His story being told, God grants Abraham something of a retirement for a job well done: roughly 35 years where he can settle down with a new wife, have six more children, and generally just stay out of the way. Isaac and his descendants will take the stage in a moment, but before that happens let’s take a brief look at Keturah, his new wife, and what the bible says about his new children. It’s not much, but anything the bible can do to flesh out the final days of the first great patriarch is welcome.
A mysterious new wife (that may have been an old wife)? New children who will lead great nations? Read on!
Is Keturah the same person as Hagar?
When it comes to describing Abraham’s new wife and children, the bible is very straight-forward. In fact, it doesn’t describe them at all:
Abraham had taken another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan; the descendants of Dedan were the Ashurites, the Letushites and the Leummites. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanok, Abida and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah.
And that’s it, or nearly so. In fact, the Book of Chronicles also briefly covers this in their opening genealogy:
The sons of Abraham: Isaac and Ishmael. […] The sons born to Keturah, Abraham’s concubine: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. The sons of Jokshan: Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Midian: Ephah, Epher, Hanok, Abida and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah.
1 Chronicles 1:28,32-33
Eagle-eyed observers will note only two differences between those two lists: Keturah is called a “wife” in Genesis and a “concubine” in Chronicles, and the chronicler omits the tribes descended from Dedan. Neither Sarah nor Hagar are named in the chronicler’s account either, even though Keturah is. I find that odd, but can’t explain it. Truth is, Keturah is much more prominent in Jewish legends than she is in the Torah itself. The fact that she is called both Abraham’s “wife” and “concubine” has given commentators through the ages some pause; some speculate that she was first a concubine and then a wife. From there, it’s a relatively easy step to make the connections that Jews since antiquity have. Let me quote Rashi here:
This is Hagar. She was called Keturah because her deeds were as beautiful as incense, and because she tied her opening, for she was not intimate with any man from the day she separated from Abraham.
Abraham’s treatment of Hagar was shameful and it’s very easy for us as readers (today and in the past) to wish that she had been redeemed and that they could be happy together in their old age. And yet, tradition aside, there is scant textual evidence for that claim. If they were the same person, you might expect Chronicles to list Ishmael as one of her children, but it does not. It would be beautiful if Keturah was Hagar, but I cannot bring myself to believe that she is. You may make a different choice than I and still be in great company.
Abraham and Keturah’s Children
Some people find the “begats”, the seemingly endless lists of names that sometimes haunt Genesis and the later books, as being boring or unimportant. I cannot bring myself to find anything that is in the bible (and especially the Torah) unimportant, though it is sometimes challenging– but this particular set isn’t particularly difficult. You can discover some amazing things in the bible if you pay attention to the little details! For those of you that don’t find this all that interesting, I’ll try to keep it moving. Of the six named children, only Midian unambiguously has an impact on the rest of the story. Sheba, Dedan, and the Ashurites might be mentioned later, though it is unclear if the references (such as the famous “Queen of Sheba” who tests Solomon’s wisdom) are to these individual’s descendants or others with similar names. But why is that? Why are people as important as Abraham’s children not involved in the story? Because he wanted it that way:
But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.
Abraham sent the rest of the children away, so they couldn’t interfere with the promise that God had made him. And if you think about it, that must have hurt him very much as a father, to see these children move far away– none of them were present even to bury him. And this verse implies that he may yet have had other concubines and other children which the Torah doesn’t name.
Midian and the Midianites
Of Abraham’s six sons, only Midian ends up with some dubious prominence later in the bible. Midian will become the patriarch of the Midianites, a tribe and religion that will feature prominently in the biblical story: Joseph was sold by his brothers to Midianites, Moses’s father-in-law was a priest of the Midian religion, and Israel will later fight a war (and fail to genocide) the Midian people. Actually, that’s worth dwelling on for a moment because it’s one of the more shameful passages in the whole of the bible. It saddens me to even remember it:
They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. […] The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. […] Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. [..] Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.
Some Midian women had led Israelites astray, so God commanded that every Midianite man be slaughtered. It hardly seems fair, but I’ll get to that eventually when we get to the Book of Numbers. If there is any good here, it’s that the genocide failed. God later used the Midianites to punish the Israelites, so I guess what goes around comes around:
The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites.
Why did the Midians become such a thorn in the Israelite side? I think the answer lies in geography. While Abraham sent his later children away to the east, at least some Midianites emigrated west. Moses found his father-in-law quite near Egypt and Midianite merchants were with the Ishmaelites that Joseph was sold to. By the time of the judges though, the Midianites were an eastern people (Judges 6:3) so they must have been pushed back by their war with Israel.
Sheba, and Dedan, and the Ashurites
Of Abraham’s five remaining sons, not one is mentioned again in the bible– but there are three of his descendants, Sheba, Dedan, and the Ashurites– that might possibly be related to tribes later but probably aren’t. This is because none of those are the first times those names are used in the Torah and when they are used later, textual evidence points at the earlier figure as being the patriarch. While Genesis often tells us that such-and-such is the father of a tribe, it just as often doesn’t. So for Midian, for example, we are left to infer that the Midianites are related to him rather than being explicitly told so.
Sheba, Abraham’s grandson through Jokshan is a great example of this. You probably associate Sheba with the Queen of Sheba, a woman who visited the court of King Solomon to discover his wisdom. Was Abraham’s grandson Sheba the patriarch of that tribe? It’s difficult to know. The Torah speaks of three people named Sheba:
- Sheba, the son of Raamah in Genesis 10:7, a descendant of Cush and four generations after Noah. Had a brother named Dedan.
- Sheba, the son of Joktan in Genesis 10:28, a descendant of Shem and seven generations after Noah.
- Sheba, the son of Jokshan in Genesis 25:3, Abraham’s grandson and twelve generations after Noah. Had a brother named Dedan.
Which of these three is the patriarch of the tribe of Sheba? My money goes on the first one. Extra-biblical sources place the Queen of Sheba as being from roughly Ethiopia, biblically Cushite territory. But look at those “coincidences”: Two of the Shebas had brothers named Dedan, and a different two had fathers named (roughly) Joktan! This suggests to me that we have some cut-and-paste going on by the original writers of Genesis, perhaps to give Abraham credit for fathering those tribes or perhaps just by the accident of similar names. If you are looking for a less meta-textual explanation, you could always just say that Abraham’s grandchildren were named in honor of the sons of Ramaah.
Similar stories exist for Dedan (the two mentions above plus additional others that suggest he was descended from Esau) and the Ashurites (listed as descendants of Shem as well as the name of an Assyrian god). If anyone is interested, I can trace those references to show the ambiguity, but I suspect that’s only interesting to me.
And that’s it! 1600 words devoted to Abraham’s final children. I’m very glad that God gave him this retirement after all of his troubles. Although he’s not mentioned in the stories, Abraham lived until Jacob and Esau were around fifteen, so he very well could have been in the background of those stories, a loving but silent grandparent.
Up next: One of my favorite tiny stories in the Torah