One of the most overlooked people in Scripture, Hagar (Gn 16:8,13; 21:16 ) has an unusual and heart-wrenching story, one that should lie at the heart of the Christian tradition — but unfortunately, does not. She’s oppressed; she’s poor; she and her son are near death in the wilderness, and she is saved by God, given new life. She’s almost like the Magnificat in action: God raising up the least among us.

What is more, she names God: the only biblical woman to do so. A hero and a matriarch in the Islam world, she goes largely unrecognized in our Christian realm.

In a nutshell:

Hagar is Sarah’s servant. After many years in the wilderness, Sarah has given up hope of becoming pregnant. (And with good reason, as she was 65 when she and husband Abraham started their wilderness trek). Yet she is committed to God’s promise to Abraham as “having as many descendants as there are stars in the sky.”

Under ancient laws, any child born to a servant would, by rights, belong to she and Abraham. So Sarah decides to send Abraham into Hagar’s tent. Some say Hagar was a second wife to Abraham. I’m not seeing the biblical proof for that. But Abe does get Hagar pregnant. Perhaps it took one visit. Perhaps it took more; perhaps it took years.

Yet Sarah has taken on more than she bargained for. She is not emotionally prepared for the burden of sharing her husband, even though polygamy was common in the ancient world. It’s pretty clear to me that Sarah and Abraham loved each other deeply — and that was probably unusual as well, in those days of arranged marriages.

Both Sarah and Hagar get cranky. Sarah is jealous. Hagar gets haughty: “she looked with contempt upon her mistress.” (Gen 16:4) Sarah throws her out of camp; Hagar is told to go back and submit to Sarah; several years later, Sarah has Abraham send the child and his mother out into the wilderness again. And as Hagar cries out, unable to bear the tears of her son, God hears the boy and steps in.

“Come, lift up your boy,” says God. “And I will make of him a great nation.” This is a key line here, for it is the same thing that God has said to Abraham.

Because of God’s intervention, Hagar and Ishmael find their way to Egypt, where Hagar finds a nice girl for her son. And thus is born the story of Islam.

Thoughts to ponder:

Had Sarah waited for the fulfillment of God’s promise and not arranged for the union of Hagar and Abraham, would there be three world religions today…or just two? It looks to me like it was all in God’s plan: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Yet it is a bit tragic that divisions existed right from the beginning, for I am sure that God wants peace among all of us. I also note that Abraham knew Hagar after Sarah’s death, keeping in touch with her and all of his children (born by a number of women). Biblically-speaking then, the tension existed between the women, not the men.

Moral of the story: Divisions caused long ago need healing. May we — as the daughters of Sarah and Hagar — work actively to promote such reconciliation, knowing that it is part of the completion of the biblical story, started so long ago in a wild and untamed place.