Since the Galatians wanted to be under the system of Judaism, Paul asked them if they had heard what the Torah said? He then began to teach them by way of an allegory.
Galatians 4:22-24 (KJV)
For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.
But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.
Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.
The first thing to notice in verse 22 is that Paul was taking his information from the Scriptures. There it is written that Abraham had two sons. The first son, named Ishmael, was the son of a bondmaid, the slave Hagar. The second son, Isaac, was the son of Abraham's wife Sarah, a free woman.
Verse 23 states that Ishmael was born after the flesh. Isaac was born by promise. Paul was briefly explaining that God had promised a son to Abraham. When the expected heir did not come, Sarah and Abraham took matters in their own hands. Sarah gave Abraham her handmaid, Hagar, as a concubine, hoping to have children through her, which she did. That child was Ishmael. But this had not been God's plan. God intended that Abraham would have the promised son through Sarah. About thirteen years later Sarah gave birth to Isaac. It would be through Isaac that God's promises would be fulfilled. These facts must be kept in mind as Paul explained his allegory. Hagar and Ishmael were Sarah and Abraham's man-made attempt at fulfilling God's plan. Sarah and Isaac were God's miraculous fulfillment.
Verse 24 sets the stage for the allegory. Hagar and Sarah represent two covenants. Hagar represents the covenant from Mount Sinai which leads to bondage.
Which two covenants do these women represent? Often it is assumed that they represent the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, but this is not true. Verse 24 confirms that Hagar represents the Mosaic covenant, but to identify the covenant that Sarah represents requires a look back at what Paul had been teaching. Much time in the book of Galatians was spent in explaining that the Galatians had been saved by grace through faith. Paul's example had been Abraham, so it is understandable that Paul would use Sarah as the representative of the Abrahamic Covenant. The false teachers believed that the Galatians needed to undergo conversion to Judaism in order to be a part of the Kingdom of God. Paul's going back to the Abrahamic Covenant revealed that salvation came by faith. He made the point that a newer covenant cannot annul an older covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant was still in force and so faith continued to be the mechanism for salvation.
God has made several covenants with Israel. For example, there are the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the New Covenants. In each case the newer only builds or expands the older, it doesn't annul. In essence then the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants were not in opposition. The Mosaic Covenant only built on the Abrahamic. Again, Paul was proving that the false teachers were wrong in their assumptions.
Verse 24 also states that the covenant that Hagar represented led to bondage. Although Hagar stood as a representative of the Mosaic Covenant, the description of that covenant leading to bondage is confusing. Paul's view of that covenant was positive.
Romans 7:12 (KJV)
Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
However, Paul did believe that coming under the system of Judaism which included an agreement to observe the oral law to the same degree as the written Law, did lead to bondage. This also violated God's plan of including both Jews and Gentiles in His kingdom, since ritual conversion made the Gentiles virtual Jews. Paul saw Hagar (and the false teachers' way) as a man-made attempt at fulfilling God's salvation plan. Sarah (and faith) was God's method of fulfillment.
The next post will continue with Paul's allegory.