Paul gives an allegorical reading of Old Testament history to distinguish between the bondage of the law and the freedom of adoption. But the allegory is a complex one, perhaps because the subject is itself complex. The chief difficulties of the allegory are these:
A. He depicts Hagar (vs. Sarah) as under the bondage of the law, but it was through the seed of Sarah (Isaac and his decedents) that the law was received.
B. The Law is depicted as bondage and slavery, but to Israel it had always been understood as a blessing.
21 Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. 24 Now this is an allegory: 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 shout, you who are not in travail;
for the children of the desolate one are many more
than the children of her that is married.”
28 Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 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. 30 But what does the scripture say? “Cast out the slave and her son; for the son of the slave shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
How is a Jew or a student of the Old Testament to understand this bizarre reading of Paul’s? It requires a reader to move back and forth between the literal and allegorical, and glean certain truth’s about Israel which Israel herself did not wish to see.
Sara was barren and could not bring forth children, being past the time of conception. Yet God through his own power and authority over life gifted to her the miraculous birth of Isaac.
The promise therefore comes through gift and grace and not through the power of man. The promise is not itself a law we obey, but is a gift we receive.
But the people of the promise later were given a Law. Why? This Law was a figure of the life and community of the great blessing God had promised. But this Law presented itself not only as blessing but curse.
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26).
The Law therefore was a complex sign both of promise and of curse. In it was figured the righteousness of man, the life we are called to. But in it we also read our failures, we read threat, we read condemnation.
Just as Sara was barren for a time, so to were the Israelite people. They brought forth not blessing, but curse. Though they preserved the promises of God and remained a people of His covenant, they ever continued in a cycle of sin and repentance and so remained without fruit.
In her bareness, God appointed a maidservant to act as a teacher, a guide, a surrogate until the time that the true wife and heir should bring forth the promised seed.
Unlike Ishmael, the child of Hagar, the children of the Law yet looked upon that which was the image of the coming promise. For the Law is not simply a second hand pedagogue, but contains in it the image of God and the seed of the New Covenant.
The New Covenant, which also takes the name New Law, is not another different law, but rather the old Law made new, now writ upon hearts of flesh and clarified in its essential and infinite call to “love one another” as Christ has loved us. But the New Law is no longer both blessing and curse to those in the New Covenant, for the entirety of the curse is swallowed up in Christ’s death.
Thus unlike in the history of Abraham, in this allegory, Hagar as Mount Sinai (or the present Jerusalem) is not simply a wholly different mother than Sarah (the heavenly Jerusalem). Instead, Hagar was also from God, but imperfectly because man was himself hardened to God and to the Law.
God did not wish to abolish the law, but rather our slavery to it. Therefore, he does not destroy it, but reorients our attitude toward it. He does so by giving the law flesh in Christ, and by uniting our hearts to Christ’s that we may rediscover the meaning and freedom of law which is no longer condemning but freeing, for writ in the law made new to us is now the life and work of Christ which frees us from bondage and makes us co-heirs.
This Christ no longer calls us servants, but friends
That the Law is no longer the centerpiece of God’s covenant or salvation, that the Law of itself is deadly and condemning, that the honor of Israel was not essentially in the Law but in the promise, this is all a bitter pill for Jews to swallow, but it turns sweet when we see what we have been freed from, and more, what we have been freed for. We loose the law as a badge of our glory, but gain it back as a guide unto greater glory yet.
We can now see one of the great themes of the Bible, how the barren womb is blessed. That Sarah is blessed with child late in life, that Hannah to proclaims this blessing in her song, and that Mary so proclaims it in her being as she magnifies the Lord.
We too in our barren lives have hope that Christ will bring forth the children of our longing. Though we have failed to beget the love and mercy, the joy and freedom, the life and wisdom we wished to spread like dew upon the earth, yet God is in Christ Jesus becomes our first born child and as he is fully begotten in our hearts, as Christ is fully formed in us, even we too shall she the promised face of our savior and say to God, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel (Luke 2: 29-32).