“Who Is Keturah?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, soon after Isaac marries Rebecca, we learn that the elderly Abraham marries a woman named Keturah.

Genesis 25:1 reads: “Va’yo’sef Avraham, va’yee’kach ee’shah, ush’mah Keturah,” and Abraham proceeded and took a wife whose name was Keturah.

According to biblical genealogy, Abraham was 140 years old at this time. Since the Torah teaches that it is not good for man to be alone, despite his advanced age, Abraham remarries and lives another 35 years. Keturah bears to Abraham six additional children, who in turn bear five grandchildren.

It is interesting (and perplexing) to note that our forefather Abraham, the revolutionary religious visionary, sires eight biological children, but only one, Isaac, remains faithful to Abraham’s monotheistic belief. Despite the fact that Abraham’s generation was reputed to be a much more ethical generation than Noah’s, the fallout and hemorrhaging from monotheism was rather extraordinary.

With the betrothal of Isaac to Rebecca, a solid foundation was now established ensuring the posterity of the Jewish people. It is Isaac who now stands as the central figure in the Torah.

Now that Abraham has fulfilled his mission to establish the Jewish people, his life focuses on his second mission, which was to be (Genesis 17:5) “Av ha’moan goyim,” the father of many nations. Some of the rabbis suggest that Abraham needed to father these new nations to compensate for the nations that he vanquished in his battle with the four kings (Genesis 14). The large number of children that Abraham has with Keturah is considered a generous “payback” from G-d.

Who was Keturah? Our rabbis are unclear about her identity. Some commentators say that Keturah was a new wife who was descended from Jafet, one of the sons of Noah. This means that each of Abraham’s three wives were descended from one of the three sons of Noah. Sarah was a descendant of Shem; Hagar, a descendant of Ham; and Keturah, a descendant of Jafet. Our rabbis see in this the fulfillment of the verse (Genesis 12:3): “V’niv’r’choo v’cha kol mish’p’chot ha’ah’da’ma,” and all the nations of the world will be blessed through you.

Other rabbis disagree, saying that Keturah was really Hagar. If that’s the case, why is she called Keturah? Keturah means “closed” or “tied shut.” Even though scripture says of Hagar (Genesis 21:14), “Va’tay’laych va’tay’ta b’midbar Be’er Shaw’va,” implying that Hagar returned to the idolatry of her father’s house, our rabbis insist that Hagar did teshuva, and that her new deeds became pleasant like ketoret, incense. It is as if a new woman had been created, and for this reason the Torah gives her a new name. This interpretation, however, is challenged by the biblical text that states (Genesis 25:6): “V’liv’nay ha’pee’lag’shim,” and to the children of the concubines, implying that there was more than one concubine. The rabbis explain that in the ancient Torah text the word pee’lag’shim is spelled with only one “yud,” indicating that Abraham had only one concubine, meaning Hagar.

There was an long-held tradition among the descendants of Shem that there would be twelve heads of family from whom the world would be built. Consequently, many of Shem’s offspring strive to have twelve heads of family. Abraham’s brother Nachor, Ishmael and Esau all bear twelve princes or aloofim, leaders.

The Midrash says that when Hagar, now known as Keturah, saw that Abraham took her back as a wife, and that her deeds were pleasant in his eyes, she said to herself, “Perhaps now I will merit to have the world built through me.” Consequently, Keturah also had twelve descendants: six children, five grandchildren, and of course her firstborn son, Ishmael, totaling twelve heads of families.

G-d’s plan, however, was that the world was to be built only from the family of Abraham, through the twelve tribes of Jacob. That is why, the bible says definitively (Genesis 25:5): “Va’yee’tayn Avraham et kol ah’sher lo l’Yitzchak,” that Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac, and sent away the sons of the concubines while he was still alive and gave them presents.

Ramban maintains that Hagar and Keturah could not be the same person; after all, Hagar was a concubine and Keturah was a full wife. Moreover, Hagar was an Egyptian and Keturah was a Canaanite woman.

While the true identity of Keturah is unclear, Abraham’s purpose in marrying Keturah is definitive. Although none of Abraham’s other children ever reached the spiritual heights of Isaac, all of them successfully inherited at least part of the legacy of Abrahamic values. So powerful is this ethical legacy, that it is even transmitted, as if by osmosis, to Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and through Lot to Ruth, the Moabite princess, who ultimately embraces Judaism and enlightens the world with her good and noble deeds.

Although it is quite common to look at the ancient nations who descend from Keturah’s sons–Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah–as quite primitive, they were not nearly as primitive as they would have been had they not been descended from Abraham. Somehow, the Abrahamic values seeped through the layers of paganism and idolatry that surrounded them, and the values that they inherited from their ancestor, Abraham, lit up the world in unexpected ways and in unheralded venues. We are all beneficiaries of this unexpected legacy to this very day.

May you be blessed.