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Children of Abraham, children of God: metaphorical kinship in Paul's Letter to the Galatians.

Pete Pero has been a wonderful friend, an affirming colleague, and a powerful mentor. Most of all, his whole life has been a witness composed of pioneering efforts to overcome racial discrimination, generate respect for every culture, and foster intercultural relationships of mutual love. Theologically, he continually lifts up baptism as the means by which we have become children of God, giving us all an identity that affirms and at the same time transcends our cultural particularity. Because of this latter contribution, I thought it would honor Pete to discuss a similar theological dynamic in one of the letters of his brother Paul.


Commentators often have interpreted Paul's Letter to the Galatians using "justification by faith" as the primary lens and organizing principle. In this article, I instead interpret Galatians using "children of Abraham" as the primary lens and then to organize other dynamics of the letter around this focus. (1)

The purpose of Paul's letter was to reclaim the gentile believers of Galatia as children of Abraham, as inheritors of God's blessing to Abraham, and thereby as children of God. His method was to re-preach the gospel that he first preached to them, namely, that people from gentile nations become children of Abraham by God's grace through faith and not by observing the Law of the Judean nation. Paul had founded the Galatian churches on the principle that they had become children of Abraham and had inherited the blessing of Abraham as gentiles without becoming Judeans, that is, without becoming circumcised and keeping the Judean Law. (2)

After Paul left Galatia, other early Judean Christian missionaries came to Galatia and claimed that Paul had not given them the full message of the gospel. They told the Galatians that they could not be fully justified as children of Abraham unless they became circumcised and followed the Law. After all, God had given the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and it was the expression of God's will for God's people, the children of Abraham--the Judean people who had made a covenant with God. Apparently some of the Galatians had become circumcised and were observing some Judean holy days.

When Paul learned of this, he wrote to the Galatians to reclaim them for his gospel of grace as the means to become children of Abraham. He told them that they had already become children of Abraham by virtue of the fact that they had heard the gospel with faith, received the Spirit, and been baptized--and that they would be undermining God's justification by grace if they were to adopt a practice of doing works of the Judean Law.

The "present evil age" and the "new creation"

Paul was adamant about this gospel, because he was convinced that the new relationships of grace (foreshadowed by Abraham and set in motion by Jesus' death) were a stark contrast to the "present evil age" (1:4). "The fullness of time" had come (4:4), beginning the process to bring creation to fulfillment in a new age. The relationships of this apocalyptic new age constituted, in Paul's view, a "new creation" (6:15). Paul uses himself as a death-and-life example of the transition to the new creation when he says: "I died to Law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, so that it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (2:19-20). Later he writes that, by means of the cross of Christ, "the world was crucified to me and I to the world" (6:14).

There are obvious and crucial continuities between the "old age" and the dawning "new age." The God of Israel is the God of Jesus Christ who has called the Galatian community into being (1:6). The Law is not contrary to the will of God expressed in the Spirit that guides believers (3:21;5:14). Abraham is the figure by whom all nations are being blessed (3:6-9). The promise by God to Abraham is the promise that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ (3:29). In fundamental ways, there is continuity.

Nevertheless, in Paul's view, this apocalyptic "new creation" was different from the "present evil age"--different from the relationships of physical descendency from Abraham, different from the relationships established by the Judean Law, and different from the relationships engendered by gentile idolatry. In the new age, Judeans and gentiles alike become children of Abraham (and thereby children of God) through God's grace in Christ and the believers' acceptance of this grace by faith. By contrast, what characterized the previous age (apart from the covenant with Abraham) represented allegiance to secondary forces and not to God directly--slavery to "the elemental spirits of the cosmos" (4:3, 8-9). Paul believed this about his own heritage among Judeans. Allegiance to the Law was slavery to the elemental spirits of the cosmos, because, in Paul's view in Galatians, the Law (in contrast to the promise to Abraham) was not given directly by God but through the mediation of angels (3:19-20). And Paul also believed this about gentiles. Their allegiance to idols constituted slavery to the elemental spirits of the cosmos, a slavery to "beings that by nature are not gods" (4:8-9). Paul was convinced that Jesus gave himself up for our sins "in order that he might snatch us out of this present evil age" (1:4) into the new world of grace. He wrote to tell the Galatians that they could not live in both worlds and that any adoption of the Judean Law and any return to idols would be to "drop out of grace" (5:4) and to revert back to a "yoke of slavery" (5:1).

Paul also contrasted the two worlds in terms of "flesh" and "Spirit." In the letter to the Galatians, these terms represented a contrast between an orientation that originates from the world (from what is human) and an orientation that originates from the Spirit (from God). Whatever does not originate directly from God/Spirit is flesh. Hence, to flesh belongs all that is related to the elemental spirits of the cosmos (the Judean Law and the gentile idols, both temporal), as well as the destructive "works of the flesh" that originate from human passions and desires (5:19-21, 24). To the flesh belongs also physical descendency to Abraham and conversion to the Judean people by circumcision. In Paul's view, to be oriented to the flesh is to be rooted in that which is temporal and will not endure. Hence, to sow into the flesh is ultimately to "reap a harvest of corruption (dissolution/death) from the flesh" (6:8). To the Spirit belongs all that comes directly from God: the promise, the gospel, the new life "in Christ," the "fruits of the Spirit" (5:22-23), and guidance for life together in community (5:25). To the Spirit belongs also the identity as children of Abraham by faith. To be oriented to the Spirit is to be rooted in that which is eternal, and those who are led by Spirit will endure. Hence, to sow into the Spirit is ultimately "to reap a harvest of eternal life from the Spirit" (6:8).

This apocalyptic contrast between the present evil age and the new creation, between flesh and Spirit, gives focus to the kinship language in Galatians in crucial ways. Without it, we will not grasp the full import of what it means to be "children of Abraham."

Kinship language in Galatians

Within the context of this new world of the Spirit, those who have faith become "children of Abraham." The relationship with Abraham, the relationship among believers, and the relationship with God are depicted by Paul in terms of familial/kinship/household language now used in the service of relationships that are not blood relationships. The semantic domain of this language in Galatians includes words such as Father, forefathers, children, sons, sonship, brother, blessing, inheritance, heirs/inheritors, descendants, seed of Abraham, coming of age, adoption, mother, birth pains, giving birth, barren, slave, slavery, freedmen, freedom, minors, guardians, administrators, Abba. This is a considerable amount of kinship/household language in one brief letter, and it signifies the importance of this motif in the letter. The issue is: Who are the true children of Abraham--physical descendents of Abraham who follow the Law or metaphorical descendents of Abraham who live by faith?

Sociologists refer to the analogical use of kinship language by various terms. One such term is "fictive kinship relationships"; that is, these relationships are fictional and not blood relationships. Another term sometimes used is "surrogate family," suggesting that the relationships are an alternative family to blood relations. Another term is "metaphorical kinship." I prefer this last term. "Fictive kinship" implies that the relationships are not real, when in fact Paul would say that they are more real than blood relations. "Surrogate family" implies that the new family is just a substitute for the real blood relations, when Paul would argue that the new family is the real family. "Metaphorical kinship" is a more neutral, descriptive term. I use it to suggest that the family of God is very real but that the language of kinship is being used by Paul in a metaphorical way to talk about non-blood relationships. Kinship relations were the strongest bonds in antiquity. To use them to depict relationships with people who were not blood relatives was to use the strongest possible analogy to depict their relationships.

The first part of the letter: setting the stage

The greeting of an ancient letter often foreshadowed significant themes that would be developed in the letter. In the greeting of Galatians, Paul anticipates the theme of metaphorical kinship when he uses the "father" metaphor three times to refer to God: "... and God the Father who raised him [Jesus Christ] from the dead" (1:1), "Grace to you and peace from God our Father" (1:3), and "... Jesus Christ, who snatched us out of the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father" (1:4). This is an unusual number of references to father imagery in this brief greeting. Father was not a common designation for God. As such, its implications would not be taken for granted by hearers of the letter. The references to God as "our Father" would have evoked all the associations of the role of children in relation to fathers as well as the nuances of familial solidarity and kinship commitments that this involved. The establishment of this motif in the greeting alerted hearers to the fact that Paul would develop this motif of metaphorical kinship in the letter that followed.

Without the usual thanksgiving, Paul immediately follows this greeting with a scathing attack that suggests some Galatians were abandoning their place as children of God (1:6-9). He accuses them of having abandoned the gospel he preached, and he pronounced anathema on those who were leading them astray. Both the abandonment by some Galatians and the pronouncement of an anathema by Paul would threaten to place people outside an identity as children of Abraham and outside the relationship to God as "our Father." Such a warning put the recipients of the letter on notice as to the specific issue this letter would address.

In the early part of the letter, Paul does not develop the kinship relationships. Rather, he sets up the conditions and presuppositions that will allow him, as the letter develops, to address the Galatians as children of Abraham. First, he defends his gospel by saying that he himself is a true apostle (1:1), that he stands by the gospel he proclaimed to them as the only true gospel (1:6-11), that he got his gospel directly from the risen Jesus and not indirectly from humans (1:1, 11-16), that his gospel was independent of (1:16-24) and subsequently confirmed by the pillars of the church in Jerusalem (2:1-10), and that he, Paul, had defended the truth of that gospel in response to Peter's hypocritical violation of it in Antioch (2:11-14). In the course of these arguments, Paul also gives an initial definition of the gospel he proclaimed, namely, that Judeans and gentiles alike "are justified before God by faith in Christ Jesus and not by works of the Law, since it is not by works of the Law that any flesh will be justified" (2:15-17). For Paul, then, the gospel of grace received by faith is the basis for the new metaphorical kinship relationships.

In Galatians, the entire range of God's actions are a matter of grace. The promise to Abraham was an act of grace (3:18); and this promise offered the gift of justification to gentiles. The act of Jesus on the cross that liberated people from the curse and fulfilled the promise to gentiles was an act of grace (2:20-21). Paul was called through God's grace to proclaim the gospel to gentiles (1:15-16). The Spirit was a gift of grace (3:14, 18). The whole letter is framed by grace: "Grace to you" begins the letter (1:3), and "May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit" ends the letter (6:18). This grace is to be received by faith. Faith receives the promise of the blessing (3:6-9), the liberation of the cross (2:16), the proclamation of the gospel (3:1-5), and the Spirit (3:14). And God reckons such a reception by faith "as righteousness" (3:6). So, instead of justification by Law and the response of obedience, there is justification by grace and the reception by faith. Grace and faith as the basis for a relationship with God are precisely the conditions that enable the gentile Galatians to become children of Abraham/God without having to follow the provisions of the Judean Law.

Paul gives two examples of this justification by grace: himself and the Galatians. Regarding himself, Paul explains that God, "who set me apart from my mother's womb and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son in me" (1:15). In regard to his relation to the grace of God's act in Jesus, he writes, "through Law, I died to Law, so that I might live for God" (2:19). He adds, "I have been crucified with Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me" (2:19-20). Paul was justified before God by the crucifixion of Jesus, and he now lives no longer by Law but by "the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me" (2:20). As a Judean, Paul lives now by faith and not by following the Judean Law (1:13-14).

Regarding the Galatians, Paul rebukes them for forgetting their own experience in coming to faith (3:1-5). "Did you receive the Spirit," he asks, "because you did works of the Law or because you heard the proclamation with faith?" (3:2). Here he is arguing that the Spirit was given to the Galatians as a gift in the process of believing the gospel and not because they had been circumcised and followed the Law. So, at this point, they should not begin to do works of the Law. Paul places the contrast between works and faith in the categories of flesh and Spirit, saying, "Having begun with the Spirit [received as grace by faith], are you ending up with the flesh [being justified by doing works of the Law]?" (3:3). As gentiles, the Galatians had become children of Abraham by faith and not by doing works of the Judean Law.

After these stories and appeals, all of which serve to set up the points that follow, Paul turns to a series of arguments in which he draws upon scripture and the work of God in Jesus as means to show how the Galatians have become children of Abraham by faith.

The core of the letter: children of Abraham by faith

The possibility of a metaphorical designation of Abraham's descendents comes from the idea that what makes a person a child of someone is that they are like the father. The father-son relationship in the ancient world was all about imitation. The child was to be like the father. Therefore, to become a child of Abraham in a metaphorical sense was to be like Abraham, to do as Abraham did. We find this imitation of Abraham in other New Testament writings. The Letter of James argues that one becomes justified as a child of Abraham by imitating the fact that Abraham did works; that is, he was willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (James 2:21-26). The Gospel of Luke presents people becoming children of Abraham by "bearing fruit worthy of repentance" (3:8). In Luke, John the Baptist warns against presuming upon Abraham as blood descendent: "Don't begin to say, 'We have Abraham as father,' for God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones" (3:8). In both James and Luke, we see a similar conception to Galatians, namely, that people can become children of Abraham by imitation apart from physical descendency.

In Galatians, the imitation of Abraham comes in the expression of faith. "As it is written, Abraham had faith and God reckoned it to him as righteousness [=justification]" (3:6). Abraham had faith in the promise to him that all nations would be blessed through him, and this faith was counted to him as acceptable righteousness before God. Since this was true for Abraham, Paul adds, "Recognize therefore that it is people of faith who are children of Abraham" (3:7). By implication, those who now imitate Abraham by having faith in the promise (now fulfilled in Christ) will likewise have this faith reckoned to them as righteousness and will thereby be justified before God. Because they have faith like Abraham had faith, they can be considered children of Abraham. This imitation is what enables those who are not physical descendents of Abraham (gentiles) nevertheless to be metaphorical children of Abraham. And it enables those who are physical descendents of Abraham (Judeans) to be metaphorical descendents of Abraham as well. In this way, Judeans and gentiles alike who have faith in Christ will have the same status before God (as Judeans and gentiles) and will be in mutual relationship (as "brothers") with each other.

Paul presents this argument as if the idea of metaphorical offspring was inherently necessitated by the very nature of the promise itself--given the fact that those to whom the promise was directed were not physical descendents. Paul writes: "And scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the gentiles through faith, proclaimed the gospel ahead of time to Abraham: 'Through you shall all the gentile nations be blessed'" (3:8). Blessing is something one gives to one's progeny. Blessing is the means of conveying an inheritance, as Isaac gave his blessing (inheritance) to Jacob. But the gentile nations are not and cannot become Abraham's physical progeny. Therefore, in order for the gentile nations to receive the blessing/inheritance, the promise requires that they be metaphorical progeny, that is, people who are Abraham's children by imitation rather than by blood. This logic is why Paul prefaces his quotation of the promise to Abraham with the explanation that scripture foresaw "that God would justify the gentiles by faith" (3:8)--because the promise was such that the only way gentiles could receive Abraham's blessing would be as metaphorical children to him. Thus, Paul adds, "It is those who have faith who are blessed along with Abraham who had faith" (3:9).

This declaration, then, is the gospel Paul preaches, namely, that all the gentile nations will receive the blessing of Abraham through faith. Paul saw the promise to Abraham as an act of grace by which people would be justified by faith (as Abraham was so justified) because God promised to give the blessing/inheritance of Abraham to gentiles as gentiles, without expecting them to be physical descendents of Abraham and without requiring them to be circumcised or to do works of the Judean Law in order to receive it.

How people become children of Abraham

What is the process by which people can become metaphorical children of Abraham? The key is that the promise was made to Abraham and to his seed, that is, to one seed, to one offspring. Paul writes: "Now the promise was given to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say 'and to his seeds,' as of many, but as of one, 'and to your seed,' which is Christ" (3:16). So, the promise went straight from Abraham to Christ as the seed/offspring who was to bring about the fulfillment of the promise.


How did Jesus Christ qualify to be the one who enabled the promise to be fulfilled? The answer is that, like Abraham, Christ had faith. Here Paul somewhat equivocates on the meaning of the Greek word for faith to convey the idea that Christ was "faithful" in his obedience to God; that is, Christ was righteous (innocent) before God. This depiction of Christ's faithfulness is the significance of several references in Galatians to the "faith of Christ" (e.g., 2:20); that is, to the "faithfulness" that Christ had. This faithfulness is what made Jesus the seed of Abraham who was able to fulfill the promise. Christ was faithful, even to the point of being crucified for it. This crucifixion of an innocent person had special meaning. Paul quotes scripture to the effect that "Cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree" (3:13). However, as an innocent person, Christ must have been bearing not his own curse but the curse of others. Who might these other people be? Paul cites another passage, which says that people who live by the Law are under a curse: "Cursed is everyone who does not stay with everything that is written in the book of the Law to keep it" (3:10). Because no one keeps the whole Law (3:11), everyone who lives by the Law must be under a curse. This is the curse that Jesus has taken upon himself. Paul writes, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us" (3:13). This faithfulness of Christ was an expression of love. As Paul says, "I now live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me" (2:20).

To explain how this act of Christ was effective, Paul says "I have been crucified with Christ" (2:19). The hanging on the tree and dying such an ignominious death was the curse on others that Jesus bore for all those under the Law. So, Paul is able to say that Christ became a curse for him; that is, Christ was crucified in his place, such that Paul can say (metaphorically speaking) that he, Paul, was crucified with Christ. If Christ suffered the curse for him in a representative sense, then Paul has been "crucified with Christ" (2:19). When Paul says this about himself, he is speaking on behalf of all Judeans who have come to be in Christ. Christ took upon himself the curse on all people under the curse of the Law. And those who have now accepted this act for themselves confess by faith that they have been crucified with Christ.

All of this explains how Christ enabled the promise to Abraham to be fulfilled. By being a person of faith, Jesus could bear the curse that was placed on others. By removing the curse of the Law (by means of the ignominious death), Jesus enabled other Judeans, like Paul and Barnabas, who lived under the Law, to then also be reckoned as righteous by their faith (as trust) in this act. This is the significance of references in the letter to the believers' "faith in Christ" (e.g., 2:16). Jesus' life established the pattern of faith and, at the same time, freed others to be able to follow that pattern by having faith in Jesus. Notice that the removal of the curse applied only to Judeans, for they are the ones who were living by the Law. However, once the Judeans were freed from the Law to be justified by faith, gentiles could also be justified by faith without following the Judean Law. So, Paul writes, "the purpose [of Christ redeeming us from the curse] was that the gentiles might receive the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus and that we [all, Judeans and gentiles alike] might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (3:14). The death of Jesus broke open the boundaries of Judaism, such that the promise to Abraham could be fulfilled to gentiles. This was possible because Jesus' death established the conditions that would enable everyone, Judeans and gentiles alike, to be justified before God by faith in the promise. If people have faith like Abraham had faith, they are Abraham's children and thereby receive Abraham's blessing/inheritance--the gift of the Spirit.

Paul goes on to show that this prior promise reveals the temporal limits of the later Law. The Law was added 430 years after the promise to Abraham, and its appearance did not nullify or add to the promise that the gentiles would be justified by faith (3:17). In Paul's view, the Law was given in order to discipline and guard people from the power of sin during the time before Christ came: "The Law was our disciplinarian until Christ" (3:24). He argues that "Now that Christ has come, we are no longer under Law" (3:25). The Law was a temporary measure for Judeans, and now all people (Judeans and gentiles alike) are justified through faith in Christ Jesus (3:24). Hence, the inheritance (the blessing of Abraham, the Spirit, the kingdom of God) comes not by Law but by the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Christ. And all who are "in Christ" are children of Abraham and, hence, children of God.

Incorporation into the seed of Abraham by baptism

The incorporation into Christ as children of Abraham involves a ritual. By baptism, people are incorporated "into Christ." Paul writes: "You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. For in Christ there is neither Judean nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28). By baptism, people "put on Christ," which means that they take on the familial identity of Jesus. In the ancient world, slaves took on the identity of their lords (Paul calls Jesus "Lord" and refers to himself as a "slave of Christ"--1:10). Similarly, sons (children) have their identity in relation to their father. Here in 3:28, the emphasis is on imitation of a father by sons/children. By putting faith in the gospel, people become like Christ in imitating behavior characteristic of Christ and of Abraham. Taking on this familial identity is equivalent here to being "in Christ." By baptism, then, those who have faith are "in Christ," and they therefore become part of the "one seed" that is Christ. By being incorporated into Christ by baptism, those who have faith become part of the seed of Abraham--"which is Christ" (3:16). Thereby they become children of Abraham: "And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed [offspring]" (3:29).

By virtue of being children of Abraham, believers become children of God. In fact, Abraham is never called father in this letter. Only God is Father. So, in a sense, by becoming children of Abraham, people of faith become inheritors of God. The promise is God's promise. The blessing is God's blessing. The inheritance is God's inheritance. The Spirit is God's Spirit. If you are Abraham's seed, Paul argues, then you are "inheritors according to the promise" (3:29) and "an heir through God" (4:7). The Spirit seals this identity as children of God, by leading believers to cry out to God: "Abba, Father."

Paul uses the phrase "in Christ" often to depict the identity of believers and their oneness. In this regard, note how the incorporation "in Christ" overcomes differences that Paul deals with throughout the whole letter. For example, "There is neither Judean nor Greek [gentiles]" (3:28). Here Paul refers to the two key groups at stake in the letter. One group is circumcised, the other not. But for those who are in Christ, "neither circumcision nor non-circumcision is anything" (5:6; 6:15). So the metaphorical incorporation into the children of Abraham includes and transcends the identity of those who are physical descendents of Abraham (Judeans) and those who are not (gentiles). In both cases, they become related to Abraham in a metaphorical sense, because both groups are children of Abraham now by virtue of having faith rather than by blood kinship.

Consider also "There is neither slave nor free" (3:28). Paul uses the slave/free metaphor in several ways in Galatians. In some places in the letter, Paul refers to two categories of people as analogies/metaphors for the situation of people before (slaves to Law and idols) and after incorporation into Christ (free, as children). By contrast, in this passage, Paul is making a different point. People who are literally slaves (non-persons in the eyes of Roman law) and people who are literally free (freedmen/women who are not slaves) are both able to be "children of Abraham" by virtue of being in Christ by faith. Nothing prevents even slaves from being children in the metaphorical sense.

Finally, Paul refers to the fact that in Christ "There is no male and female" (3:28). Here, his choice of groups relates very much to the issue of circumcision. In Israel, women were not circumcised. So, when "neither circumcision nor non-circumcision counts for anything," women have the same status as men. Furthermore, Paul uses female figures to talk about giving birth in a metaphorical sense. In a metaphorical family, women who are barren (4:27) as well as men (4:19) can give birth, as we shall see, by virtue of bringing others to faith. Again, the point is that anyone, regardless of gender or social status or nationality, can now become children of Abraham by faith.

In Christ, all these groups are one: "You are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:29). Being "one" means that they are all of the same status. This common status is conveyed also by the image of "putting on Christ" or "being clothed in Christ" (3:27). It may be that candidates for baptism in Paul's churches all wore white robes as a symbol of their new identity in Christ. In general, in the ancient world, the clothes people wore identified them as Judean or gentile, slave or free, male or female. If in baptism all wear the same white robe, they show their common identity in Christ and at the same time relativize their other identities as Judeans/gentiles, slave/free, and male/female. Even if Paul is using the phrase "putting on Christ" only as a metaphor, the point is the same. They are all "one" in Christ Jesus.

Granting equal status to all of these groups under a common solidarity "in Christ" at the same time serves to address the dynamics of power/privilege and oppression/marginalization. Among each of the pairs listed in 3:28 are the primary categories of oppressor and oppressed in the ancient world: free over slave, male over female, and Greek over Judean. Of this last category, clearly it was the gentiles in the Roman Empire who lorded over the Judeans as one of the many subject peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world. But at the same time, from Paul's point of view, the Judeans had the God of all life and the promise to Abraham and thereby also the means to bless all gentile nations in a new creation. For all of these groups, the incorporation by baptism into Christ generated this new creation, an alternative society in which there were no oppressors and no oppressed, no privileged and no marginalized: "For you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:29). All are children of "our Father" and "brothers"/"sisters" in solidarity with one another.

"Coming of age" and "adoption" as children of Abraham

We see the shift from being slaves to becoming children in another analogy that Paul adds here--the shift from being male minors under the custody of slaves to attaining status as adult children. The analogy is with an heir who is under the custody of a slave (4:1-7). The slave serves as disciplinarian for the child until he comes of age, a time set by the father. The child is, in a sense, the "lord of all" (owner and master, as heir); nevertheless, as long as he is still underage, he is "no different than a slave" because he is "under guardians and administrators until the time fixed by his father" (4:1-2).

Similarly, Paul argues that before people came to be "in Christ" they were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the cosmos. The Judeans who became Christians were under the custody of the Law (which was mediated by angels) until the fullness of time came (3:23-25; 4:1). The gentiles who became Christians were enslaved to idols, "beings that by nature are no gods" (4:8). At the point at which they came to be "in Christ" (had faith, received the Spirit, were baptized, took the identity of Christ), they became sons (children) of Abraham/of God with all the rights of sons; that is, they came into their inheritance (4:7). The metaphors here are mixed. The passage refers both to coming of age and to adoption. On one hand, the Judeans were "no different than a slave" (because they were under the slave guardianship of the Law) and have now "come of age," like the heir who was lord (owner of all) but was no different than a slave "until the time fixed by his father" (4:2). On the other hand, the gentiles were slaves to idols, and when they came to faith, they received "sonship" as adopted children (4:5).

The point is that both groups, who were once "slaves" or "no different than a slave," are now children: "You are no longer slaves but sons [children] and if sons [children] then inheritors through God" (4:7). Paul includes an explanation of what this inheritance is, namely the Spirit. "And since you are sons [children], God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts crying 'Abba, Father'" (4:4:6). So, those who are children of Abraham by their faith are at one and the same time children of God. And they are receiving God's blessing, God's inheritance of the Spirit. They have the Spirit of God's son "in your hearts, crying 'Abba, Father'" (4:6). And this Spirit from God is God's claim on the believers as children and the means of solidarity among the children of God. This dynamic brings us to the full meaning of the opening address of God as "our Father" (1:3-4), and it fulfills the gospel promise to Abraham that "in you shall all the gentile nations be blessed" (3:8).

Allegory of the mothers of the children of Abraham

Paul now turns to another analogy, an allegory about mothers that is related to Abraham and the promise (4:21-31). Once Paul had articulated the contrast between Spirit and flesh, he could interpret scripture allegorically. By an amazing (and disturbing) twist, he now sets up a contrast in which he argues that, metaphorically speaking, the present Judeans are children of Abraham's slave Hagar, because they, like Hagar, are enslaved to the Law and are thereby living according to the flesh. In turn, metaphorically speaking, the gentile believers (along with Judeans who believed as Paul did) are children of the free woman Sarah, because they, like Isaac, have become free children of God by the promise and are living according to the Spirit. Because Isaac was a child of the promise, Abraham's descendants represent those who receive the inheritance by faith. They were born not of a slave woman but of a free woman. Below is a table of the contrasts evident in this allegory.

Metaphorically, there are two mothers--the actual city of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem from above. The actual city of Jerusalem is mother of the present Judeans, who are enslaved under the Law. They are represented by Hagar, Abraham's maidservant. This Jerusalem that is oriented from below is life according to the flesh, because it represents the elemental spirits of the cosmos--insofar as the Law was given through the mediation of angels (on Mount Sinai) and not directly from God. By contrast, the Jerusalem that is oriented from above, the spiritual (metaphorical) Jerusalem, is mother of those who are free. And the Jerusalem above is directly from God (the source of the Spirit) and therefore not part of enslavement to the elemental spirits of the cosmos.

Now we see clearly the overall pattern of Paul's thinking in this letter. He looks back at the history of Israel and sees two covenants. The one to Abraham is earlier, comes by promise directly from God, is fulfilled in Christ, and has opened out to encompass gentiles by faith without the need to follow the Judean Law. By contrast, Paul sees the covenant from Mount Sinai (he never mentions Moses!) as a later covenant that does not nullify Abraham's covenant, was indirectly mediated through angels, was a temporary measure until Abraham's covenant would be fulfilled in Christ, and was limited to Judeans. In the allegory about Abraham's two children, he is now able to bring together his historical argument with the categories of flesh and Spirit, as a means to reinforce the superiority of the Abraham covenant over the secondary, limited, and restricted covenant of Law from Mount Sinai. In this way, he can say to the Galatians: remain part of Abraham's covenant of freedom given directly from God, because the covenant from Mount Sinai is an enslavement of the flesh that is not even valid any longer now that Christ has come.

Paul may have used the allegory of the two covenants to counter an argument that gentiles were indeed physical offspring of Abraham--but through Hagar rather than Sarah. But Paul wants to connect the gentiles directly to the promise that led to the birth of Isaac by Sarah. Hence, by means of a metaphorical reversal, he is able to assure the Galatians that "You are children of promise, like Isaac" (4:28) and that "We are children not of the slave woman but of the free woman" (4:31).

"Giving birth" to children of Abraham

The metaphorical mother language also enables Paul to contrast the offspring of those who have children by physical birth and those who have children by a metaphorical mother. He quotes scripture to the following effect: "Rejoice, O barren one, who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in labor pains, for the children of the desolate one are more than the children of the one who has a husband" (4:27). Paul is saying that the children of the Jerusalem that is from above can produce more children than the earthly Jerusalem marked by blood kinship. The women who are not in birth pains (who give birth metaphorically to children of Abraham by faith) can have many more children than the women who give physical birth (the Judeans who count descendency from Abraham in terms of blood relationship).

Earlier Paul had applied the same birth metaphor to himself as a woman in labor pains. He refers to the Galatians as "My little children" and adds, "with whom I am in labor pains again until Christ takes shape in you" (4:19). As metaphorical mother, Paul can talk about giving birth (again) to the Galatians as his children. In Galatians, Paul does not depict himself as Father, for God is the only Father. Paul sees his role as that of a mother who gives birth to children of God in whom "Christ takes shape."

The idea of a male who has metaphorical offspring without intercourse may also be the best context to understand Paul's cryptic remark about those who are agitating the Galatians, when he says, "As for those agitators, I wish they would go all the way and cut it off" (5:12). The point is that if they went beyond circumcising the foreskin of the penis and castrated themselves, they would not be able to be circumcised, nor would they be able to make children of Abraham by blood relations. As eunuchs, they would be in the same situation as that of the gentile believers; namely, they would be in relation to God by faith apart from Law, and they would be seeking to expand the children of Abraham by metaphorical kinship.

The freedom of the children of Abraham

The metaphor of being born of a free woman emphasizes the motif that children of Abraham are free people. Here again, Paul is using language in a metaphorical way. He is not talking about actual slaves and freedmen but is referring to the dynamics of a relationship with God. At the end of the analysis of the allegory of the two women, Paul writes: "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (5:1). Later, he adds, "You, my brothers [and sisters], were called to freedom" (5:13). There are two forms of slavery from which Paul believes justification by faith frees one: slavery to the Judean Law and slavery to idols.

The first form of slavery is the slavery of the Law, which is over Judeans. In Paul's view, the slavery dynamics of Law are twofold. First, those who live by the Law are obligated to follow the Law in order be justified before God. As already noted, the Law itself says that people are cursed who do not observe "everything written in the book of the Law to keep it" (3:10). So, people are enslaved to a comprehensive keeping of the Law--a "yoke of slavery" (5:1)--and are therefore at risk of being cursed (5:3). The second slavery dynamic of the Law is that the Law serves the function of being a custodian and disciplinarian (3:23-24). As we have said, this was a slave who looked after youths to keep them from getting into trouble until they reached adulthood. In this dynamic of slavery, the Law can prohibit certain destructive behaviors but cannot empower positive righteousness that brings life (3:21).

The second form of slavery is the slavery to idols on the part of gentiles: "Formerly," Paul writes, "before you knew God, you were enslaved to beings that are by nature not gods" (4:8). Paul does not explain what comprises this slavery to idols. We can infer that idolatry involved carrying out certain ritual practices and observing certain times in order to appease the gods or to please the gods and thereby to win favors.

But now those who have faith and who are justified by grace are freed from these requirements for justification. To revert to any of them is to drop out of the relationship of grace established by God through Christ (5:2-4). To revert to a situation in which one needs to fulfill the law or to offer sacrifices as a basis for justification before God is to become estranged from Christ. It is "to drop out of grace" (5:4). When people receive justification as children by grace, they are directly related to God by the gift of the Spirit rather than indirectly by means of the "elemental spirits of the cosmos" (4:3, 9). In this new immediate relationship with God, not only do people come to know God, but also God knows them. As Paul says, "now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back to the weak and impotent elements of the cosmos, whose slaves you want to become once more?" (4:9).

Paul warns the Galatians about reverting to slavery. The gentiles who were enslaved to idols are in danger of falling back into slavery by following the Judean Law--by becoming circumcised and by observing special days (the Sabbath) and months (new moon) and seasons and years (4:10). Paul is afraid for them, "lest I have spent my labor on you in vain" (4:11). Paul asks them to become as he is, because he has now become as they are (as one who now follows the Spirit by faith rather than the Judean Law). He points out that the life of grace is a matter of freedom, a matter of "faith working through love" (5:6). Paul concludes his arguments for justification by grace at the end of chapter 4, in the confidence that his arguments warning them against slavery will win the day: "I have confidence in you, in the Lord, that you will take no other view" (than the gospel of grace Paul had proclaimed from the first) (5:10). For, Paul affirms, "You were called to freedom" (5:13). This, in Paul's view, is what it means to be children of God rather than slaves.

Yet Paul wants to make sure that the new freedom manifests itself in behavior toward one another that is an appropriate expression of the grace the Galatians have received. Paul argues that the result of receiving grace should be grace toward others. The fruits of being made righteous should be righteousness toward others. So Paul says, "Do not use your freedom as an opportunity/pretext for the flesh" (3:13). Paul warns against the "works of the flesh," manifestations of the passions and desires of the flesh (5:16-21). He urges them as brothers and sisters who are children of God to walk by the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit (5:18,25). When this occurs, people manifest "the fruits [not the works] of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, self-control" (5:22). Wryly, Paul adds that "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under Law" (5:18), because "there is no Law against such things as these [that is, the fruits of the Spirit]" (5:22). Freedom lies in the capacity to be led and empowered by the Spirit to live lives of righteousness--willingly and joyfully, quite apart from any need for Law, even Law that serves as a guardian.

The ending of the letter: the new kinship community

What does the new community of metaphorical kinship look like? Here Paul's language throughout Galatians is relevant. Paul refers to the Galatians as "brothers" (1:11; 3:15; 4:12, 28, 31; 5:11, 13; 6:1, 18). This is the language of mutual relationships of solidarity. The relationship between brothers was the strongest bond in ancient familial relations. The father-son relationship was one of identity, imitation, and obedience. The brother-sister relationship was one of protection. The motherson relationship was very strong but, like the sister language, was a relationship of subordination to males and therefore embeddedness in male protection. But the brother-brother relationship was that of persons who shared mutual status and power and who had great loyalty to each other. Paul's kinship language was that of collateral solidarity and common commitment to one another.

While the kinship language of "brothers" was used to express the solidarity of the new community as "one in Christ," the role of the community members in relation to each other was expressed by the household language of "slaves." Although those in Christ are not to submit to the yoke of slavery of the Law, they are voluntarily to become slaves of one another in the household of faith. Paul exhorts the Galatians: "through love become slaves of one another" (5:13). This is God's will, summed up by the statement from the Law: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (5:14). Paul is not reverting to the Law here. Rather, he is calling upon the Galatians to follow the principle of love that lies behind the Law, the "law of Christ," which is precisely what the Spirit in freedom leads them to do as an expression of God's will. The Galatians are free from the Law and free to fulfill God's will behind the Law by direct guidance from the Spirit. And whereas the Law could only discipline without bringing life, the Spirit can lead and empower as well as give life.

These relationships of "brother [sister]" and voluntary "slave" among believers are not characterized by hierarchy--no authority by some over others and no gradations of importance in roles--because these would lead to either arrogance or envy (5:26). Paul gives several examples of such mutuality in service: when you discover another person in a transgression, restore that person in gentleness, aware that you too might transgress (6:1, 2); bear one another's burdens (6:1); do not thinking more highly of yourself than you ought 6:3); do not compare yourself with others 6:4); and bear one's own burdens (6:5), such that if one person teaches, the one being taught will share material goods with the teacher (6:6). In all of these mutual relations, the Galatians are admonished not to flag in doing good for those of the household of faith (6:10).

As brothers and as children of Abraham, God is their Father. They have the Spirit of the Son Jesus in their hearts, and they call God "Abba" (4:6). They are inheritors of God (4:7). In this regard, they have received the blessing of Abraham, they have been justified by faith, and they have received the Spirit by grace. They now live by the guidance of the Spirit (5:25). And they will inherit the kingdom of God when it comes fully (5:19-24). In the end, those who live by the Spirit will reap a harvest of eternal life (6:8).

The metaphorical Israel of God

This new community of the children of Abraham is "Israel"--not the Israel of the flesh made up of those who are blood descendents of Abraham and who live by the Law but the Israel created by the Spirit and living by faith. Just as the Judean nation was called "the house(hold) of Israel," so Paul calls the new community "the house/household of faith" (6:10). The new community of Abraham's metaphorical offspring is Israel composed of Judeans and gentiles who live by faith rather than by Law. At the very end of the letter, Paul says that "In Christ, neither circumcision nor non-circumcision is anything, but only new creation" (6:15). Then he adds, "As for those who keep this principle, may peace be upon them and upon the Israel of God" (6:16). The new community is the manifestation of the new creation. They are the children of Abraham, Judean and gentile alike, who are "in Christ." They are therefore "the Israel of God"--the metaphorical Israel.

With this reference to Israel, we are dealing not simply with metaphorical kinship language but also with metaphorical nation language. In the ancient world, nations were thought of primarily as ethnic groups, people who shared kinship by blood relations and who lived by the culture distinctive to them. So it was natural to refer to the nation of Israel, for example, as a family--as the household of God and the children of Abraham, along with many other phrases that conveyed blood kinship among those of Israel. So, when Paul was using metaphorical household language throughout the letter, he was at the same time using metaphorical nation language. Here at the end, Paul makes this explicit, depicting those who are in Christ as "the house of faith" and "the Israel of God."

After all, Paul was giving to the Galatians a new identity as children of Abraham. In so doing, he was giving them a new God, a new ancestry, a new history, a new set of kinship relationships, and a new national identity--an identity that, by virtue of being metaphorical, did not nullify their identity as Galatians. By implication, it did not nullify the identity of any other ethnic group, as gentiles. Neither circumcision nor non-circumcision means anything in this new Israel, because it is a new creation in which such distinctions are transcended. In addition, distinctions as a basis for power and privilege--Judean/gentile, slave/free, male/female--are nullified. They are nullified by virtue of the fact that this household of faith is created by grace from an action of God external to all these groups and not on the basis of distinctions that separate and divide human individuals and groups and that serve to justify domination.

Concluding reflections

The language of metaphorical kinship is extensive in Paul's Letter to the Galatians. A study of it helps to explain how Paul's gospel transcended ethnocentricity and embraced all nations as potential children of God. To contemporary readers, there are disturbing aspects to Paul's ideas and expressions: the male-preference language, the embeddedness of women in male identity, the negative portrait of Judeans who were not Christians, the depiction of Judeans as children of Hagar, the claim that being "in Christ" represents the true Israel, the methods he used to interpret scripture passages, the understanding of curse in relation to the Law, and the pronouncement of anathema on any who would preach a different gospel. Nevertheless, some glistening dynamics shine forth brilliantly from this letter--the proclamation of a gospel that generates righteous justice, the priority of God's grace, the power of the Spirit, the impulse toward inclusion of all, the ringing call to freedom from any form of enslavement, the invitation to serve one another with mutual love, and, not least, the formation of strong familial bonds among people from many nations, races, and cultures who have been grasped by God's grace to be God's children.
Children of Hagar Children of Sarah

Slave woman Free woman
Born according to the flesh Born according to the promise/Spirit
Covenant from Mt Sinai in Arabia Covenant from above
Jerusalem that lives in slavery Jerusalem above that is free,
 with all her children and this is our mother
Has a husband and few children Barren but with more children
Children of slavery Children of promise, like Isaac
Persecuted the son born Persecuted by the son born
 according to the Spirit according to the flesh
Son of the slave woman Son of the free woman
 will not inherit will inherit
Therefore, slaves Therefore, free

For further reading

Balch, David, and Carolyn Osiek, eds. Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003)

Bartchy, Scott. "Undermining Ancient Patriarchy: The Apostle Paul's Vision of a Society of Siblings." Biblical Theology Bulletin 29 (1999): 68-78

Betz, Hans Dieter. Galatians: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Churches in Galatia. Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979)

Birge, M. K. The Language of Belonging: A Rhetorical Analysis of Paul's Kinship Language in First Corinthians (Leuven: Peeters, 2003)

Bossman, David. "Paul's Fictive Kinship Movement." Biblical Theology Bulletin 26 (1996): 163-71

Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Cohen, Shaye, ed. The Jewish Family in Antiquity. Brown Studies, no. 289 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1993)

Delaney, Carol. "Seeds of Honor, Fields of Shame." In Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean, ed. David Gilmore (Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 1987), 35-48

Dunn, James D. G. The Theology of Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Hellerman, Joseph. The Ancient Church as Family: Early Christian Communities and Surrogate Kinship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001)

Martyn, J. Louis. Galatians: A New Translation and Commentary. Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1998)

Matera, Frank. Galatians. Sacra Pagina Series vol. 9 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992)

Moxnes, Halvor. Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor (New York: Routledge, 1997)

Osiek, Carolyn, and David Balch. Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997)

Peristiany, J. G., ed. Mediterranean Family Structures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)

1. The translations in this essay are based on the translation of Hans Dieter Betz in Galatians (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).

2. In this essay I refer to Jews of the first century as "Judeans" in order to avoid the implication that Paul is referring to Jews of every time and place. "Judeans" was the ancient designation for all who lived in and originated from the province of Judea and who embraced the Judean way of life. Efforts to avoid contemporary anti-Judaism are complicated by the likelihood that Paul has misrepresented his "Judaizing" opponents and has portrayed the beliefs and attitudes of non-Christian Judeans in ways that they themselves most likely would not have agreed to or appreciated. From his perspective as a believer in Jesus and as part of his rhetoric of persuasion in this letter, Paul has depicted Judeans as a foil for new relationships in Christ.

David Rhoads

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
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Date:Aug 1, 2004
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