January 20, 2010

The Women of Abraham: Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah

This afternoon I was reading in Genesis, trying to catch up on my reading program, when I read this passage, “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.” (Genesis 25:1–6 ESV) Whenever, I have read this passage in the past I have often been struck by the problem of Abraham having sons "after" the death of Sarah. The problem is not so much with the fact that Abraham would remarry, but rather how old he was when he remarried and had kids - somewhere in the neighborhood of 137 years old (Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Gen. 17:17) and 10 years older than Sarah who died when she was 127 according to Gen. 23). So that got me thinking...

Could it be that some of these sons (if not all) were born throughout Abraham’s sojournings and not merely after Sarah’s death? The beginning of Gen 25:1 would suggest otherwise, namely calling Keturah a “wife,” however the end of the passage Gen. 25:6 suggests that Keturah (and presumably Hagar among possible other concubines since its in the plural) was a lesser wife. If this is the case this might shed some light on the Hagar-Sarai-Abram relationship and the nature of the expected status of Ishmael in terms of inheritance. If Keturah and other concubines were living within the confines of Abraham’s tent while Sarah was yet living that could mean that these concubine relationships were acceptable to Sarah and consequently the Hagar-Abram relationship was something different, at least at first. Initially Sarai wanted Hagar and Abram’s son to be her own (see Gen. 16:2) and the inheritor of Abram’s house and covenant (the inheriting son in a patriarch-matriarch family must both be the son of the patriarch, in this case Abram, and the designated (by the patriarch) matriarch, in this case Sarai). However, that quickly changes when Hagar becomes pregnant and then “looked with contempt on her mistress” (Gen. 16:5). Typically, this passage is explained by examining the jealousy of Sarai and the ambition of her servant, Hagar. To be certain those elements exist in the text, but what is driving those feelings? It’s quite possible that this was more than a simple in vitro pregnancy, Lifetime movie-esque cat fight between two women fighting over one man. When observed through the lens of the ancient Near Eastern family system - this squabble takes on a much more serious tone. Hagar was not simply, puttting down or “making fun” of her mistress, she was in essence laying claim to the matriarchy of Abram - she was trying to rise above her status as servant/handmaiden and reach the lofty role of matriarch of the clan, thereby replacing Sarai with herself and making Sarai a mere concubine. Cast in this light Sarai’s response to Hagar seems much more fitting.

Now back to my original premisem, specifically that the concubines were part of Abraham’s tent makeup before the death of Sarah. Since Keturah was not mentioned until after the death of Sarah, we assume that Abraham took her as a concubine/wife after Sarah’s demise. This creates a rather large problem - Abraham’s ability to reproduce. Already in Gen. 17:17 we are told the following, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?” Now while it is not beyond the realm of the miraculous for Abraham to have children in his 130s and 140s (Abraham was 10 years older than Sarah and she died when she was 127 according to Gen. 23) considering that he had Isaac at 100, but why then would the Lord grant six more miraculous sons from Keturah (She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Gen. 25:2) when they would serve no further purpose to the “promised seed” or the redemptive plan.

The more likely scenario would be that Keturah was part of Abraham’s life all along, as a concubine (presumably among several others - due to Abraham’s great wealth and Gen. 25:6, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson had two himself), and the birth of his sons through her occured during his natural “child-begetting” years. Keturah and her sons were mentioned by name in Genesis because she was elevated to the status of “wife,” and their listing along with the accompanying “exile” of Gen. 25:6 was recorded to dispel any notion of threat to the status of Isaac and his mother Sarah. Genesis 25:1-6 could be seen then as an epitaph to Sarah and her unquestioned legitimacy to Abraham’s matriarchy. If this explanation of the text is correct it would mean that Hagar’s status went from Sarai’s “handmaid” to “designated in vitro incubator (obviously less "civilized" than today's methods)” to “matriarch contender” to “temporarily exiled” to “concubine” to “permanently exiled.”

The only problem arising from this explanation would be that Abraham lists his servant, “Eleizer of Damascus,” as the designated inheritor of his tent in Gen. 15:2. Why would Abraham do this if he already had sons through concubines (albeit not legitimately through his chosen matriarch, Sarah)? Would these sons, his own blood, not be better inheritors than a simple servant? Admittedly, this is a problem with the argument, however, this problem appears small when compared to the problem of Abraham bearing at least six sons after 13 or 14 decades on the earth. The problem might also be explained by looking at Sarai’s jealousy towards Hagar. It would seem that a de facto inheritor among the ranks of Abraham’s servants would be far less of a threat to Sarah, since that servant’s mother (if she was even in the clan of Abraham) would have zero chance of overtaking Sarah’s role as matriarch. A de facto inheritor presented Sarah with something she desperately needed, time. Time for the Lord to open her barren womb and deliver on what he had promised.
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