10 July 2007

Deconstructing Abraham

Filed under: First Lines, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 8:56 am

Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written, “REJOICE, BARREN WOMAN WHO DOES NOT BEAR; BREAK FORTH AND SHOUT, YOU WHO ARE NOT IN LABOR; FOR MORE NUMEROUS ARE THE CHILDREN OF THE DESOLATE THAN OF THE ONE WHO HAS A HUSBAND.” And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say ? “CAST OUT THE BONDWOMAN AND HER SON, FOR THE SON OF THE BONDWOMAN SHALL NOT BE AN HEIR WITH THE SON OF THE FREE WOMAN.” So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:21-31)

This is a very strange passage. In Genesis we learn that Abraham had two sons. The mother of the first son is Abraham’s servant Hagar; her son is Ishmael. The mother of the second son is Abraham’s wife Sarai; her son is Isaac. Ishmael becomes the patriarch of the Arabs, whereas the Jews trace their lineage through Isaac. But here in Galatians we have Paul, a Jew, asserting that Ishmael is the father of the Jews.

Paul makes himself clear. The story of Abraham’s two sons is an allegory. Hagar, the bondwoman, is the covenant of Law. Hagar is a mountain in Arabia, which corresponds to Jerusalem. Those who follow the Law are descendants of Hagar, enslaved to the Law. Allegorically speaking the Jews are the Arabs: enslaved, unclean, cast out.

Paul shows his readers that the Biblical story of Abraham contains an alternate weave within itself, and if you pull the right thread the text creates its own reversal of meaning. I would call this a deconstructive reading of the Torah.



  1. The fact of the matter is that Jesus was so startlingly the opposite of all messianic expectation that his followers did have to deconstruct the OT to find the fulfilment of prophecy in him.

    And this is indeed an amazing reading of the Abrahamic covenant! It still astounds: the Jerusalem above is free !!


    Comment by samlcarr — 10 July 2007 @ 1:48 pm

  2. It’s very Derridean in almost a technical sense: not just destroying the usual structure, but inverting it. What in the ordinary reading is the central good turns out to be the discarded bad.

    Another interesting thing: patriarchal genealogies dominate the Old Testament, but here Paul emphasizes the maternal origins of the covenants. Hagar corresponds to Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 July 2007 @ 4:49 pm

  3. The key to this passage is the born ‘through the promise’ vs ‘born according to the flesh’ and this is the very handle that Paul uses to ‘properly’ interpret the allegory for us! Jesus is born through promise to a ‘barren’ (unwed) woman and that then connects us to the promise of the covenant! The genetic connection is reversed and all who fall under the promise are the children of God – the fictive family of God’s kingdom becomes the primary family.


    Comment by samlcarr — 11 July 2007 @ 7:23 am

  4. This allegorical reading of Paul’s certainly doesn’t have that feel of grafting the Gentiles in to Israel. Paul tells the Galatians to follow the promise, and to regard the covenant of Law as a temporary guardianship to those who through the promise are to rule the kingdom together. Those who continue submitting to the Law reveal themselves as slaves and not heirs, as residents of Sinai rather than the Jerusalem above.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 July 2007 @ 7:40 am

  5. To what extent does Paul’s deconstructive reading establish a precedent for our engaging in this sort of Biblical exegesis?


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 July 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  6. Most of the grafting talk is from Romans and there it seems there are at least two conversations that are rather intricately interwoven. A narrative challenge!

    I think the deconstruction comes, has to come, when kingdom teaching interacts with anything else in the biblical horizon. This is one of the keys to understanding the NT, i m humble o.

    Those who fail to see the ‘redemptive trend’ of gospel interaction transforming standard narratives into hyperbolic ones will always be unable to understand where Paul gets his rhetoric from, and will also think that Paul is a different de novo from the Jesus de novo.


    Comment by samlcarr — 11 July 2007 @ 3:32 pm

  7. I agree with you. This is a good observation. Surely this is something of a deconstructive reading. Or, at the very least it is a recontextualization of the text to bring out a new meaning. But, as you say, the new meaning is actually a reversal of meaning such that the text now takes new meaning in a new context.

    But don’t tell any of our Evangelical friends about this!


    Comment by Erdman — 12 July 2007 @ 3:32 pm

  8. I agree that this is deconstruction and turning around meaning. Is this typical sibling rivalry?


    Comment by Odile — 19 July 2007 @ 5:33 pm

  9. Maybe so. I wonder what the Koran has to say about Abraham’s two sons. And hello Odile.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 July 2007 @ 10:20 pm

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