Many regard Paul’s interpretation of the history of Israel in Galatians 4:21–31 as the most difficult passage in his letter. That’s because it is a highly complex argument that requires a broad knowledge of Old Testament persons and events. The first step in making sense of this passage is to have a basic understanding of an Old Testament concept central to Paul’s argument: the concept of the covenant. 1
The Hebrew word translated “covenant” is berit. It occurs nearly three hundred times in the Old Testament and refers to a binding contract, agreement, or treaty. For thousands of years, covenants played an integral role in defining the relationships between people and nations across the ancient Near East. Covenants often involved the slaughter of animals as part of the process of making (literally “cutting”) a covenant. The killing of animals symbolized what would happen to a party that failed to keep its covenant promises and obligations.
“From Adam to Jesus, God dealt with humanity by means of a series of covenant promises that centered on a coming Redeemer and which culminated in the Davidic covenant (Gen. 12:2, 3; 2 Sam. 7:12–17; Isa. 11). To Israel in Babylonian captivity God promised a more effective ‘new covenant’ (Jer. 31:31–34) in connection with the coming of the Davidic Messiah (Ezek. 36:26–28; 37:22–28).”—Hans K. LaRondelle, Our Creator Redeemer (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2005), p. 4.
While marriage, physical labor, and the Sabbath were part of the general provisions of the covenant of creation, its main focal point was God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit. The basic nature of the covenant was “obey and live!” With a nature created in harmony with God, the Lord did not require the impossible. Obedience was humanity’s natural inclination; yet, Adam and Eve chose to do what was not natural, and, in that act, they not only ruptured the covenant of creation, they made its terms impossible for humans now corrupted by sin. God had to restore the relationship that Adam and Eve had lost. He did this by immediately enacting a covenant of grace based on the eternal promise of a Savior (Gen. 3:15).
Read Genesis 3:15, the first gospel promise in the Bible. Where in that verse do you see an inkling of the hope that we have in Christ?