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."