Parshat Hayei Sarah: Ketura, the figure & the kibbutz

Ramban claims Keturah was a Canaanite concubine, based on her description in the Book of Chronicles.

 ON KIBBUTZ Ketura. (photo credit: RACHAEL CERROTTI/FLASH90)
ON KIBBUTZ Ketura.
(photo credit: RACHAEL CERROTTI/FLASH90)

In this week’s parasha, Hayei Sarah, we read that after the death of Sarah, “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah” (Gen. 25:1).

The sentence, unremarkable on one level, states what appears on the surface to be a simple fact. However, as with many verses, we discover that looks can be deceiving.

As though trying to answer a Greek choir singing “Who is this Keturah, worthy enough to replace our first Matriarch Sarah?” commentators have wrestled with different answers to that question.

Ramban claims Keturah was a Canaanite concubine, based on her description in the Book of Chronicles: “And the sons of Keturah, Abraham’s concubine” (I Chron. 1:32). Savina J. Teubal, author of Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah, claims Keturah was not a concubine but “was the patriarch’s second wife” as the verse in Genesis states. These two verses from the Bible point to an ambiguous understanding of Keturah’s identity.

It is not unusual within Tanach to have verses that contradict each other as we find here. Those contradictions become the cornerstones for a choir of many voices of interpretation and drawn-out lessons.

 Angels visiting Abraham by Willem van Herp. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Angels visiting Abraham by Willem van Herp. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rashi recognizes Keturah’s worthiness by saying she was actually Hagar! He does not come up with this astounding answer himself but draws from the Midrash where Rabbi Yehuda says, commenting on Keturah, “This was Hagar” (Genesis Rabbah 61:4).

How does Rabbi Yehuda come up with this answer? One possible explanation is that “Keturah” is related to the word ketoret (“incense”), meaning this was someone who lit incense as part of her idolatrous worship. Who would Abraham have known who fit that description? Hagar. The name Keturah is also related to the word katar, meaning “to tie.” With this understanding, Rabbi Nehemiah said to Rabbi Yehuda, “she tied (m’koteret) piety and nobility in herself.”

Centuries later, the Zohar wove a variation on the narrative: “Keturah was none other than Hagar. For we know by tradition that though Hagar, when she left Abraham, went astray after the idols of her ancestors, yet in time she again attached herself to a life of virtue. Hence her name Keturah (lit. “attached”). Abraham then sent for her and took her as a wife.

“From here we learn a change of name acts as an atonement for sin, since that was the reason that her name was changed.

“The term vayosef [the first word in Gen 25:1], literally meaning ‘he added,’ indicates not that Abraham took another wife but that he took again his former spouse [Hagar] whom he had driven out on account of Ishmael, and who had now abandoned her evil practices, and had made a change in her name [to Keturah] symbolic of her change of life” (Zohar 1:133b).

Behind all of this there appears to be a tremendous, albeit creative, reading of the text, to bring Hagar back into the fold. Her expulsion – for all intents and purposes to go and die in “the Wilderness of Beersheba” along with her son, Ishmael (lit. God has heard) – by Sarah and Abraham is one of the most difficult passages to read in the entire Torah. Hagar “thought, Let me not look on as the child dies. And sitting thus far off, she burst into tears” (Gen. 21:14, 16).

With our 21st-century sensibilities, we are moved by the pathos of this incident. What is interesting, as biblical scholar Rachel Adelman points out, is that the rabbis “seemed disturbed by the poor treatment of Hagar.” This reminds us that while we do see things differently than the generations before us, there are human sentiments that transcend centuries.

Following this thinking of wanting to bring Hagar back into Abraham’s tent, we find other sources that go so far as to say that Abraham, over the years, stayed in contact with Hagar. In Pirke deRabbi Eliezer, we read that Abraham visited Ishmael twice:

“Again after three years Abraham went to see his son Ishmael, having sworn to Sarah as on the first occasion that he would not descend from the camel in the place where Ishmael dwelt. He came there at midday, and found Ishmael’s wife.... Abraham arose and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, for his son, and [thereupon] Ishmael’s house was filled with all good things of the various blessings. When Ishmael came [home] his wife told him what had happened, and Ishmael knew that his father’s love was still extended to him” (Pirke deRabbi Eliezer 30).

Midrash Tanhuma (Genesis 5.9, KTAV edition) seems to suggest that Isaac also maintained a connection with Hagar and Ishmael. This is based on a number of verses that link Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac to a well called “Be’er-lahai-roi... between Kadesh and Bered” (Gen. 16:14). This is the well that saved Hagar, pregnant with Ishmael, the first time she was expelled. We are also told that Isaac spent time “in the vicinity of Be’er-lahai-roi” (Gen. 24:62), and after the death of his father, Abraham, he “settled near Be’er-lahai-roi” (Gen. 25:11). We note two verses earlier that Isaac and Ishmael had come together to bury their father Abraham in the Cave of Machpelah (Gen. 25:9).

While it is not explicit in Scripture that Keturah is Hagar, a case is made in a number of traditional sources that they are one and the same – “Hagar and Keturah are the same person” (Tanhuma Genesis 5.9). In essence, the rabbis make a tikkun, a repair, of the text by reversing the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. The rabbis did not go through such great efforts as an exercise solely in hermeneutics but rather to inform and guide our lives – even to this day.

FORTY-NINE YEARS ago this month, in November 1973, shortly after the Yom Kippur War, and the Shabbat following the reading of this week’s parasha with its mention of Keturah, a kibbutz was established in the southern Arava on the Jordanian border, 48 km. north of Eilat. It was founded by members of the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement and called Ketura.

That, in and of itself, is uneventful in relation to this week’s parasha, except for the sharing of the name Keturah.

However, 23 years later, in the fall of 1996, Kibbutz Ketura established the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Its mission: “to advance cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict” by bringing together Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, Palestinians, Jordanians and others to realize that “nature knows no borders.”

In that shared capacity, the institute works to repair the land and the relationships between the descendants of Sarah and Hagar.

In this way the institute, located on Kibbutz Ketura – Kibbutz Hagar, if you will – is the living embodiment of the repair, the tikkun, the rabbis worked so hard to create. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.