The Pressure of People, Places, and Things
Preface: The giving of the law on Sinai did not invalidate the promise that God made to Abraham, nor did the law alter the promise’s provisions. The law was given so that people might be made aware of the true extent of their sinfulness and recognize their need of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants.
The culture and society in which we live can directly or indirectly influence virtually every decision we make. One decision with enormous impact on adult lives is the decision to have children. A comparison of the societal influences of ancient and current cultures on families reveals that the attitude about the importance of children for a family has changed a great deal over the millennia. For a North American couple in 2011 contemplating child-rearing, the following questions might well be asked: Should we have children? If so, should we have one or two? When should we begin? In contrast, the Middle Eastern society of the ancient Israelites and earlier cultures in the region had a completely different influence.
“The ancient Israelites’ attitude could be summed up like this: ‘We want children. We want them now. We will have as many children as we can because children are very important to us. In fact, we would rather be “wealthy” with children than with money.’ ”1
Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of ancient and modern Israel, were profoundly influenced by such an attitude. Beyond the mere desire for children, Abraham needed an heir, a son. During his time and culture, the integrity of the clan, the continuity of the family inheritance, and the passing on of the family name demanded an heir. Yet Abraham and Sarah were childless (See Gen. 15:1; 18:14).
For Sarah, childlessness contained even darker implications because barren women were considered to be under a curse. “It is hard for us to imagine how devastating these events would have been for the childless wife. She was spiritually ruined, socially disgraced, and psychologically depressed. She was married to a husband who wanted a child to assume the continuation of his family line. That husband might continue to love her but she felt that was a small consolation (1 Sam. 1:6–8). It was in fact a great mercy for a resentful husband could have made her life unbearable.”2 Sarah, however, was not without hope. God had promised an heir to Abraham. Yet somehow the fulfillment of God’s promise was delayed.
Abraham and Sarah faced the choice of trusting God that “a son coming from your own body will be your heir” or devising their own solution that would satisfy their culture and its mores. Sarah made the choice, and Abraham accepted it. Soon after, Ishmael was born, Abraham’s first son, from the slave girl Hagar. Thirteen years later, out of his body (Abraham’s and Sarah’s), God’s promise was fulfilled with the birth of Isaac. At that point, unexpectedly, both the demands of their culture and God’s promise had been fulfilled. Abraham had two heirs, a son of the “promise” and a son of the “flesh,” or their own devising. It is from this story of Abraham's two sons that Paul drew an allegory in Galatians 4:21–30.
Abraham and Sarah fell prey to the pressures of their culture by trying to make their inheritance “sure” by their own actions. Paul uses this story to portray the distinctions that exist in the choices to be made by the Galatians. Should they return to the culture, attitudes, and actions of their Jewish ancestry, of which they claim to be heirs? Or should they believe the promise of God when it comes to receiving their eternal inheritance? Paul’s conclusion in the allegory is for the Galatians to deny their current culture and to live by the promises of God and by faith in Jesus Christ.
1. J. I. Packer, M. C. Tenny, and W. White, Daily Life in Bible Times (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982), p. 59.
2. Ibid., p. 62.