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Tough Texts: Galatians 4:24–What to do with Paul’s Allegory

These things are being taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai and bears children into slavery—this is Hagar. (Galatians 4:24)

“The allegorical is sometimes acceptable.”

You have heard it said of old, “Literal whenever possible.” You have also heard it said, “No matter the text, make a beeline to the cross!” But truly I tell you, “The allegorical is sometimes acceptable.”  

Though one of the most perplexing passages in the New Testament, Galatians 4:21–31 offers us a test case for sorting through the hermeneutical hysteria we often see in present-day debates about how the Bible fits together. In this article, we will focus specifically on Galatians 4:24. While some interpreters have understandable concerns about endorsing any kind of allegorical approach to Scripture, Paul’s illustrative use of allegory in this passage provides guidance for how to interpret the Bible in a responsible and judicious manner in view of salvation history. 

We will frame our discussion of Galatians 4:24 according to the following two questions: 1) What did Paul mean by “figuratively” (or “allegorically”)? and 2) How do the two women, Hagar and Sarah, represent two covenants? We will begin with the former. 

Not All Allegory Is Created Equal

The CSB translates the Greek word ἀλληγορούμενα (allegoroumena) with the phrase “being taken figuratively.” Other translations use “allegory” or “allegorically” to render the word. The same word appears in other ancient Greek and Jewish writings, such as those of Philo and Josephus, to denote this interpretive approach. What precisely is allegory though? In short, “this” means “that”; understood in a broad and rudimentary sense, allegory is an approach to interpreting literature where the reader perceives that one thing (“this”) represents another thing (“that”). 

Because allegory appears in the Bible both in name and practice, we can dismiss neither its relevance nor legitimacy for biblical interpretation. Lest some begin to fret, appreciating Paul’s use of allegory in Galatians 4 does not obligate us to treat all instances of allegory as equal—as if there is not a range of diversity among allegorical interpreters, historically speaking. It merely means that allegory in some form and on some level is sometimes acceptable. 

Does this mean that we’re permitted to treat the Bible like Pilgrim’s Progress or Animal Farm? Not at all, because, once again, not all cases of allegory are created equal. We are called to imitate Paul of Tarsus rather than Origen of Alexandria (toward whose allegorical readings we might have more reason to be skittish about). Nevertheless, Paul models for us how to handle Scripture in a way that respects both its unity and diversity as well as its historicity and ongoing significance. 

Paul’s Use of Allegory

In Galatians 4:21–31, we do not see a set of arbitrary connections drawn out of thin air, something that allegorical interpretation is often accused of doing. Instead, we see Paul’s mindful appreciation of Scripture’s own internal threads and themes as taken most palpably from the Genesis 16–21 narrative. In view of the law’s place in salvation history, Paul applied these biblical threads and themes to the controversy with the Judaizers, those who were asserting that circumcision and law-keeping were necessary for salvation. Paul’s figurative reading of key historical figures contained in the books of the Law (i.e., Hagar/Sarah in Genesis; Mount Sinai in Exodus–Deuteronomy), lent not only illustrative power to his larger argument but also undermined the Judaizers’ appeal to the law code by using the Law’s own narrative against them. 

Though the allegory in Galatians 4:24 specifically pertains to the two women and their correspondence with two respective covenants (more on that below), we see additionally a case of typology in aligning the Judaizers with Ishmael and true believers with Isaac, the former being children according to flesh and the latter being children according to promise (vv. 22–23,28–29,31). While in the Isaac/children of promise and Ishmael/children of flesh parallels we see a standard promise-fulfillment dynamic between type and antitype, this is not the case with the connections Paul made between Hagar/Sarah and Mount Sinai/“Jerusalem above” (vv. 24–27). The latter appear to be a more imaginative (though nonetheless biblically saturated) construction and therefore allegorical—“this” means “that.” 

Two Women, Two Covenants, Two Ways of Relating to God

Further, what we have in Paul’s employment of allegorical interpretation is a use of biblical figures to contrast two ways of relating to God—one on the basis of works (e.g., slave woman) and the other on the basis of grace (e.g., free woman). These two covenants, as represented by the women respectively, are the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. The Abrahamic covenant was marked by its permanence and later fulfillment in the new covenant, and the Mosaic covenant was marked by its provisional and temporary function: “The law, which came 430 years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously established by God and thus cancel the promise. For if the inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on the promise; but God has graciously given it to Abraham through the promise” (3:17–18).

By “taking figuratively” the Genesis 16–21 narrative concerning the mothers of Abraham’s sons, Paul illustrated why the Judaizers’ teaching was inconsistent with the Law itself (i.e., Genesis being among the five books of Moses). The Judaizers misunderstood the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant (e.g., promise) and Mosaic covenant (e.g., law); they based salvation on our law-keeping rather than God’s promise-keeping, the law having never been designed to give eternal life and salvation (3:19a,21–22). Paul made this point earlier in the letter by stating that those who rely on the works of the law are cursed (3:10,12). Later he wrote, “You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace” (5:4). Paul’s allegorical interpretation in 4:21–31 supported his larger point stated at the front of the letter, that the Judaizers were promoting a false gospel (1:6–9). 

Given humanity’s sinfulness, there is no possible way for us to be justified by our works; otherwise, Christ died for no reason (2:20–21). From the Law and the stories therein, we should, like Paul, come to the realization that if salvation is possible at all, God must provide salvation for sinners by grace and grace alone. In other words, in the gospel, God’s promise supplies what his law demands. We jeopardize this gospel of grace whenever we subordinate God’s everlasting promise of salvation to provisional law, as the Judaizers did. Understood correctly on its own terms, the Mosaic law code was never meant to provide salvation; rather, it was meant to augment humanity’s need for the salvation that would come through Abraham’s true Seed, Jesus (3:16,19–24). 

As a slave and mother of the child of the flesh, Hagar characterizes those seeking to obtain salvation through their own works and ingenuity; as a free woman and mother of the child of promise, Sarah characterizes those who receive salvation through the Spirit by trusting in the promise. The latter group affirms the true gospel and the former a false one. 

All in for Allegory?

What should we say then? Should we continue in allegory so that figurative meaning might abound? Not exactly, but Paul’s example does at least indicate that there is a way to utilize allegory within biblical boundaries.  

Sure, as an inspired author, Paul was infallible in his use of allegory, and we cannot attain infallibility when it comes to our ability to read and interpret Scripture. Yet, as a commissioned apostle, Paul’s approach to Scripture also surely commends itself. And his employment of allegory here in Galatians 4:21–31 would seem to sanction it as a useful way to read certain aspects of the biblical story line. After all, Paul wrote, “Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ” (1Co 11:1; cf. 4:16; Php 3:17). It seems a bit arbitrary to extend Paul’s exhortation only to emulating his ethics and ecclesiology and not also his exegesis. Being biblically literate, then, might mean being allegorical. Sometimes. 

Josh Hayes is an editor of Bibles and Reference Books for Lifeway Christian Resources. He earned a PhD in Systematic Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary. Josh is an online instructor at Westminster as well as at Union University. He and his wife, Sara, live in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with their two children, Josiah and Cora. Josh also writes semi-annually on his website, allinallblog.com, and posts irregularly on Twitter (@perpetual_hayes).