“Now Hagar is Mt. Sinai in Arabia”: The Allegorical Key to Paul
It is in the famous allegory of the two wives of Abraham (Galatians 4:21–31) that Paul explicitly develops the theoretical moment of his theological and political program, for it is here that he first (and solely) uses the actual term “allegory,” which I am reading as the key to his discourse. This is the climax of the entire argument and preaching of the letter, in which all of its themes are brought together and shown to cohere. Those interpreters who regard this passage as out of place or an afterthought are, I think, quite mising the point of Paul's discourse. Paul has just in the previous section railed once again against his Jewish Christian opponents for insisting that the Galatians must become Jews in order to be Christians. He has used the language of inclusion and exclusion. There is no story more inherently exclusionary, and no text which more explicitly refers to both circumcision and conversion, than the text of Abraham, his wives Sarah and Hagar, and their respective children, the one included and the one excluded. For Paul's theology to work he must reverse the terms of that constitutive biblical text and uproot the genealogical significance of the Promise. He must contrast, indeed, the Promise to the genealogy. Allegory is the perfect hermeneutic vehicle for this transformation, because it figures both the status of language and the status of the body. Just as the language of the text is translated by an allegorical reading into a spiritual meaning, so the body of the believer is translated out of its ethnic status and into a spiritual body—again, the very notion that verse 19 has insisted upon, for it is Paul who is going to give birth to the Christians; he is pregnant and in travail with them until “Christ is formed in them.”
Paul here brilliantly sets up the terms of his onto-theology. Isaac's very birth was not by natural means but through an angelic promise to his mother. This “promise” corresponds to the promise that was made to Abraham that “his seed will inherit” and that through him all of the peoples will be blessed, as well as to the promise to Sarah that she would bear a son. On the other hand, Ishmael, the child born to Hagar, was born by natural means. Isaac, accordingly, signifies “the spirit,” and Ishmael, “the flesh.” “The spirit” can thus be replaced here by “the promise,” and “according to the promise” becomes a hermeneutical term, a way of understanding Scripture. In a recent paper, Barry Sang (1991) has elegantly described the exact methodology of Paul's allegory here: Paul gives us a vital clue to his hermeneutic system, by using not only the term ἀλλεγορέο (allegory) but also συστοιχέο (analogical ratios), a term related etymologically to the Aristotelian noun συστοιχεῖαι, which refers to the Pythagorean practice. As Gaston had already shown, Paul's method involves the use of the Pythagorean practice of establishing of parallel columns of corresponding dichotomies (Gaston 1982). We have already seen such a Pauline list drawn from Galatians as a whole above. Sang improves considerably on Gaston by demonstrating that it is precisely this method of drawing up pairs of coordinate columns which enables Paul's allegory. The two columns are set as opposites to each other, and accordingly each member of one column stands in an analogical (= equality of ratios) relationship with any other member of the same column. Consequently, “according to the promise” is equivalent to “according to the spirit.” Since, as I have argued, “according to the spirit” is equivalent to the allegorical meaning of the physical sign, it follows that being born according to the spirit is the true meaning of descent from Abraham, of which being born according to the flesh is only the signifier. This last fillip brings Paul's hermeneutical method here even closer to Philo's, I think, than even Sang would have it.
As the commentators sense, this allegorical formation is also supported by the distinction between slave and free which Paul has developed at length in the previous chapter as marking the distinction between Christian freedom and Jewish and pagan slavery to the “elements of the world.” It is the very concatenation of these several details that provides the extraordinary richness of the Pauline text here, which can be compared to an ornate tapestry for both its surface detail and depth:
For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one from the slave woman and one from the free woman. The one from the slave woman was born “according to the flesh,” however, while the one from the free woman “through the promise.” These things have an allegorical meaning. For they are two covenants: one from Mt. Sinai, giving birth into slavery—this is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mt. Sinai in Arabia, but it also corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she lives in slavery together with her children. By contrast, the Jerusalem above is free—this is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear: break forth and shout, you who are not in travail; for the children of the desolate one are more than the children of the one who has a husband.” But you, my brothers, are children of promise, like Isaac. And just as in those days the one born “according to [the] flesh” persecuted the one “according to [the] spirit,” so it is today.
We thus see the political and theological themes of the entire Pauline enterprise in this letter coming together here in one brilliant stroke. All of the antitheses that he has set up until now work together to convince the Galatians that they have but one choice, to remain in the spirit and not recommit themselves to the flesh, to remain in the covenant that was made according to the promise to the one seed of Abraham, the (spiritual) body of the risen Christ, and not return to the slavery of the covenant with Sinai, which is the present Jerusalem—that is, both the symbolic present Jerusalem and the church in Jerusalem—by undertaking to fall back into the fleshly hermeneutic of literal interpretation of circumcision. Furthermore, at least in this passage we see how illusory is the contrast between allegory and typology. Because the present Christian situation is to be interpreted spiritually, allegory is the appropriate mode for understanding it. To be sure, it is the historical event of the coming of the Christ, his crucifixion, and resurrection which has precipitated the reading, but that very historical event is itself not history but an event that signifies the end—telos, both the finish and the revelation of the meaning—of history.
As a mode of reading events, apocalyptic is, accordingly, structurally homologous to allegory. Allegory, typology, and apocalyptic all equally figure an “end to history.” The Christ event—Jesus’ birth as a Jew and his transformation in the crucifixion—both signifies and effects the transformation/transition from the historical moment to the allegorical one, from the moment of ethnicity to the moment of the universal (spiritual) subject, from natural birth to spiritual rebirth in the Promise. That is, it signifies insofar as the allegorical meaning was always already there, and it effects insofar as only at the apocalypse is that meaning revealed in the world. This interpretation, i.e., that the true meaning always existed and only waited for the Christ event in order to be revealed, is strongly supported by Galatians 3:8: “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand [προυηγγελίσατο] to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all nations be blessed.’ ” But “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed” (3:23). The Christ event is thus precisely apocalyptic, in the strictest sense of that term—revelation; it has revealed the universally true meaning, faith, that always subsisted within and above history, works of the Law.
For Paul, allegory is indeed the speaking of the other; it reveals that the particular signifies the universal. We must realize the depth of Paul's understanding of allegory not as a rhetorical device of language but as a revelation of the structure of reality (including historical reality) itself in order to have an appreciation for this passage and his thought in general. It is not that allegory and typology have been mixed here (pace Betz, 239), but history itself is transformed through this typology into allegory, and Paul's apocalypse is fully realized. Accordingly, interpretations of Paul which focus on his apocalypticism, understanding it as only a version of the general Palestinian Jewish apocalyptic, have also seriously mistaken the thrust of his gospel; it is not only that the fulfillment of time has come but more to the point that Paul understands it in a certain, specific way, as the revelation of the inner meaning of outward signs, an inner meaning which is always already there, whether the outward signs are the flesh, the Jews, the Law, or the historical Jesus. It seems to me to be a serious hermeneutic error to make one's interpretation of Paul depend on the apocalyptic expectation, which is after all not even mentioned once in Galatians, rather than the apocalyptic fulfillment which has already been realized in the vision of the crucified Christ according to the spirit, Christ's spirit, Paul's, and that of the Galatians. Even J. Christiaan Beker, the most trenchant defender of Paul as apocalyptist, admits that “Galatians threatens to undo what I have posited as the coherent core of Pauline thought, the apocalyptic co-ordinates of the Christ-event that focus on the imminent, cosmic triumph of God” (Beker 1980, 100). This suggests that as central as expectation of the Parousia is for Paul, and Beker's reading is impressive indeed, it is not yet “the coherent core of Pauline thought” but a vitally important element of that thought whose core lies yet elsewhere. The “elsewhere” that I argue for is, of course, the unification of humanity, of which both the realized eschatology of the cross and the expected eschatology of the Parousia are equally vital parts.