Wonderful things in the Bible I see…

…some of them put there by you and by me!

That little alternative version of an old chorus about the message of the Bible is meant to sound a cautionary note for everyone who interprets or (perhaps especially) teaches the Bible. Perhaps you have listened to (or preached) a sermon that left the congregation amazed at what was able to be extracted from the Bible passage under consideration. And perhaps you were right to be amazed because what you heard owed more to the preacher’s imagination than to any original intent of the sacred text!

What then, to make of Paul’s handling of the Genesis story of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael? You can read how he goes about it in Galatians 4.

The details of the Genesis story are clear enough. Abraham had two sons. God had promised him a vast number of descendants, but as time went by and no descendants were appearing, his wife, Sarah, offered her servant to help the programme along, and the result was Ishmael. Fourteen years later Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah. Despite the celebrations around Isaac’s birth, Abraham was now the father of a divided household. Tension had already run high between Sarah and Hagar, and when Sarah saw Ishmael having a bit of a laugh one day (perhaps in mockery), she had had enough and the slave woman had to go, along with her son.

In Galatians 4 Paul turns to this story in his attempts to dissuade the Galatians from submitting to the requirements of the Mosaic law. In his letter he has already written about flesh and promise and he brings the two ideas together in his discussion of Abraham’s two sons. The theme of slavery (Hagar and Ishmael) has also been very much to the forefront of his thinking at this point of the letter. Interesting, do far. And then he tells us that he is about to engage in an allegorical (typological might be a better way for us to think about it) application of the story. So the two women represent two covenants. Hagar corresponds to Sinai (whence the law of Moses) and to present day Jerusalem. On the other hand, Paul and all those who have been justified by faith and have become sons of Abraham, look to the Jerusalem above, who – in fulfilment of Isaiah 54 – has born children. The Ishmael/Isaac hostility is reflected in the opposition to those who have been born of the Spirit and the action of Sarah in commanding the exclusion of Hagar is meant to bolster the Galatians’ stand for freedom.

Wonderful things in the Bible I see…!

So what does this mean for the way we handle Old Testament stories? Does it give us license to make a passage teach whatever we want? Steve Brady warns that we need to be on our guard against spiritualising the literal and literalising the spiritual. We are not at liberty to make the Bible say what we want it to when that actually means making it say what it was never meant to say.

Several reflections on what Paul is doing here:

  1. Let’s not forget that Paul was an apostle and that, as an apostle, he carries more clout than you and I do.
  2. Paul is not plucking an application out of the air here. You can read the rest of his argument through the book of Galatians. Freedom and slavery are contrasted. The flesh features (as an alternative to the life of the Spirit). Promise is contrasted with the law of Moses. Paul is able to see these themes in the Sarah/Hagar story. His application fits the theological framework that has been revealed to him and had formed the basis of his gospel.
  3. Nowhere does Paul imply that the events in Genesis never happened. His ‘allegorical’ interpretation is not a denial of historicity. In contrast someone who interpreted the resurrection of Jesus allegorically while denying the historicity of the event could claim no backing from Paul’s approach here.
  4. Paul is deliberately using a story from ‘The Law’ to speak to people who are being lured by the law. In fact, some scholars think that his opponents may have been using the same story to support their point, perhaps arguing that they (who observed the works of the law) were the true children of Abraham, so underlining their claim that the Galatians had to become like them if they were to be truly ‘in’.

Which might leave us wishing that Paul had included a handbook on hermeneutics among his epistolary collection; or, indeed, that Cleopas and his friend on the Emmaus Road had taken the time to write up a full account of Jesus’ exposition of the way the Old Testament pointed to him.

Meantime, I’d suggest that we will be on the safest ground when we follow in the kind of New Testament footprints that we see here and elsewhere with Paul and in the book of Hebrews. I don’t think we should play fast and loose with concepts of historicity and authorial intent (insofar as we can discern it). And if we do use some of the OT narratives in an illustrative way, let it be to illustrate teaching that is clearly set out in other biblical themes and passages rather than attempt to use allegorical interpretations to build a case for some new revelation.

What do you think?

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