At the very end of Parshat Chayei Sarah — after the death of Sarah and her burial in the Cave of Machpelah, the achuzat kever, the covenantal heritage land-hold — there is a curious verse, seemingly a post-script to the Abraham narrative. As Rabbi David Silber parses the text, it’s not a throwaway.
We read, “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah” (Genesis 25:1).
Who is this Keturah, and why is she important enough to merit identification in the Torah as a wife taken by the late-in-life Abraham? Why does the Torah bother with this detail — other than the fact that anything in Abraham’s bio is deemed important?
The midrash, famously, identifies Keturah as Hagar, Abraham’s first (and favorite?) mate, the slave given by Pharaoh to Abraham, and brought by Abraham from Egypt to Canaan. If so, what is the significance of bringing the long-banished Hagar back into the picture? Why does Abraham do so?
The theme of this week’s parasha — indeed, of the Book of Genesis in general — is the transmission of the Covenant from one generation to the next, and the related issue of ensuring the succession. Succession is indeed Abraham’s goal. It is why he sends his servant to bring back a wife for his son Isaac from Abraham’s kin in Aram, in Mesopotamia.
(Note that the haftarah of Chayei Sarah is the first chapter of the Book of Kings, which is all about succession. The parallels to the Abraham narrative are striking: Both men — Abraham and David — are old old; in both stories a third party is invoked: Eliezer in our parasha, and Nathan the prophet in the haftarah. I will return to the haftarah presently.)
The succession theme is expressed most pointedly, indeed dramatically, toward the end of our portion. Abraham’s loyal servant — let’s assume that he is the Eliezer of Parshat Lech Lecha — always refers to his master as “adoni,” my lord (or master) Abraham. Abraham is clearly The Master, the Grand Poobah, of the clan.
Until, that is, the marriage of Rebecca the Aramean to Isaac is arranged, and Rebecca accompanies Eliezer to Beer-Lahai-ro’i in the Negev. Rivkah sees Isaac from afar, and asks, “Mi ha-‘ish ha-lazeh?” “Who is that man?” The servant’s response: “Hu adoni,” “It is my master Yitzhak.”
At that moment Isaac becomes “adoni” — “my master.” Isaac is now the master. Succession is assured. Abraham is no longer in the picture; he is an afterthought, a mere place-holder.
The point is nailed down in verse 24:67: “Va-y’vieha Yitzhak ha-‘ohela Sarah” — “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah.” Isaac takes Rebecca to Sarah’s tent — the matriarchal tent. This is the moment in which Rebecca is now the matriarch. The succession is assured.
With Rebecca in the picture as the new matriarch, the succession is wholly secure and the covenantal transmission can proceed.
Similarly, in the haftarah, David ensures his successor, Solomon. In both narratives — Genesis and Kings 1— the succession is assured while the master and king are yet alive.
We can now understand the “Keturah-is-Hagar” midrash. Why Abraham would take back Hagar, who was banished from the household, is explained in the verse from the end of the previous chapter: “Va-yavo’ Yitzhak ha-‘ohela Sarah” — Isaac brings Rebecca to Sarah’s tent. Rebecca is now the matriarch. With Rebecca in the picture as the new matriarch, the succession is wholly secure and the covenantal transmission can proceed. There is no longer any threat to the succession; it is now just fine for Abraham to take back Hagar, mother of his early favorite son, Ishmael.
The function of midrash is to alert us to something in the p’shat, or literal text, that we might otherwise miss. The return of Hagar underscores for us that the succession, threatened a few chapters ago with the near-sacrifice of Isaac, and with it the transmission of the Covenant, is now secure.
Jerome Chanes, a regular contributor, is the author of four books and more than 100 articles, reviews, encyclopedia entries and book chapters on Jewish communal life, history and arts and letters. His current work is a book setting a context for 100 years of Israeli theatre.
Candelighting, Torah Readings
November 14, 2020
Cheshvan 27, 5781
Light Shabbat Candles: 4:21 pm.
Shabbat Ends: 5:21 pm.