Did Paul use the Old Testament out of context in Galatians 4:21-31?

Question: In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul talks about Hagar and Sarah in quite an allegorical sort of fashion that seemingly takes the scripture that he bases it on (vs 27) and uses it completely out of context. This sort of interpretation is the type that we are generally taught to avoid at all cost. Is Paul simply using the interpretation principles of those he is refuting against them? Is he able to do this sort of thing because of his position as an apostle of Christ, or is it something other than this?

Answer: I believe it is a combination of both. Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, as did Jesus himself, used interpretative and expository techniques similar to the rabbis of their day. This was not, however, because they were just copying someone else or borrowing an accepted form. It is true that if you want to communicate with the people of your culture, you must use accepted forms of communication that they can recognize readily enough to make sense of what you are saying. But the methods Jesus and the other rabbis used were sound methods, generally. They were based on the truth that the Old Testament events were intended by God to foreshadow the climactic events of God’s coming kingdom. And the main heroes and key roles of that era were also foreshadowings of the King to come, Messiah or Christ. Thus, the history of the people of God, Israel, was understood to be analogous to the history of the Messiah. If they were in Egypt for a time, it would not be surprising if the Messiah was, also (Matthew 2:13-15). If David the king was betrayed by his close friend, surely the Messiah could expect to experience this same kind of betrayal in his bid to be the people’s ruler (John 13:18-30).

So, when Paul comes to the account of Hagar and Sarah, the first woman being representative of a human attempt to fulfill God’s promise and develop God’s kingdom on earth, and the second woman representative of God’s miraculous way of fulfilling his promise and bringing his kingdom to earth, it is natural for him, as one who has met the risen Christ and who, as a prophet, has been given the key to seeing Messiah in all the Old Testament, to think of these two women as two systems of thought competing for humanity’s devotion. It is not coincidental that the “slave” woman was representative of man’s best attempt to make life work out. That always springs from and results in slavery, slavery to our own worldly perspectives and our desires to guarantee a positive outcome for our lives without having to resort to God. And it is no coincidence that Hagar was Egyptian, the people who tried to enslave and ultimately destroy Israel. And it is no big leap to associate these women then with the mountains that symbolize the two competing systems. Mt. Sinai, the place where the Law was given, was never intended by God to be a place where humans would resort to self-determination by law keeping, but that is what it became in the Jewish theology (a mistaken theology, to say the least). But it became a symbol of man’s efforts to pull himself up by his own bootstraps instead of trusting in God’s provisions for our sin and recognizing our inability to change our own hearts.

Paul is not saying through this exposition that the original texts as written to the people who first read them were clearly communicating this, though observation with the eyes of wisdom would have led readers to this conclusion. Paul’s eyes had been opened to this by Christ himself, as were the eyes of the other apostles and prophets (Luke 24:25-27). But we who have believed in Christ and seen the way the apostles interpret the Old Testament now have the capacity to do the same, as the Spirit of God opens our eyes to the representative or typological truths found in the Scriptures. None of these applications of the Old Testament are intended to override the intention of the original authors, but are seen as something the original authors either understood as they were writing or which they would have seen as legitimate applications of their writings in light of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Randall Johnson


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