Learning to Read Moses’ Allegory: Matthew Emerson on Galatians 4:21–31 and Paul’s Reading of the Pentateuch

paul.jpegIn his illuminating article on Galatians 4:21–31, Matthew Emerson shows how we should learn to read Moses from the Apostle Paul. In a passage that typically is used as an example for how to not read the Old Testament like Paul, Emerson makes the opposite case. And I believe he is exactly right.

In his article,“Arbitrary Allegory, Typical Typology, or Intertextual Interpretation? Paul’s Use of the Pentateuch in Galatians 4:21–31,” he lists a number of historical and contemporary approaches to Paul’s use of allegoreō in Galatians 4:24. In what follows, I will list some of his findings (all the quotations are from his article) and summarize his compelling argument for learning how to read Moses from Paul in Galatians 4:21–31. If you can get to his article, I encourage you to read it, or anything he writes.

The Stalwart Reformers Struggle to Understand Galatians 4:21–31

While unswervingly faithful interpreters of Scripture, the Reformers struggled to understand Paul’s words in Galatians 4:21–31. For instance, Luther explains Paul’s words as being merely aesthetic.

Paul had fortified his cause before with invincible arguments, taken of experience, of the example of Abraham, the testimonies of the Scripture, and similtudes, now in the end of his disputations he addeth an allegory, to give a beauty to all the rest. For it is a seemly thing sometimes to add an allegory when the foundation is well laid and the matter thoroughly proved.

Calvin differs from Luther, but also makes apology for Paul, because strict allegory was a method of interpretation that he opposed.

But what reply shall we make to Paul’s assertion, that these things are allegorical? Paul certainly does not mean that Moses wrote the history for the purpose of being turned into an allegory, but points out in what way the history may be made to answer the present subject. This is done by observing a figurative representation of the Church there delineated. And a mystical interpretation of this sort (anagoge) was not inconsistent with the true and literal meaning, when a comparison was drawn between the Church and the family of Abraham. As the house of Abraham was then a true Church, so it is beyond all doubt that the principal and most memorable events which happened in it are so many types to us.

Believe What Paul Says, But Don’t Do What He Does

Among modern scholarship, there are three ways Galatians 4:21–31 has been taken. First, there are those who believe Paul’s use of allegory is an unrepeatable method of hermeneutics. For instance, Jonathan Lunde, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old, while not denying the historical moorings of Genesis, says Paul is not reading Genesis historically.

[Paul] appears not to be concerned with historical reality here—other than the historical existence of these women—but seems to utilize these women in surprising, symbolic ways to make his theological point. (Lunde: 29)

F. F. Bruce states that Paul’s use of the Old Testament in Galatians stands in sharp contradiction with other passages. He argues that typology depends on the natural historical direction of the Old Testament, which Galatians 4:24 inverts.

In the present ‘allegory’, however, there is a forcible inversion of the analogy which is unparalleled elsewhere in Paul. Whereas in other typological passages the OT account is left intact, the argument here is up against the historical fact that Isaac was the ancestor of the Jews, whereas Ishmael’s descendants were Gentiles. This unique clash between type and antitype demands an explanation. (Bruce: 218)

C. K. Barrett supposes that Paul did not delight in allegory but was forced to fight the Galatians on their terms because they depended on allegory.

Paul deemed his allegorical treatment of the Hagar-Sarah story necessary “because his opponents had used it and he could not escape it. His so called allegorical treatment of Abraham was evoked not by a personal love of fantastic exegesis but by a reasoned case which it was necessary that he should answer. (Barrett: 162)

Richard Longenecker, who argues that Paul used a kind of allegory we must not repeat, agrees with Barrett,

Paul’s allegorical treatment of the Hagar-Sarah story is for polemical purposes and thus apparently countering the Judaizers’ own contemporization of that story in ad hominem fashion. (Longenecker, 1990: 200)

On this account, Longenecker concludes,

Christians today are committed to the apostolic faith and doctrine of the New Testament, but not necessarily to the apostolic exegetical practices as detailed for us in the New Testament. (Longenecker, 1994: 385; see also Longenecker, 1999: 109)

So, we must believe what Paul believed, but not do (with the Old Testament) what Paul did. This seems, on the surface, to be problematic because Paul often invited his followers to imitate him. Would this not include his methods of interpretation? Leaving that question aside for now, let it be noted that more than a few scholars approach Paul this way: we must believe him, but we must not imitate him. For instance, a final example is James Dunn:

It is difficult…to deny a degree of arbitrariness in the exposition, particularly in the allegorical identification of Hagar (Abraham’s slave-girl) with Mount Sinai (4.24), the interpretive move which enables Paul to turn the tables on the other missionaries. On the other hand, the whole exposition has a logic consistent with the basic contrasts of the original story….But it hardly provides justification for more arbitrary allegorizations, especially if offered as substantive argument for a theological assertion. (Dunn: 124)

Charging Paul with the ‘Crime’ of Sensus Plenior (and Then Acquitting Him Because He’s An Apostle)

In addition to an unrepeatable hermeneutic, there are others who argue that Paul is allegorizing the Old Testament in Galatians 4. In some circles this is the chief hermeneutical crime. Yet, Paul gets a pass because he is an inspired apostle. Because of the revelation of Christ, Paul has the divine prerogative to write inspired Scripture that is not in keeping with the original text. This too seems problematic but is a common approach. For instance, Robert Thomas writes, appealing to Paul’s use of sensus plenior,

One… discerns two kinds of uses of the Old Testament by New Testament writers. First, in some cases the New Testament writer abides by and applies the grammatical-historical sense of the passage. Second, sometimes the New Testament writer goes beyond the grammatical-historical meaning to assign a passage an additional meaning in connection with its New Testament context. In the former instance, a New Testament writer uses the Old Testament’s literal sense. The latter quotations are a nonliteral use of the Old Testament. We may call this an ‘inspired sensus plenior application’… of the Old Testament passage to a new situation. (Thomas: 242).

As Emerson summarizes, this approach originates in Paul’s apostolic mind and not in the original text:

For these scholars, then, Paul is in some way placing something new onto the original texts of the Pentateuch. He is not treating the Pentateuch narratives’ historical sense as arbitrary or merely referring to them polemically, but he is also not solely concerned with reading them in light of their original or pre-Christian sense. Something new, Christ and his resurrection, has entered into Paul’s hermeneutical lens, and he is applying that to these OT texts. This is not necessarily a violation of the OT narratives for these scholars, but it is a re-reading that comes more from Paul’s own presuppositions than it does from the original text itself. (pp. 16–17)

Explaining Away the Allegory as Typology

A third approach to understanding Paul in Galatians 4 is to change the meaning of allegory to typology. Because allegory is used only once in the Bible (Gal 4:24) and much of the Bible displays typology, this is a sensible option and one that helps show how Galatians 4 fits into the larger interpretive patterns of Paul. So, for instance, Earl Ellis writes,

NT typological exegesis is grounded firmly in the historical significance of the “types.” …For the NT writers a type has not merely the property of “typicalness” or similarity; they view Israel’s history as Heilsgeschichte, and the significance of an OT type lies in its particular locus in the Divine plan of redemption…. Divine intent is of the essence both in their occurrence and in their inscripturation. (Ellis: 127)

Francis Foulkes likewise comments,

When St. Paul used the word [allegory] (in the one place in which it is used in the New Testament), he meant something different from what we commonly mean by allegorizing. . . . he was speaking, or interpreting, with a meaning other than the literal, but neither to deny the reality of the literal (as was often the case with Greek allegories), nor to reject the principles of the context. …This can rightly be classified as typological interpretation, because the theological principles involved in the old narratives are simply taken up and shown to find a new, and a deeper, meaning in Christ. (Foulkes 367–68)

In this way, the Old Testament Paul cites retain their historical meaning and displays a kind of typological pattern that Paul picks up and applies to the situation in Galatians. This, in my estimation, is very close to accurate. The only trouble is that Paul, who speaks of typology in other places (see 1 Corinthians 10), doesn’t use that term here.

Reading Moses Rightly

To all of these approaches, Emerson rightly demurs,

While these three approaches are certainly not the same, they each share one common characteristic. None of the scholars cited above nor any contemporary text known to this author believes that what Paul does in Galatians 4:21– 31 is rooted primarily in a textual reading of the Pentateuch. By textual reading I mean a reading that pays attention to the “historical” or “original” sense of the passage as seen through an exegetical study of the grammar, syntax, and structure of the text—the intentionality of a given passage. At best, according to the above survey, it is rooted only in typology and the recognition of God’s providence over history, and at worst it is arbitrary and ignores the original sense of the passage. In what follows I shall attempt to demonstrate that Paul’s reading of Genesis 16–17, 21 and Exodus 12– 19 in Galatians 4:21–31 is not arbitrary, nor merely an importing of Christian presuppositions onto the text, nor only a typological connection, but is a reading grounded in the intentionality of the text of the Pentateuch narratives. (17)

This explanation is exactly right. It affirms the original meaning of Moses and Paul’s willingness to take Moses on his own terms, which in turn leads him to a rich, Christ-centered, grace-exalting interpretation. In other words, Paul is not reading something into Genesis. He is staying on the line of the text and discerning the way in which Moses is intentionally contrasting the two wives of Abraham and the fruit of their various “covenants” with Abraham—one by way of promise, the other by way of the flesh. Paul picks up this narrative and applies it to the situation in Galatia. He challenges the Galatians to read their Bibles better (Galatians 4:21) and proves from the historical narrative of Sarah and Hagar how God curses and casts out those who trust in the flesh and blesses those who receive the promise by faith.

Digging Still Deeper into Moses

To see just how textual Paul is in his reading of Genesis, Emerson organizes four charts that show how the Hebrew text lends itself to the very interpretation Paul gives in Galatians 4:21–31. In other words, Paul is not creating an extra-textual allegory; he is discerning the way Moses wrote his history with various divinely-intended patterns. Let’s consider these four tables and how they display symbol-laden history of Moses.


In Table 1, Emerson contrasts the way in which the promises are laid out in Genesis 16–17. Importantly, both women receive a promise from the Lord, but only Sarah is promised an eternal inheritance. This spiritual difference provides a significant textual basis for describing two covenants in Galatians 4, one that leads to slavery and death and one that leads to freedom and life. Importantly, the division that Paul describes in Galatians is not original to him; it is something he discerns from the history of Abraham and his two wives.

Picture2In Table 2, Emerson shows the way in which the Hagar narrative follows the curse of God in Genesis 3. Such a connection “should not surprise the reader since, as is argued by Gordon Wenham, the events of Genesis prefigure Israel’s history (e.g. Abraham’s sojourns in and Israel’s captivity in Egypt; Wenham 1987: 287, 291). If the author of the Pentateuch uses Genesis to prefigure the Exodus–Deuteronomy narrative, why should it surprise us if he uses Genesis 1–3 to prefigure the Abrahamic narrative?” (19) Of note, Hagar’s identification as an Egyptian slave (16:1) should also be considered (ibid.). Like Egypt, the nation which enslaved Israel, she is portrayed as a source of bondage to Abraham. And her son Ishmael, as Paul reports in Galatians 4:29, “persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit.”

Picture3In Table 3, Emerson shows how the Hagar narrative anticipates the Exodus—the single event by which Moses reads history and writes his five books. Interestingly, the connection between Hagar and Israel fleeing to Sinai, though unexpected, is rich in explanatory power. As Emerson states,  “Because . . . the Hagar covenant [i.e., the promise God made to Hagar and her son, see Table 1] is evidently not eternally salvific but only for physical protection, one must consider the possibility that the links presented are intended to show that the Sinai covenant too is only for physical protection and not eternally salvific. This is the crux of the point Paul is making in Galatians 4:21–31. The evidence from the Pentateuch seems to indicate that the Sinai covenant is, at least in some respects, a covenant of slavery, not of freedom” (20).

Picture4In Table 4, Emerson shows again how the events of Hagar (an individual) repeat in Numbers with the nation of Israel. “Thus it is possible that by connecting Hagar and Ishmael with Cain and his casting out, and by connecting their flight from Sarah and their dwelling places to Israel’s wandering and their enemies, the text is also connecting Cain’s wandering with both Israel’s (again, see Genesis 4:14 and Numbers 32:13) and Hagar’s. This connection continues to bolster the negative connotations of everything surrounding the Hagar narrative in Genesis 16. Like the promise made to Cain and to Israel in the wilderness, the promise made to Hagar does not result in her or Ishmael’s inclusion in the eternal covenant but only in physical provision” (20).

Bringing It All Together

What shall we say then to all of this textual data? First, we should reconsider how we understand what Paul is doing in Galatians 4. Instead of assigning him some odd allegorical approach that we ought not repeat, we should (as expected) learn from him as to the way we read the Old Testament. He is a model interpreter of Scripture and Galatians 4:21–31 is not an exception.

Second, such a reading means that we look in the text to see the way Moses is communicating himself through the Pentateuch. This includes tracing patterns between various figures. How do we do that? Often, as Emerson demonstrates, we do that by paying close attention to biblical language, repeated places, and similar storylines in individuals and nations over time. This, in turn, leads us to see how God is at work in history in semi-predictable ways which prepare the way for Christ.

Then finally, in learning from Paul how to read Moses lawfully we are better prepared to see and adore the grace of God, extended first to Abraham and then through Christ shared with the world. Indeed, this is the point of Galatians 4:21–31 and one that should not lead us to strange interpretations like Philo and Origen, but rather to the grace of God promised to Abraham (Galatians 3:8) and secured by his great offspring, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16). This is why we pay careful attention to what Paul is saying, because from the beginning God has been unfolding his plan of salvation. And grace comes to us as we understand and believe God’s word of promise to us now fulfilled in Christ.

To that end, let us read Paul and Moses and all the Scriptures, so that we may see how they lead us to Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


One thought on “Learning to Read Moses’ Allegory: Matthew Emerson on Galatians 4:21–31 and Paul’s Reading of the Pentateuch

  1. Pingback: Does Paul Interpret Moses Allegorically? A Few Lexical Notes on Galatians 4:24 | Via Emmaus

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