Archaeologists have found no vidence attesting to the existence of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Yet the story of Sarah and Hagar does reflect real historical concerns, including the paramount importance of inheritance in Middle Eastern societies of the second millennium B.C.
These ancient societies were "patrilineal" and "patrilocal," says Steinberg: Inheritance passed through the male line, and the bride was expected to live with the groom's family. These societies also practiced "endogamy," or marrying within certain kinship limits. "That explains why ultimately Isaac, the son of Sarah, was chosen as Abraham's heir rather than Ishmael, the son of Hagar," Steinberg says. In the biblical account, Abraham at one point identifies Sarah as his half sister, although Steinberg believes a better translation would be "kinswoman."
Alice Bach, Archbishop Hallinan Chair of Catholic Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and author of Women, Seduction, and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative (Cambridge University Press, 1997), says that the taking of secondary wives was a common practice in ancient Israel. "What Abraham did to [Hagar] was completely legal," she says. "If your wife cannot have children, you can have children by your wife's slaves, and the child becomes yours." And polygamy is certainly one way to ensure that a patriarch can reproduce. Abraham converts his "power and resources into women and children," notes Laura Betzig, an anthropologist and historian who has studied sex in the Bible.
The story can also be seen as a reaffirmation of both divine and male supremacy. "One thing women can do that men cannot do is conceive and bear a child," Bach says. But Sarah's conception of Isaac makes clear that "God—who in those days was [considered] male—was more powerful and could open or close a womb."
Miriam Peskowitz, professor of rabbinic civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, is among those who dispute the traditional picture of Sarah and Hagar as rivals. "I think the story's at odds with the way people would have lived," she says, with cooperation among women being essential to survival in the desert. In fact, she says, "the story is less about Sarah and Hagar and more about the Bible's repeated insistence that only one son can be the favored son."
Muslims, however, see both Isaac and Ishmael as legitimate heirs, says Khaled Keshk, assistant professor of religious studies at DePaul University. In the Islamic tradition, if a man sleeps with a slave, he says, "the slave is free, and the son is never born a slave." Muslims also believe that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, whom Abraham was told to sacrifice, Keshk says. They credit Ishmael and Abraham with together rebuilding the holy city of Mecca; many of the rituals of the sacred pilgrimage, or hajj—including a sacrificial feast—are symbolically tied to the story of Hagar and Ishmael.
Like the Muslims, African-American "womanists" have redeemed Hagar. Delores Williams, author of Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Orbis Books, 1993), says Hagar is "an analogue for African-American women's experience," from slavery to the problems of single mothers today." But she is seen not just as a victim but as a survivor. Referring to Hagar's miraculous rescue in the desert, Williams says: "We say, 'God has made a way out of no way.' "
Christians also stake a claim to the saga. In Galatians 4, the apostle Paul attempts to convert it into an allegory about the triumph of Christianity. He says that Hagar's son was born "according to the flesh" while Sarah's was "through the promise." In a passage that remains controversial, he says it is Christians, not Jews, who are the sons of the free woman. By claiming that "followers of Christ are the true inheritors of Abraham's covenant with God," says Elizabeth Castelli, associate professor of religion at Barnard College, Paul is performing "an extraordinary contortionist move" that "inverts the Jewish interpretation of his time."