Monday, August 13, 2012

Abraham: New Wife, New Life (Genesis 25:1)

Abraham married again after Sarah died. What was his second wife’s name? Keturah (Genesis 25:1)

Little is known of Abraham’s last 38 years, from the time his wife Sarah dies when he is 137 (Genesis 23:1) until his own death at the age of 175 (Genesis 25:7). Almost as an appendix, Abraham is said to have married a woman named Keturah (Genesis 25:1).

Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore to him Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah. (Genesis 25:1-2 NASB)
Bewilderingly, there is no connection between this passage and the material that precedes or follows it.

Keturah is a mysterious figure. Little detail is given her. The text does not state her age, place of origin, whether she was a slave like Hagar (Genesis 16:1) or her fate. The only detail provided is her name. “Keturah” comes from qetoret (“incense”) which has led some to suggest that her descendants were engaged in the incense trade. This industry is associated with the Arabian Peninsula (especially the territory east of the Gulf of Aqaba) in the Old Testament (I Kings 10:2; Isaiah 60:6). This theory fits the geography of the passage as several of her sons’ names, but not all of them, are associated with this region.

Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) comments:

Because of her name, it is reasonable to assume that the key factor behind the organization of the Keturah tribes was the spice trade—the production, shipment, and distribution of this precious commodity. It so happens that both biblical and Assyrian sources mention many of the names here listed [Genesis 25:2-4] as those of peoples and localities involved in the particular branch of international commerce. They controlled the trade routes that led from the Arabian Peninsula to the lands of the Fertile Crescent. This accounts for the picture of such widespread geographical diffusion of the Ketureans from southern Arabia to the Middle Euphrates region and northern Syria. (Sarna, Genesis (JPS Torah Commentary), 172)

Adding to the passage’s puzzle is the absence of a time stamp. Many have speculated that Abraham’s relationship with Keturah is concurrent with his marriage to Sarah given Abraham’s age, inferring that Abraham’s arrangement with Hagar is not an isolated incident (Genesis 16:1-4). Some rabbis have even posited that Keturah is merely another name for Hagar.

Robert Alter (b. 1935) acknowledges:

The actual place of this whole genealogical notice in the chronology of Abraham’s life might be somewhere after the burial of Sarah at the end of chapter 23, or perhaps even considerably earlier. The genealogy is inserted here as a formal marker of the end of the Abraham story. Perhaps a certain tension was felt between the repeated promise that Abraham would father a vast nation and the fact that he had begotten only two sons. The tension would have bee mitigated by inserting this document at the end of his story with the catalog of his sons by Keturah. (Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, 124)
There is also ambiguity as to whether Keturah is another wife or merely a concubine. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) examines:
This is the only passage in Genesis that mentions Keturah. Here she is called Abraham’s wife, but in I Chronicles 1:32 she is identified as “Abraham’s concubine.” The coidentification is comparable with Bilhah, who is called both Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22) and Jacob’s wife (Genesis 30:4). By contrast, Zilpah is identified as Jacob’s wife (Genesis 30:9) but never as his concubine. If “by concubines” in Genesis 25:6 is a reference to Hagar and Keturah...then again both Hagar (Genesis 16:3) and Keturah (Genesis 25:1) are called “wife” in one place but “concubine” in another (Genesis 25:6)...The emphasis on Keturah’s status as wife would suggest that Abraham married her after the death of Sarah. If the emphasis is on her status as concubine then one would think that Abraham married her while Sarah was still living, as he did with Hagar. In that case one wold have to understand married in this verse as a pluperfect — “had married.” (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 165)

The placement of the wedding notice and the passage’s verbs give the impression that Keturah enters the scene after Sarah’s death (Genesis 23:1-2). Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) writes:

The remark about Abraham’s marriage to Keturah and the genealogy connected with it do not easily follow the previous narrative context by our standards. To be sure, one cannot understand the verses otherwise than that this marriage followed the one with Sarah. But then we are disturbed by the thought that forty years previously, Abraham no longer thought it possible to beget a son. (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 262)
It appears Abraham got a new lease on life after Sarah’s death. Amazingly, though forty years earlier he thought himself too old for children (Genesis 17:17), Abraham has half a dozen children with Keturah (Genesis 25:2), the most familiar of which is Midian. In fact, the passage documents six sons, seven grandsons and three great grandsons from their union (Genesis 25:2-4). Keturah may have birthed daughters as well.

Though Abraham honors and provides for these sons they do not participate in the Promise (Genesis 25:5-6). Keturah’s sons are as detached from Abraham as the passage in which they appear. Abraham bequeaths everything he owns to Isaac, his sole beneficiary (Genesis 25:5). Keturah’s sons are a collateral line who are safely exiled to the east (Genesis 25:1-6). This leaves Keturah a secondary wife with lower status than Sarah.

James McKeown delineates:

The narrative implies no criticism of Abraham, and his large family is evidence of the fulfillment of the earlier promises that he would have numerous progeny (Genesis 15:5). Nothing disparaging is said about Keturah, the concubines, or their offspring, but there is a clear demarcation between them and Isaac. Isaac is given a position of unmistakable prominence as the son of Abraham in a special and unique sense, and through him Abraham’s most significant line of descent is traced — the line of promise and blessing. (McKeown, Genesis (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary), 124)
Abraham dies with his affairs in order. Abraham protects the Promise, which will come through Isaac. In making this distinction, the passage brings to close central the theme of Abraham’s heir.

Does it matter when Keturah marries Abraham? How are we to view Keturah? How would Keturah fit into Paul’s analogy differentiating Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31)? Do Abraham’s sons with Keturah diminish the miracle of Isaac in any way? What does one do when their spouse dies? Have you ever known anyone who happily remarried after a spouse died? Did it detract from their previous marriage?

The succinct route which led Abraham to children with Keturah is remarkable when compared to the torturous path that led to Isaac. Burton L. Visotzky (b. 1951) remarks startlingly:

It’s reported so matter-of-factly. Abraham takes this woman, Keturah, who the rabbis immediately identify with Hagar, as if Sarah being dead, Abraham goes back to Hagar. But assuming it’s a third wife, it would be as if after all the family dysfunction for all those years, Abraham, now in old age, finally settles down and has a normal family. At this point, God’s out of the picture. Abraham doesn’t have a relationship with God anymore. But he has a normal life. (Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation, 217)
Is life easier for Abraham when God is no longer featured prominently in his story? How would your life be different without God? How would it be easier? How would it be more difficult?

“Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.” - Jim Rohn (1930-2009)

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