Hagar, Sarah, and the Two Covenants

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Hagar, Sarah, and the Two Covenants

The apostle Paul discusses two important covenants in Galatians 4:21-31, the topic for this week’s Sabbath school lesson. Why does Paul choose these two covenants, represented by two women in Scripture, Hagar and Sarah, and what does he mean by this? Furthermore, what is the relevance of this to today’s Bible student? I propose that we look closely at Paul’s theology in the context of chapter 4 to help us discover his purpose in using these symbols. The context is extremely important. In the passage we looked at last week (Gal. 4:12-20) we found Paul pleading, even begging the Galatians to become like him, to forsake everything for Christ and for the gospel. To recap Paul’s main idea—the Galatians have been seduced by a deceptive form of legalism—they were living in bondage to the law, seeking to be perfected by it (Gal. 3:3). In effect, they had rejected Christ and were attempting to establish their own righteousness. He therefore addresses the issue in quite severe terms, as he himself was once a Pharisee (Gal. 3:1).

Paul’s Challenge – Are you listening?

In this week’s challenging verses, Paul continues his reasoning. To summarize his writing, his theology builds on the thrust of his entire letter, particularly the teaching raised in chapter 4 regarding liberation from bondage and slavery to adoption as sons of God. Paul’s choice of language is significant. The law is like a tutor, or guardian to bring us to Christ (Gal. 4:2). Then Christ came, born of a woman, born under the law to save those under the law so that those who receive His Spirit might become sons of God (Gal. 4:4-5). The Galatians had lost their focus and their relationship with Christ. Paul declares again that he is in labor, in pain, over the Galatians. His struggle is that Christ is formed within them (Gal. 4:19). This union with Christ comes about by faith in Jesus and the reception of the Holy Spirit, not through the keeping of the law. The two women, Hagar, and Sarah that Paul now contrasts presents a further argument as to the nature of God’s covenantal relationship with His people.


Paul’s message to the Galatians is passionate and at times, severe. He is in effect, disciplining them for going astray. But like a parent disciplines a child, he is doing it out of love. In verse 20, he states “I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you” (Gal. 4:20). Even though Paul wishes he could change his tone, he launches into his final teaching segment in chapter 4 beginning in verse 21: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?” In other words, are you listening to what the Bible says? Paul is writing directly to the Judaizers who have deceived the Galatians and to those people specifically who succumbed to their false teaching. What is it that they were not hearing or understanding about the law? Paul begins to teach them by turning back to Genesis 16 and the story of Sarai, Hagar, and Abraham. Are they listening? Paul is about to explain the Scriptures to them.


Hagar Versus Sarah

The story of Abraham features prominently in Paul’s writing. For Paul, Abraham represents the great and wonderful promises of God given to all people. These promises contain the hope of salvation in Jesus Christ and the granting of His inheritance to all God’s children by faith. The story however, is not without difficulty, doubt, dishonesty, and disbelief on the part of Abraham and Sarah. God’s promise to Abram that he and Sarai would produce an heir, appeared to Abram to remain unfulfilled (Gen. 15:2-3). In spite of this, God continued to promise Abram that indeed, he and Sarah would produce an heir, and offspring as innumerable to him as the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:4-5). And because Abram believed God it was accounted to Him as righteousness. However, Abram tried to take matters into his own hands when he accepted the request of Sarah to go in to her maid, Hagar in order to produce a child. Hagar was Sarah’s maidservant, most likely a gift from Pharaoh of Egypt.


To us today, such a decision on the part of Abraham and Sarah is as the sin of adultery, to sleep with another person not your own spouse. Yet a primary or foremost shame or source of pain in a woman’s life during that time period was the inability to bear children. This, for Sarah was perhaps far greater than her need to keep her husband’s fidelity intact. Polygamy was also practiced at that time in addition to concubinage. Different times and cultures had different attitudes toward sexuality and marriage. This is seen throughout the Old Testament and was not condemned as sin.[1] It was also customary in ancient times to use a maid, or slave to produce children if one could not. This was an ancient form of surrogacy and not an uncommon response to infertility. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, and Sarah, supposedly has a ‘son.’ However, the story doesn’t end there and Sarah eventually gives birth to Isaac. Now Abraham has two sons (Gal. 4:22).


Paul describes the son born to Hagar the bondwoman, Ishmael, as born of the flesh. In contrast, the son Isaac born to Sarah the freewoman is born through God’s promise (Gal. 4:23). One son was birthed by them taking matters into their own hands rather than trusting in God and His promise. It ended up becoming a trial rather than a blessing for all involved. Abraham and Sarah’s own works supplanted the faith that they should have exercised toward God. Don’t we do the same today? Forgetting that we serve the Almighty, and thinking we can arrange our own lives while paying lip service to God only alienates our hearts and minds from the very One who can save, guide and protect us. Only trusting in God and following His ways can enable us to reach our full potential as His servants. Forcing Hagar to sleep with Abraham and carry their child was a work of the flesh, leading to jealousy, contempt, and a desire for revenge. Without God’s direct intervention in support of Hagar and Ishmael, they would have died in the wilderness after receiving the blow of Sarah’s cruel plan to be rid of them when things didn’t pan out as she planned.


Paul makes the stunning assertion: Hagar symbolizes the law given by God on Mt. Sinai, corresponding to Jerusalem in their day. Whereas Sarah is likened to the Jerusalem from above which is free.


“For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:24b).


It is significant that Paul employs these two women as illustrations, and their relationships to others, i.e., Abraham and the sons that they bear, to describe the nature of the covenants that God made with people in times past. Based on this, Paul makes some sobering conclusions in his presentation of the two covenants. From them he makes the contrast between freedom and slavery. The concept of being in bondage returns as a continuing theme in chapter 4. Hagar, symbolizing slavery, stands for Mt. Sinai and the earthly Jerusalem, which gives birth to bondage, that is, legalism (Exod. 19-20). Note it is not the law itself, but the misuse of the law that Paul is attacking. In Romans 3:31 Paul poses the question, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.”


Children of the Heavenly City

In contrast, the freedom Paul wants to introduce them to is from heaven, where Christ is, the heavenly, or new Jerusalem. He reminds the Galatians that they are like Isaac, children of God’s promise (Gal. 4:28). They are no longer born of the flesh or held captive under sin, but are born of the Spirit (Gal. 4:29). He quotes Isaiah 54:1:

“Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband” (Gal. 4:27).

The Gentiles are like the desolate childless woman, who receives the promises of God by faith. According to Paul the bondwoman’s son does not share in the same inheritance as the freewoman’s son.

“Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free” (Gal. 4:30-31).


It may still be tempting to think that Paul is against the law. This is not the case, however. Remember, it is their singular focus on the law and their keeping of it, rather than on Christ, that had become the basis of the Galatians relationship with God. What Paul is opposed to is basing one’s relationship with God on the performance of keeping the law and forgetting about Christ. This is not freedom, but bondage. According to Paul it is like the covenant from Sinai. There is a danger in thinking that one’s relationship with God can be reduced to the keeping of God’s law. Yes, the law is a guide, a lamp to the feet and a light to the path. It is honorable, true, and good. But the greatest revelation of God and His character came through His son, Jesus Christ who atoned for our sins and for the entire world. According to Paul there are two covenants: one leading to bondage, the other to freedom. One is based on the works of the flesh, the other, the Spirit of God. The good news is that we no longer have to be as slaves held in bondage. Rather we are called to be the children of the new Jerusalem, the children of promise.




[1] In the New Testament, Christ clearly supports the unity of marriage as being between one man and one woman. When questioned by some Pharisees over the issue of divorce Jesus said, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a mean will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).

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About the author

Katrina Blue

Katrina Blue is assistant professor of Religion at Pacific Union College. Her Ph.D. from Andrews University is in Theological Studies. She wrote her dissertation on the topic of "Union with Christ in the Writings of Ellen G. White" (2015). She is passionate about spirituality and making God's truth relevant to the world.