How should the Bible be interpreted? To read some dispensational interpreters the answer is found in Milton Terry. Too many dispensational books begin laying out a priori principles for interpretation apart from any biblical demonstration of these principles’ validity. Indeed sometimes the principles don’t cohere with the way the NT utilizes the Old, and ad hoc solutions are developed, such as Inspired Sensus Plenoir. In other words, NT writers can interpret the OT in ways that we cannot.
This seems to undermine the sufficiency of Scripture with regard to hermeneutics. How do we interpret Scripture? Scripture itself repeatedly demonstrates how by showing us examples in which one passage interprets another.
Does this approach justify allegorical approaches, such as those found in the church fathers—hermeneutical approaches that seem divorced from authorial intent and any hermeneutical control other than the analogy of faith?
Galatians 4:21-31 serves as a good test case. Paul clearly states, “Which things are an allegory” (4:24, KJV). Or is this clearly an allegory? A comparison of other translations shows that things may not be so straightforward. The ESV clarifies that Paul is not claiming Genesis was written as an allegory; it is his interpretation that is “allegorical”: “Now this may be interpreted allegorically.” Other translations remove the word allegory altogether: “which things are symbolic” (NKJV); “These things are illustrations” (HCSB); “These things are being taken figuratively” (NIV 2011; CSB). The best way forward is to see what Paul is doing in this passage.
Verse 21 sets the stage. Paul concludes his argument against those Galatians who wished to submit themselves to the Law by asking whether they have considered what the Law actually says about being under the Law. Verses 22-23 direct the readers back to the Abraham narrative. In its original setting in Genesis, this narrative is about the promises of God and the response of Abraham to these promises with growing faith.
Interpretation of Genesis 16, 21
In Galatians 4 Paul specifically highlights Abraham’s two sons to exemplify two ways in which Abraham sought to receive the promises. Genesis 16 records the birth of Abraham’s first son. In the previous chapter, when Abram reminded the Lord of both the seed promise and his lack of children (15:2-3), God re-affirmed the seed promise and further specified that Abram himself would have a son (15:4-5), and Abram believed God (15:6). But chapter 16 opens: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.” If Abram is to have children, it is his wife who would bear them. And yet Yahweh, the giver of the promise, had “prevented” Sarai from having children.
Genesis 16:1 shows a possible way out of this dilemma: “[Sarai] had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar.” The passage is clear that this is not God’s way of fulfilling the promise. When Abraham had previously consulted with God about a servant being the key to fulfilling the promise, God had rejected that solution (15:4). Ominously, in Genesis 16 God was not consulted. Moses also uses language that draws the reader’s mind back to Genesis 3: “And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarai” (16:2) just as Adam “listened to the voice of [his] wife” (3:17). Like Eve, who “took” and “gave also to her husband” (3:6, NASB), Sarah “took” and “gave to her husband” (16:3, NASB).
The fact that the phrase ‘obey,’ lit. ‘listen to the voice’ (שׁמע לקול), occurs only here and in Gen 3:17 would be suggestive enough. But more than that, in both instances, it is a question of obeying one’s wife, an action automatically suspect in the patriarchal society of ancient Israel [or should this be, in the ethical norms of Scripture?]. That this is more than a chance allusion to the fall seems to be confirmed by v 3, where further echoes of that narrative are found. [Wenham, WBC, 7; cf. Waltke, Genesis, 252]
Thus, as in the Garden of Eden, God’s word was not believed and humans took matters into their own hands. Because they sought the promise through their own efforts, Paul says, “The son of the slave was born according to the flesh” (Gal. 4:23), that is Ishmael was born of human contriving.
Note, however, that Abram and Sarai did not entirely disbelieve God. They were trying to fulfill God’s promise through their own efforts. Calvin comments:
The faith of both of them was defective; not indeed with regard to the substance of the promise, but with regard to the method in which they proceeded; since they hastened to acquire the offspring which was to be expected from God, without observing the legitimate ordinance of God. [Calvin, Genesis, 1:424]
Genesis 21 records the birth of Abraham’s second son. In this passage Moses specifically says that Isaac was born “as He had promised” (21:1, NASB). He reinforces the fulfillment of the promise by noting that the birth took place “as He had said” (21:1, NASB) and “at the time of which God had spoken to him” (21:2). Moses also emphasizes the Lord’s involvement in the birth of Isaac by specifying that the Lord “visited” Sarah, a term that indicates God’s special involvement. Abraham’s personal righteousness had nothing to do with the fulfillment of the promise, for he had failed once again in the previous chapter. His old age (noted in 21:1, 5, 7) also indicates that God fulfilled his promise. It is on the basis of this passage that Paul says, “The son of the free woman was born through the promise” (Gal. 4:23).
Application of Genesis 16, 21 to the Galatians
The circumstances of the birth of Abraham’s two sons parallel the two options that lie before the Galatians. They can seek to achieve the promises of God through human effort, or they can trust God to bring about what he has promised. Paul exploits this parallel by a figurative interpretation that draws further parallels between the mothers of those sons and the two covenants that the Galatians may live under: the Mosaic covenant or the new covenant.
The association of Hagar with Mount Sinai makes a clear connection to the Mosaic Covenant. The present Jerusalem probably refers to “the whole legal system of Judaism, which had its world-centre in Jerusalem” (Bruce, NIGTC, 220). And what of Arabia. Calvin and Schreiner suggest that the mention of Arabia signifies that those under the Mosaic Covenant have not entered the promises of God. Ridderbos, however, prefers to understand the verse as saying: Although Sinai is in Arabia, Hagar is nonetheless to be identified with the present Jerusalem.
The covenant symbolized by Sarah is not clearly identified, so interpreters divide over whether it is the Abrahamic covenant or the new covenant. In favor of the new covenant, the Galatian churches are Gentile churches, and they become the seed of Abraham and beneficiaries of aspects of his covenant because of their union to the Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:27-29). This union happens only through the new covenant sacrifice of Christ. The heavenly Jerusalem is neither the church triumphant (Aquinas) nor the church militant (Calvin). It is instead future Jerusalem, from which Christ establishes his righteous reign over all the earth. Some aspects of this righteous reign have begun with the inauguration of the new covenant, but its consummation awaits the future.
Interpretation of Isaiah 54
The connection between the Judaizers and the Mosaic Law is self-evident. But Paul must demonstrate the connection between the Galatian Christians and Sarah / the free woman / the new covenant / the Jerusalem above (note the γάρ, which indicates that Paul is grounding his claim of 4:26). He does this by quoting Isaiah 54:1.
Isaiah 54-55 links the Abrahamic covenant, the new covenant, and Gentile salvation while also having a nice verbal connection to Paul’s illustration through the word “barren.” Isaiah alludes to the Abrahamic (54:1-3), Mosaic (54:4-8), Noahic (54:9-17), and Davidic (55:3b-5) covenants, and he does so in terms of their fulfillment in the new covenant (compare Isa. 54:10 with Eze. 34:5; 37:26 and Isa. 55:3 with Isa. 61:8; Eze. 37:26).
Isaiah 54:1 connects to the Abrahamic covenant by speaking of Zion in terms of a barren woman having offspring (Isaiah 54:1 and Genesis 11:30 are parallel in Hebrew and especially in the LXX). The connection continues with the reference to “spread[ing] abroad to the right and to the left” (54:3), which calls to mind Genesis 28:14. Genesis 28:14 not only promises numerous offspring to Abraham but also says the blessing of Abraham’s seed would be to “all the families of the earth.” Isaiah brings those two ideas together in his exhortation for Zion to enlarge her tent because her seed will possess the nations (54:2-3).
What does it mean for Israel to possess the nations? The closest parallel to גּוֹיִ֣ם יִירָ֔שׁin Isaiah 54:3 is Amos 9:11-12: “‘In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess [יִֽירְשׁ֜וּ] the remnant of Edom and all the nations [הַגּוֹיִ֔ם] who are called by my name,’ declares the LORD who does this.” The emphasis in Amos is on Israel possessing all the nations. Edom is given as a concrete example, and perhaps also “as a synecdoche for the phrase ‘all the nations’ (כל־הגוים) which parallels it” (Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, WBC, 398). The Lord identifies these nations as “called by my name.” This indicates “that the nations will not simply come under Israelite hegemony (as before), but that they will actually become one with God’s people” (Niehaus, “Amos,” Minor Prophets, ed. McComiskey, 1:492; also Finley, WEC, 325). James appealed to Amos 9:11-12 to make the same point that Paul is making in Galatians: circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses are not necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1-21).
Notably, this will happen not by natural means (as when a married woman has children), but it will be a supernatural work (like a deserted, barren woman who has never been in labor having more children than the married woman) (Isa. 54:1).
Application of Isaiah 54 to the Galatians
Thus Paul can conclude that the Galatians, “like Isaac, are children of promise” (4:28). These Gentiles have become part of the people of God not through their own efforts but through the supernatural working of God and in accordance with his promise to Abraham (Gen. 28:14).
Application of Genesis 21 to the Judaizers
After having established the identity of the Galatian Christians, Paul establishes the identity of the Judaizers: they are like Ishmael, for they persecute those “born according to the Spirit” (4:29). This connection is made on the basis of Ishmael’s treatment of Isaac in Genesis 21:9 (cf. Matt. 5:11; 1 Pet. 4:4). Calvin rightly understands the seriousness of Ishmael’s mocking:
“And there is no doubt that his manifest impiety against God, betrayed itself under this ridicule. He had reached an age at which he could not, by any means, be ignorant of the promised favour, on account of which his father Abraham was transported with so great joy: and yet—profoundly confident in himself—he insults, in the person of his brother, both God and his word, as well as the faith of Abraham. [Calvin, Genesis, 543]
Paul then applies the judgment that falls on those aligned with Ishmael (that is those under the Mosaic code): they will not receive the promised inheritance. Paul gives this warning based on the words of Sarah: “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman” (Gal. 4:30). In the flow of Paul’s argument, this quotation seems to be a warning that fits with Paul’s opening admonition: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” Submission to the Law results in being cast out from the family of promise.
In verse 31 Paul reiterates the conclusion that he reached in 4:28 about the identity of Christians. In 5:1 he concludes his exhortation and prepares the way for the following section by exhorting the Galatians to stand firm in their freedom and not to submit to the slavery of the Mosaic code.
Contrast Between Paul’s Method and Augustine’s
Throughout this passage Paul exploits surface similarities (Hagar’s bondage with the bondage of the Law; Sarah’s freedom with the freedom of the new covenant; Sarah’s barrenness and later fecundity with Zion’s barrenness and later fecundity) to illustrate aspects of his present situation, but when probed these surface similarities have deeply rooted, substantive connections. It is these roots that set Paul’s practice in this passage apart from the allegories of the patristic and medieval eras. For instance, Augustine extended Paul’s allegory to apply also to Abraham’s children by Keturah.
Now if someone has gained confidence from the Apostle’s very clear demonstra¬tion that these two sons are to be understood allegorically and also wishes to see in Keturah’s sons some figure of things to come—for these events involving such persons were not recorded of the Holy Spirit for nothing—he will perhaps find that they signify heresies and schisms. They are indeed sons of a free woman, as are the sons of the Church, yet they were born according to the flesh, not spiritually through the promise. But if so, they are also found not to belong to the inheritance, that is the heavenly Jerusalem, which Scripture calls barren because for a long time she did not bear sons on earth. [Eric Plummer, Augustine’s Commentary on Galatians: Introduction, Text, Translation, Notes, Oxford Early Christian Studies, ed. Gillian Clark and Andrew Louth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 195]
Augustine’s allegory does make superficial connections, but an examination of Genesis 25 reveals that it lacks any substantial connection to the teaching of Genesis 25.
Galatians 4 shows that Paul is willing to use Old Testament narratives illustratively, and he is willing to apply those narratives to the present situation of Christians. But Galatians 4 also shows that when Paul does this, his interpretation of the Old Testament remains rooted in the original meaning of the Old Testament texts.