Third Part of Parashat Chayyei Sarah in Triennial Cycle

Bereshit 24:52 - 25:18

Eitz Hayim 137-41; Hertz 86-89; Plaut 165-67


This week’s parashah, which is third portion of Chayyei Sarah, the Life of Sarah, starts in the middle of the story of Abraham’s desire to find a bride for Isaac from his extended family, and of Eliezer, his most senior servant, meeting Rebekah at a well.  After some bargaining with her family, Rebekah goes with Eliezer, travels to Abraham’s camp in the Negev.  There Rebekah meets Isaac and joins in the tent of his mother Sarah and they become husband and wife.  End of Chapter 24, and end of my discussion about Isaac and Rebekah.


What I want to talk about this morning is the very next sentence, Chapter 25, verse 1: “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.”  Who was Keturah, where did she come from, and when?  Those are intriguing questions, and I will tell you right from the start that there are very few answers; none is definitive and some contradict others.  Some obscure sources say that she was a daughter of Japheth, Noah’s third and allegedly least intelligent son, but few sources pick up on this hint.  We do not even really know what her name means.  Some sources give its translation as Spice, as in the Spice Girls, or incense; others, that it is a derivative of Kasher, or chaste, or related to the word for attached, as in attached to virtue.  My own interest in Keturah stems from the fact that I have taught at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which is located at Kibbuz Keturah, about 50 km north of Eilat.


The second sentence of Chapter 25 adds to the confusion.  It tells us that this relationship was certainly fertile.  Abraham and Keturah had at least six children, perhaps more as no girls are mentioned, and those children in turn had children.  What is confusing is that back in Chapter 17, we learn that Abraham who is then 99 years old is, to say the least, astonished that he is going to have another child, and in Chapter 18 that Sarah laughs at the very idea that either she or Abraham have the ability to conceive a child.  How could it be that, after the death of Sarah, Abraham suddenly became so potent again.  Following the Talmudic dictum that there is no before and after in the Torah (BT, Pesachim, 6b) – that is, the Hebrew Bible is not perfectly sequential – the likely answer is that Keturah was around long before Sarah died, and this is just what is suggested in verse 6.


End of story?  No way!  The 15th Century Italian commentator Sforno accepts the sequence as written; Abraham married Keturah after the death of Sarah.  However, they did not have children; instead, she merely brought up these boys in the house of Abraham.  I find this explanation raises more questions than it answers.  Where did these boys come from, and why was Abraham raising them?  We will come back to the point.


Even though verse 25:1 refers to Keturah as an השא, ishah, which is usually a synonym for wife, verse 25:6 says that Abraham “willed all that he owned to Isaac” and then adds that he he gave gifts to his sons by םישגליפ, concubines.  Who said anything about concubines (plural) before now!  We know of Hagar but were there others?  Who knows!  The best guess is that, just as with Hagar, Keturah was around when Abraham was a vigorous and prosperous man, and that she was really a concubine, not a wife.  Perhaps Abraham had several encampments, and a bed partner in each one.  We really do not know.  At this point, Keturah disappears from the Torah, and the parashah proceeds directly to describe Abraham’s death and the progeny of Ishmael.


Happily, there is more to Jewish history than the Torah.  Surprisingly Tzena U-Renah has little to say about Keturah, but Middrash Rabbah and other ancient sources fill in some gaps that you might not have thought even existed.  Rashi for example follows a strong midrashic tradition when he asserts that Hagar and Keturah were the same person.  Hagar was expelled from Abraham’s house, and later, after the death of Sarah, she returns to it.  That is why Rashi also likes the translation of her name as chaste, which he says was her state from the her expulsion until her return.  The reasoning behind this assertion is as follows (cited from Kadari’s entry on Keturah in an encyclopedia on Jewish women:1


First, the wording “another [va-yosef]” in 25:1 teaches that these marriages were in fulfillment of a divine command; the proponents of this view learn this from Isa. 8:5: “Again [va-yosef] the Lord spoke to me,” where the word appears in the context of divine revelation. Second, the wife’s new name of Keturah does not necessarily teach that this was a different woman; rather, it was a name given to Hagar in recognition of her good qualities . . . . Third, the word pilegshim (concubines) in Gen. 25:6 is spelled deficiently, without the letter yod. The intent of the Torah was thus to only a single concubine, Hagar (Gen. Rabbah 61:4).


The last point is strange and must refer to earlier printings of the Chumash.  In none of the three Chumashim that I have is the word םישגליפ defective; both yod’s are present. In any event, lots of classical rabbis discount the conflation of Hagar and Keturah.  Nachmanides, for example, says they were two different people, that Hagar was Egyptian whereas Keturah was Cannanite and that Hagar was the only concubine and Keturah a second wife.  Plaut is strangely silent on Keturah except to note that there is no textual evidence for saying that she is the same person as Hagar.


Despite limited textual material, the rabbis generally saw Keturah in a favourable light.  The article on her in the encyclopedia on Jewish women says that the rabbis regarded her “as a woman of virtue,” and they considered her worthy of being married to Abraham.  In my view, this is a good example of rabbinic reverse interpretation.  It is not that Keturah was worthy and therefore Abraham married her; rather, Abraham married her and therefore Keturah must have been worthy.  As well, because the Torah describes this marriage after the death of Sarah and also after the wedding of Isaac, some rabbis draw the lesson that, if a man’s wife dies and he has grown children, he should first see that they are married before himself taking a new wife (Gen. Rabbah 60:16).  Others give the credit to Isaac. He was delighted with his wife Rebekah and felt sorry for his father living alone, so he sought out another wife for Abraham.  All agree that, even if a man has children while young, he should still try to have more in his older years (Gen. Rab. 61:3).


What about those six sons of Abraham and Keturah?  Encyclopaedia Judaica tells us that the sons are included as Ismaelites, which really means that they were nomadic, and that they eventually formed the Midianite people.  Some are associated with later tribes in the northern part of the Arabian peninsula, which accords nicely with the statement in 25:6 that Abraham sent them eastward to live.  There are even some authors who suggest that Zipporah was a descendent of the sons of Abraham and Keturah, and that therefore she was Jewish.  If there were some daughters in there, and they kept giving birth to daughters, I guess this might work to clean up the genealogy, but, to use Plaut’s comment, there is no textual evidence for this connection.  Greek mythology has those sons campaigning with Hercules, and a daughter of one of them marrying him.


From those sources, it would seem that Keturah might well have been proud of her children.  A few of the rabbis agree but the majority had had a very different view of them.  To quote again from the encyclopedia of Jewish women:


In opposition to the view that the offspring of Keturah were the realization of the Lord’s promise to Abraham, another approach presents them as perpetually menacing Israel. The Rabbis championing this position emphasize that these offspring do not follow the
spiritual way of Abraham; moreover, since they already received their inheritance from him,
2 they are not entitled to make any further demands.


Indeed, one source says that the children of Keturah are “as waste that issued from Abraham” (Sifrei on Deuteronomy 31:2), and that they all became idol worshipers, which is about the worst epithet in rabbinic terminology.  Encyclopaedia Judaica cites sources that say that Abraham passed on his knowledge of magic (which in this context really means sorcery) to Keturah, who then passed it on to her sons.  The Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 91a) adds that use of magic became a way of life for non-Jews and that its use distinguished Israel from other nations.  My guess is that these comments are a way to give Abraham the credit for both good and bad knowledge, but then to keep Sarah free from any taint of the latter.


Of course, we have to rescue Abraham as well as Sarah from any trace of responsibility for the idolatry of his offspring through Keturah.  This is done neatly as follows in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (Chap. 29), where it is written that Abraham sent away those sons with a writ of divorce, just as one would with a wife, and that the expulsion contained a clause to make it applicable both in this world and in the world to come.  Whether or not the harsh words of this midrash are true, it does seem from 25:6 that Abraham wanted the sons of Keturah well away from Isaac, presumably so they could not later challenge his spiritual line and his financial inheritance.


In sum, Keturah is a shadowy person in the Bible.  She makes a quick entry and an equally quick departure.  One can find both efforts to cloud her reputation, as with her link to Japheth or to magic, and efforts to raise her status, as by emphasizing her chastity.  She is certainly not in the mainstream of Jewish history, and her sons (and daughters?) never come to lead any of the tribes of Israel, though they all become heads of nations (Gen. Rab. 61:5).  She does get a mention in the Koran, but without further detail.


Many people now argue with considerable justice that Ziphah and Bilhah should be counted among the matriarchs.  A few people say that Hagar should also be included.  However, to my knowledge no one even suggests matriarchal status for Keturah.


Shabbat shalom,

1  Jewish Women: a Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia:  The article by Tamar Kadari is the source for most of the obscure sources noted in the text of my dvar.



2  The gifts referred to in 25:6, a small consideration given that almost everything else went to Isaac.