Name of Jesus

Paul’s theology is intimately entangled with the topic of enslavement

Jesus mural with man looking up at it.
Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 1, 2023

Second Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Galatians 4:4-7

Galatians 4 is one of the most discussed passages in Paul’s letters. No wonder: it contains most key topics in Paul’s theology, a touchstone to understanding Paul’s position on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Subsequently, this chapter includes substantive comments on the Law. Paul crafts two literary figures to convey the notion that Gentiles also belong to Israel’s covenant. The first one, a metaphor, compares the Galatians to slaves that become sons through the ultimate sacrifice of the Son, who releases them from their captivity and inserts them into divine inheritance (Galatians 4:1-9). The second one, an allegory (Galatians 4:22-5:1), recaps the mythological passage in Genesis where the contraposition between Sarah and Hagar grounds two separate lineages: the Israelites and the Ishmaelites. Paul turns this typology on its head to square the Gentile experience with Sarah, and the law-observant faction with Hagar. Both literary motifs bring to the fore important political and theological considerations around inheritance, will, promise, freedom, and enslavement. 

In the wake of some of my previous commentaries, I wish to center on the topic of enslavement. There are several reasons why I think this approach is important: contemporary discussions in the church on reparations are still developing, contemporary scholarship on Paul has not come fully to terms with the legacy of enslavement, translations paper over the cruel reality of captivity (translating “doulos” as a servant instead of slave, for instance), and lectionaries skip texts that deal with slavery. Let’s face it: the position of New Testament texts on enslavement does not preach particularly well and conjures up a set of thorny political issues for contemporary congregations. Of course, a commentary like this one is not the platform to explore the complex literary, historical, and political dynamics at play in Galatians 4, but it may serve as a reminder that Paul’s theology is intimately entangled with the topic of enslavement. After all, Galatians 4:7 says it plainly: “you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if you are a son, then you are entitled to God’s heritage.” 

Galatians 4 starts with a metaphor that sets the tone for the chapter. The metaphor (4:1-9) conveys the idea that the time for the Gentiles to inherit God’s salvation has arrived. Paul frames inheritance by comparing the position of the slave and the position of the heir/son in the traditional household. The son, until he comes of age, is like a slave because he cannot inherit the possessions (4:1). God sends his son “born under the Law” so “we might be adopted as sons” (4:5). Theologically, then, the Son makes all believers sons, and converts slaves into sons. From a historical perspective, the metaphor works on the assumption that the slave is banned from inheritance. It also makes explicit that the son/heir is the owner/master of the slave: since slaves are considered property, the son/heir owns them (the son is the master of everything; 4:1). 

In the passage at hand, Paul addresses his audience, saying that they are no longer slaves but sons. It is this transformation that grants them God’s heritage. In the next verse, Paul suggests that they were enslaved to those who “are not Gods” (4:8). The passage interpretation is elusive partly because Paul goes back and forth between literal and metaphorical uses of enslavement. We should keep in mind, however, that both uses were probably received differently depending on whether the listener was a slave or a free citizen. Good news for everyone, but with different consequences for each status. One could understand Paul as ironing out differences: although the slaves continue to be slaves, they can expect to become “sons” by way of affiliating with the Son. Equally, Paul is mystifying the position of the slave by occluding how enslavement meant social death: slaves not only did not have access to inheritance, but they were also banned from any meaningful relations with any of their family members. Sons and daughters, wives and husbands could be split depending on their masters’ whims. 

Paul is not particularly kind towards the enslaved. No matter how one interprets the Hagar/Sarah allegory, Paul readapts the Genesis narrative to his own theological message: “cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit the son of the free woman. So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” (4:30-31). Since slaves could not inherit anything but enslavement itself, Paul’s rhetorical move assumes that everyone needs to be converted into a son (Galatians 4:5). This assumption works at the metaphorical level while hiding how enslavement functions at the historical one: real slaves cannot become real sons because they are considered property. The essential link between father/son is not possible in enslavement except in purely biological terms. 

How are we, contemporary believers reading Scripture, supposed to deal with the legacy of enslavement in texts that we consider authoritative or divinely inspired? I must confess that I do not have facile answers to this question. My approach suggests that acknowledging how a text both uses and abuses the position of the captive is a possible first approach to come to terms with the links between Paul’s theology–inheritance in this case–and the crudest reality that any human can possibly experience.