ) The church (God's second people) were born in liberty by faith (first covenant ) Hagar cast out into the wilderness Israel cast out into the wilderness

The reason Sarai didn't give birth till Ismael was grown was because the first covenant didn't produce anything until the time of Israel was over. And once that first covenant produced an heir the second covenant children were cast out. This is why Galatians 4:27 won't be found in the book of Genesis but rather in Isaiah 54:1 immediately following the prophesy of the crucifixion . That barren woman IS the Abraham COVENANT. The desolate is the nation of Israel who has No husband The married wife is the church who has a husband

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This is a demonstration of the methods of Sensus plenior to answer the OP. SP is allegory, but it is not free-for-all allegory. It is the claim that SP reproduces Paul's hermeneutic.

Paul's allegory

Paul is interpreting the voice of the judge from the four voices (Prophet, Priest, King, Judge) contained in the OT allegory. He is deriving it's meaning from the text rather than imposing his own meaning upon it. However, he is imposing what he knows of Christ and the gospel upon it as he understands that they are shadows 'of the good things coming' (He 10.1) and can now be properly interpreted in light of Christ. This imposition is not 'forced'. It is validated by the text itself. Paul's allegory is not complete, but merely an example of the method used, by which we can see more details of the allegory.

Gal 4.19 ¶ My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you,

My little children – Paul sets the stage for the allegory he will present. The Galatians are his children under the promise in the same manner that Ishamel was a child of the law, and Isaac was a child of the promise.

20 I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you.

change my voice – perhaps refering to taking the tone and sense of the judge.

21 ¶ Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?

hear the law – the law is a reference to the first five books, or to the full collection of scripture from the OT. Since Paul will include references to Isaiah, he is using the latter.

22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.

one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman - Although we might dismiss this as a repetition of fact, I cannot find a reference to Sarah as a freewoman, so Paul has already started the interpretation. Her name means 'noblewoman' which is obvious to Jewish children. He is comparing the state of the two women without naming them. Hagar is known to be the handmaid, and by the interpretation of her name and by her actual status, Sarah is the 'noblewoman' or 'freewoman'.

23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.

but he of the bondwoman - Ishmael composed of ee – he, shama – harken/obey, el – God . By virtual of his name, he represents the law of God which must be obeyed. By this Paul associated Ishamel with the law.

born of the flesh – Paul has extensively used the Christian dualism of flesh and spirit elsewhere. Ishamael was born of the contrivances of Sarai and Abram in contrast to Isaac who was born by the promise (or the spirit) of God.

24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.

from Mt Sanai - Ishmael was born under the covenant of Mt Sanai, specifically the Leverite marriage De 25.5-6.

gendereth (begets) to bondage – The Leverite marriage is commanded and disgrace is given to those who don't perform their duty.De 25.9-10

25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.

Agar - the subroot GR meaning sojourn gives her name the meaning she sojourns which is given in dictionaries as flight. A sojourner is one who does not belong here. It is a temporary state. And as in the NT, we a sojourners are in the flesh.

mount Sinai - thorny interpreted by Jesus's parable of the sower validates that cares of the world ensnare the flesh.

Arabiamixed, desert The meaning of the word confirms the allegory of desolation by the flesh.

I will come back to do the rest when I can. Paul also uses a quote 'out of context' from Isaiah because the Hebrew perspective is that there is only one author and one context.

This can be done from Genesis, but it is a very long story which has a second narrative behind it. From that angle, Paul's hermeneutic is easy to see.

Also see the blessing of Ishmael: Ge 27:40 And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.

When Ishamel (law) has dominion, there is no grace. (The yoke of Christ is broken "My yoke is light")

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