As we commence the Avraham-narrative in Torah, we eventually meet “Hagar” (pronounced “Hajar” in Arabic).

She’s an important character in Torah; even moreso in human history, as it turns out. Her son by Avraham is “Ishmael.” In a tradition shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims, Ishmael is the “father” of the Arab people; he’s therefore the ancestor of the earliest Muslims. The people who take Yosef from the pit and sell him into slavery in Egypt are identified in Torah as “Yishmaelim” — i.e. “Ishmaelites.”

Despite her importance, Hagar is only mention in chapters 16 and 21 of Torah. It begs a back-story. How did an Egyptian become the servant/slave of a nomadic group? Why? Nothing is given in the text, although some is provided in midrash and aggadah.

Torah’s view of Hagar seems multi-layered. Although Sarah is irritated by her and treats her harshly, Avraham seems unstintingly kind. He’s pained at her mistreatment and sends her away only after G-d’s assent to do so.

Like many family conflicts, either side can seem “wrong” when looked at through the other’s point of view.

Sarah’s irritation is said to arise from Hagar’s haughtiness and Ishmael’s disrespect. On the other hand, Hagar’s haughtiness might well have arisen from her treatment as a slave/handmaiden. Her running away suggests prolonged unhappiness with her status and living condition. Sarah later “gives” her to Avraham as what we’d call today a “surrogate mother.” Some biblical commentators, noting that Hagar is never asked whether she accepts the role, have described this as a “rape” — a young woman is forced to have sexual relations and bare a child to a man old enough to be her grandfather, without giving her own consent.

Yet, later, in the wilderness, G-d (through an angel) miraculously saves Hagar and Ishmael. This shows not only Divine Mercy, but hints that there’s a providential purpose to it all — one that might not be understood until the rise of Islam.

Jewish tradition, then, doesn’t see her as an “evil” figure. Rather, she’s one who shows youthful (perhaps adolescent) haughtiness, yet is later overcome with loving concern for her child. Her “role,” or “destiny,” is to be taken by unknown circumstances from Egypt, her home; wander with a band of “foreigners” whose customs, language and worship were no doubt strange to her; be forced out into life-threatening circumstances in the desert, to finally raise her child to adulthood in a stable home.

So, even in the earliest passages — long before the birth of both Christianity and Islam — the “Ishmaelites” are marked as arising from  circumstances both miraculous and providential.  Hagar is the central figure in this.

A very interesting piece on “Hagar,” as seen from multiple viewpoints and traditions, is: