What the Bible says about
Isaac and Ishmael
(From Forerunner Commentary)
Throughout his writings, Paul uses the terms "law" and "covenant" interchangeably. One has to use the context to determine whether he is talking about a single statute, a body of laws, a covenant/agreement, or the Pentateuch. Notice how Paul uses the term "law" later in the book of Galatians:
Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? 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. (Galatians 4:21-23)
The births of Isaac and Ishmael are recorded in Genesis chapters 16 and 21, hundreds of years before the Old Covenant was given. Yet, Paul refers to that portion of scripture as "the law"! Obviously, in this example Paul uses "law" to mean the entire Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), not just the commandments.
The end of Galatians 3:19, as well as verse 20, show that the "law" here was not just instruction to a group of people by a superior; the reference to a mediator shows that there was an agreement being discussed rather than a decree or a body of laws. If a king makes a law, there is no need for a process of mediation because the matter it is not open for discussion with the people. A mediator is only necessary when both parties have to agree to something, which clearly indicates a covenant rather than just a decree or law.
The Old Covenant was in addition to the one that God made with Abraham ("it was added"). It was not the first time that God's law had been taught, though; the Bible says specifically that Abraham kept God's commandments (Genesis 26:5). It shows Abraham and Jacob both tithing. It shows Abel and Noah already having an understanding of clean and unclean animals. The Sabbath harkens back to Creation (Genesis 2:1-3), and was given to Israel again after they left Egypt but before the Old Covenant was proposed (Exodus 16). Reading through Genesis and Exodus, it is very clear that there was a codified set of rules—laws—long before they were officially recorded at Mt. Sinai.
The Old Covenant was added because of the sins of the people. It was added, not to provide a means of justification, but to demonstrate to Israel what was right and wrong, because their "moral compass" had been badly damaged through their experiences in Egypt. The children of Israel sojourned in Egypt for centuries, during which time they lost the knowledge of God's way. They forgot His instructions to such a degree that God had to teach them all over again the way of life that was pleasing to Him. They had been so immersed in the pagan Egyptian culture that all of these laws, statutes, judgments, instructions, etc., were completely new to them. God added the Old Covenant to the one He made with Abraham as a sort of "booster shot"—Israel was so off track that God had to realign them with His ways by means of this temporary covenant.
Paul says that the Old Covenant is "becoming obsolete and ... ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13). However, even though the agreement is ready to vanish away, that does not mean God's law has become obsolete. The law and the covenant, in practice, describe two different things. The law is the codified standard of conduct God gave to His people; the covenant was the agreement in which Israel agreed to abide by God's laws. A change to the agreement, though, does not abolish the standard of conduct! The New Testament abounds with examples of God's law still being in effect (Matthew 19:17; 23:23; John 14:15,21; 15:10; Acts 21:24; 24:14; 26:19-20; 28:23; Romans 3:31; 6:1-2,15; 7:12,22,25; 8:7; I Corinthians 7:19; Ephesians 5:5; I Timothy 1:8-11; II Timothy 2:5; Titus 1:16; 2:11-14; Hebrews 8:10; James 1:22-25; 2:8-12; 2:14-26; I John 2:3-6; 3:22-24; 5:2-3; II John 1:6; Revelation 12:17; 14:12; 22:14).
Christ Himself stated clearly that He did not come to destroy the law, but to show how to fulfill it—to keep it in its entirety (Matthew 5:17-20). He then goes on to demonstrate the intent, or spirit, behind some of the laws. James admonishes each to "fulfill the royal law of liberty"—and there is no hint that he means we should individually "do away" with it!
The Old Covenant was "ordained" by angels (Acts 7:53; Hebrews 2:2; Acts 7:38; Psalm 68:17; I Corinthians 10:4). "Ordained," diatageis (Strong's #1299), usually means "to arrange," "to dispose in order," and is commonly used with reference to the marshalling of an army. A similar word, diatagas (Strong's #1296), is used in Acts 7:53, where it is translated "disposition." It properly means the "constituting" or "arranging" of an army; disposing it into ranks and proper divisions. Hence, it has been supposed to mean that the Covenant was given "amidst" the various ranks of angels being present to witness its transmission.
Deuteronomy 33:2 also shows God with His "holy myriads"—literally "ten thousands of holiness." God was attended by a vast army of intelligent beings, witnessing the ratifying of the Old Covenant with Israel and helping with prescribing, ordering, and arranging the covenant.
The covenant was "in the hand" or "under the control" of a Mediator, one who intervenes between two parties, either as an interpreter, intercessor, or reconciler. In the New Testament, in all the places where it occurs, it is applied to Jesus Christ, the great Mediator between God and man (I Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24).
David C. Grabbe
Abraham actually had more sons through Keturah, but for the purposes of Paul's allegory, he focuses on Ishmael, the son through Hagar, and Isaac, the son of promise through Sarah.
Given that the false teachers were trying to convince the Galatians to turn to a Gnostic form of Judaism, Abraham would have been a character who would have been highly respected in their eyes (the Jews in Jesus' time trusted in descent from Abraham for salvation). Paul uses the example of Abraham throughout this epistle because he (Abraham) simultaneously served as someone that they would have looked up to, as well as a testament that they (the Galatians) were approaching this the wrong way—different from the way Abraham did.
Physical descent does not matter as far as the spiritual promises are concerned; Christ castigated the Jews for thinking that they could rely on being physical descendants of Abraham as a means of gaining favor with God. Christ showed that where it really counted was in behaving like Abraham—which the Jews did not.
Paul, in an attempt to help the Galatians to understand the covenants, is likening the Old Covenant to being born to a "bondmaid" (a female slave or servant) while the New Covenant is compared to being born of a "freewoman" (someone who is a citizen; unrestrained; not a slave; exempt from liability; at liberty). The carnal mind, as described by Romans 8:7, leaps to the conclusion that the New Covenant gives freedom from the confines of law, while the Old Covenant keeps one in bondage to a set of archaic rules. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The apostle James twice refers to the law as the "law of liberty" (James 1:25; 2:12). He could do this because when God was giving the Ten Commandments to Israel, He prefaced them with the declaration, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). This—bringing Israel out of bondage—set the context, the foundation, for the giving of the law. Clearly, it is not God's definition of right and wrong that keeps us in bondage; the law was given as a guide to the right way to live. The "bondage" that we are subject to derives from Satan (Ephesians 2:1-3; 6:12; II Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9), this world (Exodus 6:5-8; Deuteronomy 5:6), sin (John 8:33-36), and our own human nature—our carnal mind and heart. Our bondage is to sin (John 8:33-34)—not to God's definition of it.
The Old Covenant did not provide a way to overcome these things. Even though the Old Covenant included God's royal law of liberty, it had no provision for ever truly escaping the clutches of sin. God's law, which is also a part of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:7-12; Jeremiah 31:31-34), merely defines what sin is, so that one may avoid it (Romans 3:20; 4:14-15; 5:13; 7:7, 12, 14). It neither enslaves, nor frees. The Old Covenant—the agreement, rather than the law that was its core—provided no means for overcoming the evil heart of unbelief (Hebrews 3:12, 19; 8:7-8), and so Paul compares it to a bondwoman. In verse 24 he says that it "engenders"—gives birth to—bondage. He does not mean that the agreement between God and Israel was bondage, nor that God's definition of right and wrong keeps people in slavery, but rather that the temporary covenant made no provision for true spiritual freedom. It "gave birth to" bondage because, without addressing the incurable sickness of the heart, the only possible outcome was human degeneration back into the bondage from which they had been freed.
The New Covenant addresses these problems:
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them [the weakness was with the people, not the agreement or the law], He says: "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more." (Hebrews 8:7-12; see Jeremiah 31:31-34)
The New Covenant allows God's way of life (law) to be internalized (put into the mind and heart). It allows for a personal relationship with God, rather than going through an intermediary. It allows for complete forgiveness of sins through repentance and accepting the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
In another place, God promises,
Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
Through the justification and forgiveness of sins available under the New Covenant, it is possible for the heart to be changed, and for human nature, which drives us to sin, to be overcome. Thus, true spiritual freedom is offered under the New Covenant, while absent under the Old.
David C. Grabbe
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