Hagar and Ishmael in Biblical Allegory

In the previous article, that part of Galatians 4 containing the allegory referring to Hagar was quoted. First, you read there in verses 22 and 23 that “Abraham had two sons, one by the handmaid and one by the freewoman. Howbeit, the son by the handmaid has been born after the flesh; but the son by the freewoman through the promise.” Here the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, represent Israel, Israel after the flesh and Israel after the spirit, respectively. The son of the handmaid represents Israel after the flesh, the natural Israel, they who reject the promise, have not faith, fall back upon the law and works; whereas the son of the freewoman represents the spiritual Israel, they who died to sin, are justified from the penalty of the law, live in the Spirit, have forgiveness and eternal life. These women, herein mentioned, are also representations on their own. For we read, “which things are an allegory: for these (add women; feminine gender are (represent) two covenants, one from Mt. Sinai, bearing children unto bondage, which is Hagar” (vs. 24). The Apostle Paul, at this point, is not speaking of these people as people, but as things (“which things”), as representations. Paul is aware of the fact that the Old Testament history does not teach that Ishmael was personally excommunicated from the Old Testament church, and now here, in Galatians, he refers to that history only to show the contrast between natural and spiritual Israel. The historical account of Genesis does not bear out the idea of Ishmael’s reprobation. The allegorical account of Galatians teaches the expulsion of the carnal seed from the church. What we have here in Hagar’s son is not Ishmael as an individual, but as an example of the carnal seed. The relation, then, between the history and the allegory is not that of prophecy and fulfillment, but that of fact and illustration. “These women are (represent) two covenants,” i.e., they are not so actually, but typically they represent two covenants.
Now this writer is not familiar with the Dutch langrage and for that reason would not only hesitate in coming up with a Dutch word here or there to bring out or emphasize a point, but does not make a practice of extending himself beyond his limitations. Still it may not be amiss for him to quote the Dutch version of v. 24, as, among the many versions consulted on this passage, the Dutch was one of the most interesting, which even this writer could detect. It reads, “Hetwelk dingen zijn, die andere beduiding hebben:…” or “the which things are those (that) have another meaning,” i.e., not which particular things, but which class of things, things of this nature, of a figurative nature, they convey also additional meaning (to that of the literal, historical narrative). The text, according to the English and the Greek, speaks of an allegory. An allegory is a certain mode of interpretation; so that Paul is not speaking of people in their own proper persons, but of people interpreted as representations of spiritual groups. Therefore, what, specifically, is an allegory? It is a certain form of figurative speech. Perhaps the simplest figure of speech is the simile, which is a form of comparison between two different objects. “He fought like a lion” is a simile. A metaphor is an implied comparison (simile). “He was a lion in the battle!” is a metaphor. It is more concise than a simile. A parable is an extended simile and an allegory is an extended metaphor, the sense of which is different from the apparent one. When the Lord refers to Herod as “that fox” (Luke 13:31f), His meaning is not directly stated, but implied, and is different from the ordinary use of the term (Matt. 8:20). When Jesus looked for fruit on the “barren” fig tree, the apparent meaning was that He looked for fruit on it. But being omnipresent, He knew there was no fruit on it. This was rather a symbolical act to show how it would fare with a nation not bearing the fruits of righteousness.
The allegory, not the history, continues: “Now the thing Hagar is (represents) Mt. Sinai in Arabia, and answers to (ranks with) the now Jerusalem: for she is in bondage with her children. But the above Jerusalem is free, which is our mother” (vv. 25f). This bears out further what we have been saying. For Paul writes only of to ‘Agar, not ‘ee ‘Agar, i.e., “the thing Hagar (not the woman Hagar); not the particular Hagar, but the allegorical Hagar, the Hagar under discussion. “Hagar” is not here regarded as a person, but as a mode (or an object) of thought. The thought is, this allegorical Hagar represents the now-Jerusalem, which is really Sodom and Egypt (Rev. 11:8). This Hagar is (represents) the natural Israel which is in bondage with her children—the Scribes, Pharisees, Judaizers and all the self-righteous, carnal worshipers who made the holy, just and good law of God a covenant of works. They were never in the covenant, but under a “covenant” of their own imagination which consisted in mere ceremonial form, in man-made agreements, in the curse of the moral law, in the yoke of bondage, in rites of circumcision, in justification by the works of the law—in fine, the seeking of salvation by the outward performance of the works of the law of Moses. In this way the passage comes to speak of two covenants, when in reality there is only one true covenant.
Sarah was a figure of the above-Jerusalem. It is “above” because it is from above, they seek the things which are above, are called with a heavenly calling, have their citizenship in heaven. Of this Jerusalem, the eternal covenant our mother, it is said that she is free, free from the yoke and spirit of bondage, free from the curse of the law; her children are freemen and stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free. Sarah, typically, is the mother of us all (vv. 24-26). Abraham, typically, is the father of us all (Rom. 4:16).
It should have been clear from verses 22-24, and is now plain at this point, that “Hagar” (“she who hath the husband”) represents Jewish people, a Jewish city and she an Egyptian, a Gentile! Why then should we be surprised at finding one of God’s children (Ishmael) used as an illustration or figure of the carnal seed? For not the particular Ishmael as a person is here in view, not the historical, but the allegorical Ishmael. We also find “sheep”, most often used as a figure of the elect, in one place used to represent self-righteous reprobate (Luke 15:1, 2ff).
“For it is written, “Rejoice thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for more are the children of the desolate than of her that hath the husband” (v. 27). It is not, as in the KJV, “she which hath an husband,” but “hath the husband.” The husband was not Hagar’s. She was not even a concubine, but merely Sarah’s handmaid. The husband was Sarah’s husband. Hagar “had” him only, wrongly, to raise up seed to her barren mistress. Hence the meaning is, “she who has the husband” who really belonged to another.
“Now ye, brethren, as Isaac, are children of promise” (v. 28). This is not to be understood in such a way as to personally exclude Hagar and Ishmael from the promises of God. In view of Gen. 17:20 and 21:17, 20 this cannot be. The meaning simply is; that you, brethren, in contrast to the Judaizers, are the spiritual seed, consisting of believing Gentiles and Jews of the New Testament church—you are the children of the new covenant.
“But as then he that was born according to flesh persecuted him that was born according to spirit, so it is now” (29). Ishmael was born according to and as a result of the dictates of the flesh. Isaac was born according to the spirit of the promise, according to the principle of regeneration. Ishmael represents the carnal Israel, which persecutes the spiritual Israel. “Howbeit, what saith the Scripture? ‘Cast out the handmaid and her son; for the son of the handmaid shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman!’ Wherefore, brethren, we are not children of a handmaid, but of the freewoman” (30, 31). It is not, “we are not children of the bondwoman”, but we are not children of a bondwoman, not of any bondwoman. The son of the handmaid represents Israel after the flesh, which is finally set aside by God. So that with the Jews rejected, Christians, not natural Israelites as such, are the true children of Abraham. To be merely fleshly descendants of Abraham meant nothing. Jesus never recognized them as being of God. “I know that ye are Abraham’s seed, but…ye are not of God” (Jn. 8:37, 47). The truth is, “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). So much for the Galatian allegory.
We now turn to Gen. 21:15-20 where we find Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness and the Lord caring for them both. They were not fugitives and vagabonds as Cain (4:14), nor was Ishmael left in the wilderness like the ninety-nine sheep (Luke 15:4), for, although they were cast out of Abraham’s household, they were not cast out of the family of God. God had met Hagar in the desert before, had heard her affliction and was with the lad. God had not forgotten them. Taking the initiative, He made the first move toward her with “What aileth thee, Hagar?” He required a confession of their deep need, but not waiting for an answer, He aroused a hopeful expectation in her. Not in Ishmael, but in Isaac did the covenant line continue. The covenant line was no more in Ishmael than it was in Melchizedek or in Japheth.
“Hagar, fear not!” These words can never apply to a reprobate. Such words were spoken to Abraham (15:1), to Isaac (26:24), to believing Israel (Isa. 41:14), to Daniel (10:12), to Zacharias (Luke 1:13), to Mary (1:30), to the godly women at the tomb (Matt. 28:5), to Paul (Acts 27:24), to the “little flock” (Luke 12:32) and to the Apostle John (Rev. 1:17), but were never spoken to a reprobate. The reason is obvious. They have everything to fear. For the longer they live on this earth, the heavier their condemnation in the day of judgment! This confirms what we have been saying all along, that only the elect are blessed. They alone have the word of comfort, “Fear not!”

Originally Published in:
Vol. 29 No. 3 May 1969