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2013

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Our Stepmother, Keturah

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https://thetorah.com/article/our-stepmother-keturah

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Our Stepmother, Keturah

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TheTorah.com

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2013

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https://thetorah.com/article/our-stepmother-keturah

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Our Stepmother, Keturah

After Sarah dies, Abraham marries Keturah. Who is she?

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Our Stepmother, Keturah

Syrian Bedouin woman, at the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893. Wikimedia

Some time after Sarah’s death (Gen 23:2) and Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah (Gen 24:67), Abraham remarries, and Isaac gets a stepmother:

בראשׁית כה:א וַיֹּסֶף אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אִשָּׁה וּשְׁמָהּ קְטוּרָה. כה:ב וַתֵּלֶד לוֹ אֶת זִמְרָן וְאֶת יָקְשָׁן וְאֶת מְדָן וְאֶת מִדְיָן וְאֶת יִשְׁבָּק וְאֶת שׁוּחַ. כה:ג וְיָקְשָׁן יָלַד אֶת שְׁבָא וְאֶת דְּדָן וּבְנֵי דְדָן הָיוּ אַשּׁוּרִם וּלְטוּשִׁים וּלְאֻמִּים. כה:ד וּבְנֵי מִדְיָן עֵיפָה וָעֵפֶר וַחֲנֹךְ וַאֲבִידָע וְאֶלְדָּעָה כָּל אֵלֶּה בְּנֵי קְטוּרָה.
Gen 25:1 Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 25:2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 25:3 Jokshan begot Sheba and Dedan. The descendants of Dedan were the Asshurim, the Letushim, and the Leummim. 25:4 The descendants of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Enoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah.[1]

This brief mention of the expansion of Abraham’s family raises a number of questions.

Who is Keturah?

The Torah gives us no background whatsoever regarding Keturah. Is 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, and he quotes a midrash to explain the name change:

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).

Perhaps the Sages were bothered by Abraham’s treatment of Hagar and hoped to make midrashic amends. Perhaps they could not picture Abraham taking a new wife at his advanced age—according to the Genesis chronology, he would be 140 at the time of this marriage—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 makes this midrashic leap possible.

Following a simple reading of the text, however, Rashbam, Radak, and Ibn Ezra state unequivocally that Keturah is not Hagar, but a different woman.

Wife or Concubine?

The Torah introduces Keturah as an אִשָּׁה, “wife” (Gen 25:1), and yet the same passage also refers to Abraham’s “concubines” and their children:

בראשׁית כה:ה וַיִּתֵּן אַבְרָהָם אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ לְיִצְחָק. כה:ו וְלִבְנֵי הַפִּילַגְשִׁים אֲשֶׁר לְאַבְרָהָם נָתַן אַבְרָהָם מַתָּנֹת וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם מֵעַל יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ בְּעוֹדֶנּוּ חַי קֵדְמָה אֶל אֶרֶץ קֶדֶם.
Gen 25:5 Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; 25:6 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.

Who are these concubines? If this verse is referring to Keturah, why is the word plural,[2] and why does the terminology switch from wife (ishah) to concubine (pilegesh)? If verse 6 refers to other concubines, but not to Keturah, what happens to the six sons she bears for Abraham?[3]

Chronicles, a late biblical book that knows and integrates traditions from the Torah and other earlier material now found in the Tanakh, resolves this problem by calling Keturah a concubine from the start: וּבְנֵי קְטוּרָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אַבְרָהָם, “The sons of Keturah, Abraham’s concubine” (1 Chr 1:32).

This solution doesn’t change the fact that the Torah calls her a wife, however, and it doesn’t deal with the problem that Keturah is one person/concubine, not many.

Radak deals with these problems by arguing that all of the named women who bear Abraham’s children—Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah—are his wives:

הוסיף לקחת עוד אשה כי כבר היו לו שתים ועוד הוסיף ולקח השלישי’ כדי לשמשו לעת זקנותו, ולהוליד ג”כ להרבות זרעו בעולם,
[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.
ולא הקפיד בזו מאיזה עם ומאיזה משפחה תהיה...[4] אבל ודאי אשה כשרה בקש לו שלא תהיה מרת רוח בזקנותו.
With her he was unconcerned about her nationality or her family… But certainly he wanted a fitting woman, so that she would not be a source of bitterness in his old age.[5]
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.
And he also made sure that she was not a Canaanite, for Hagar was an Egyptian not a Canaanite, and Hagar was Abraham’s wife—as it says (Gen 16:3) “as a wife,” and Keturah as well became his wife, as it says (Gen 25:1) “and he took a wife.”

If these three named women are wives, Radak suggests that the concubines are a separate group of women, unnamed in the Torah, who bear still more children with Abraham:

ומלבד אלו היו לו מהם בנים ולא זכר אלא בני הנשים, והנשים היו בנשואין בחופה ובמשתה והפילגשים ביחוד לבד שהיו מיוחדת לו למשכבו.
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.

Although Radak’s approach recognizes and solves some of the interpretive problems, it only does so partially, as it leaves open the question of what happens to Keturah’s sons, and why Abraham only sends away the sons of the concubines.

Academic Solutions

Source critical scholars suggest that verses 1–4 and 5–6 represent two different units. The first unit identifies the six descendants of Abraham through Keturah. (Note the inclusio at the end of verse 4, “all these are the children of Keturah.”)

The second unit confirms Isaac as Abraham’s sole heir by having him send away his other sons. The second unit doesn’t seem to know about a second wife and other sons, since it seems to understand all of Abraham’s other sons as coming from concubines.[6]

Radak comes very close to seeing the redaction critical point. Although he does not suggest verses 1–4 as being from a separate source, he sees clearly that they bear no real relationship to verses 5–6.

Why Did Abraham Marry Keturah?

Why does remarry? In context, one might suggest that Abraham was simply lonely after Sarah’s death. Nevertheless, Claus Westermann, in his commentary on Genesis (ad loc.), suggests that the primary 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 biblical authors use the description of a marriage with Abraham to connect certain tribes with Abraham (Midianites, Dedanites, etc.).

Genealogies elsewhere in the Bible are similarly symbolic. This pattern is especially clear in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10, which explains geographical proximity and ethnic similarity through family relationships.[7]

In a similar way, Keturah provides a “matriarchal bridge” between the Israelites and several neighboring tribes. Her name may represent the land upon which these tribes once lived, or it 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.

A Wife and Children in His Old Age?

Before Isaac’s birth, Abraham declares himself too old to have a child:

בראשׁית יז:יז וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד וְאִם שָׂרָה הֲבַת תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד.
Gen 17:17 Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?”

After giving birth to Isaac, Sarah also expresses amazement that Abraham could produce a child:

בראשית כא:ז וַתֹּאמֶר מִי מִלֵּל לְאַבְרָהָם הֵינִיקָה בָנִים שָׂרָה כִּי יָלַדְתִּי בֵן לִזְקֻנָיו.
Gen 21:7 And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham That Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”

Yet the Keturah account presents Abraham having six children at 140 years old.

Here a redaction-critical solution seems best. As the editor decided where to place this account, he faced a narrative problem. A theme in the Abraham stories is his lack of children, which is why he marries Hagar and has Ishmael.

Once Sarah has her child, the narrative is occupied with describing her jealousy against Ishmael, the son of Abraham’s other wife, Hagar. Sarah actually forces Abraham, against his paternal instinct, to banish the competitor child (Gen 21:10–11).

­­­­­­­­­­­­­The appearance of another wife and children during the lifetime of Sarah would have been narratively impossible. If the mention of Keturah 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 father Ishmael with Hagar.

Placing the Keturah account after the birth of Isaac but before Sarah’s death would not have worked either. With her extremely jealous reaction to Hagar and Ishmael, would Sarah really have countenanced another rival? Therefore, the editor made the only choice available to him: he put the Keturah account after the death of Sarah.[8]

Published

October 25, 2013

|

Last Updated

May 24, 2022

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