Our Stepmother: Keturah
Stepmothers are known to have complicated relationships with their stepchildren. According to parashat Chaya Sarah, the Jewish people also has a stepmother; following the description Sarah’s death and Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, the end of the parashah reads (Genesis 25:1):
1 Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 3 Jokshan begot Sheba and Dedan. The descendants of Dedan were the Asshurim, the Letushim, and the Leummim. 4 The descendants of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Enoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah. 5 Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; 6 but to Abraham’s sons by concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East.
This short paragraph brings up a number of questions:
Who is Keturah?
The Torah gives us no background whatsoever regarding Keturah. Was she a local Canaanite woman? A maidservant like Hagar? A woman Abraham sent for from the home country? Rashi asserts that that Keturah is the same person as Hagar. Why the names change? For that Rashi quotes a midrash,
קטורה – זו הגר, ונקראת קטורה על שם שנאים מעשיה כקטרת ושקשרה פתחה שלא נזדווגה לאדם מיום שפרשה מאברהם:
Keturah: (Gen. Rabbah 61:4) This is Hagar. She was called Keturah because her deeds were as beautiful as incense (קְטֹרֶת), and because she tied (קָטְרָה, the Aramaic for“tied”) her “opening” (a euphemism), for she was not sexually intimate with any man from the day she separated from Abraham (Tanchuma 8, Genesis Rabbah 61:4).
While Rashi seems confident that he knows Keturah is Hagar, however, Rashbam, Radak and Ibn Ezra, following a simple reading of the text, state unequivocally that Keturah is not Hagar, but a different woman. Perhaps the Sages were bothered by Abraham’s treatment of Hagar and hoped to make midrashic amends; perhaps they could not picture Abraham sitting again in a hotel lobby on a shidduch date at 140 but were more comfortable with him reverting to a woman with whom he once lived. Whatever the reason, the Torah’s total silence concerning any details about her is what makes such a midrashic leap possible.
When Did He Marry Her?
If we accept these verses as being in chronological order, we would have Abraham who at hundred exclaimed about being too old to have a child now at hundred and forty having six children with his new wife Keturah! On the other hand if we posit that this marriage to Keturah happened earlier on in his life, it pulls the rug from under some of the basic assumptions about Abraham in the storyline up to this point.
Wife or Concubine?
The Torah introduces Keturah as a bona fide wife, and yet in verse 6 there is a reference to Abraham’s “concubines.” Who are these concubines? If it is a reference to Keturah, why the plural and why the switch in terminology from wife (ishah) to concubine (pilegesh)? If it is a reference to other concubines, what happened to the six sons referenced above? The Book of Chronicles, one of the latest biblical books, which knows and integrates traditions from the Torah and other earlier material now found in the Tanakh, wrestles with this problem (1 Chronicles 1:32) and calls Keturah a concubine from the start, “The sons of Keturah, Abraham’s concubine.” However, this doesn’t change the fact that the Torah calls her a wife and it doesn’t deal with the problem that Keturah is one person/concubine, not many.
Radak tries to deal with some of the above problems:
הוסיף לקחת עוד אשה כי כבר היו לו שתים ועוד הוסיף ולקח השלישי’ כדי לשמשו לעת זקנותו, ולהוליד ג”כ להרבות זרעו בעולם, ולא הקפיד בזו מאיזה עם ומאיזה משפחה תהיה כיון שזרעו המיוחד שהוא יצחק היה מאשה שהיתה ממש ממשפחתו, והשיא ליצחק גם כן אשה ממשפחתו ולא חשש על שאר הבנים מאיזה עם יהי’אבל ודאי אשה כשרה בקש לו שלא תהיה מרת רוח בזקנותו ושמר גם כן שלא תהיה מבנות כנען, כי הגר מצרית היתה ולא כנענית, והגר היתה אשה לאברהם כמו שאמר לו לאשה, וקטורה גם כן היתה לו לאשה כמו שאמר ויקח אשה ומלבד אלו היו לו מהם בנים ולא זכר אלא בני הנשים, והנשים היו בנשואין בחופה ובמשתה והפילגשים ביחוד לבד שהיו מיוחדת לו למשכבו.
[Abraham] took another wife, for he already had two and this was his third. She would assist him in his old age and give birth to more children to help his seed populate the earth. He didn’t concern himself with her nationality or her family since his main son Isaac came from a woman who was literally part of his family, and he married Isaac off to a woman who was from his family – so he did not worry about what nation the other sons were part of.Certainly the woman (Keturah) was a fitting person (kesheira) and she was not bitter about his old age. [However, Abraham must have] made sure that she was not a Canaanite, for Hagar was an Egyptian not a Canaanite, and Hagar had also been Abraham’s wife just as Keturah became his wife. Other than these, [Abraham] had other [women] from whom he produced children, but [the Torah] does not tell us their names, only the children of the wives. The wives were married with chuppah and a celebration but the concubines only with yichud (being alone), i.e. they were intimate only with him.
An Academic Approach
Although Radak’s approach recognizes and solves some of the interpretive problems, it only does so partially. One academic methodology, however, takes us along different routes. Claus Westermann, in his commentary on Genesis (ad loc.) argues that the purpose of these verses “is to associate the names that follow with Abraham. This is done by introducing another wife… This is not to be understood biographically.” In other words the Torah is using the description of a marriage with Abraham to connect certain tribes with Abraham (Midianites, Dedanites, etc.).
Genealogies elsewhere in the Bible are similarly symbolic according to many biblical scholars; this is especially clear in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10, which explains geographical proximity and ethnic similarity through family relationships. Keturah is simply the “matriarchal bridge” that makes this possible. The name may even represent the land upon which these tribes once lived, or may be related to the word for spice or incense (ketoret), suggesting that Abraham was “related” to the various tribes on the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere who grew and traded aromatic spices.
This may explain why we do not know who she is, but what about the discord between wife/concubine? What happened to the six children of Keturah? Here a redaction critical approach could help. Perhaps verses 1-4 are one unit and verses 5-6 another unit. The first unit was meant simply to reference the six descendants of Abraham through Keturah, and were aimed at tying these tribes into Abraham/Israel/Judah. The second unit assumes an Abraham with multiple concubines and offspring, something never explicitly said in any narrative. Where this source/tradition came from and when it was added to the canonical Abraham stories is unknown.
Looking back at the meforshim above, it seems that Radak came very close to seeing the redaction critical point. Although he does not suggest vv. 1-4 as being from a separate source, he sees clearly that they bear no real relationship to vv. 5-6.
Using the redaction-critical model, we can also explain why Abraham remarried at 140. As the editor decided where to place an account of Abraham marrying a woman and having 6 children, he faced a narrative problem. One overarching theme of the Abraham narrative is his wife’s barrenness and his lack of offspring. Furthermore, once Sarah has her child, the narrative is occupied with describing her jealousy against Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, of his other wife, Hagar. Sarah actually forces Abraham, against his paternal instinct, to banish the competitor child.
Considering this, the editor was left with little choice but to put the Keturah account after the death of Sarah. The appearance of another wife during the lifetime of Sarah would have been impossible. If it had been placed early in the Abraham narrative, his complaints about having no heir would have been false and there would have been no need for him to take Hagar as a wife and father Ishmael. If it had been place after the birth of Isaac but before Sarah’s death, this would not have worked either. With her extremely jealous reaction to Hagar and Ishmael, would she really have countenanced another rival? Therefore, the editor made the only choice available to him: Abraham must have married Keturah after the death of Sarah.
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October 25, 2013
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