The Bible Says What? ‘Abraham had a third wife!’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Abraham had a third wife!’

 Sylvia Rothschild takes a controversial topic from the Torah and looks at a progressive response

The traditional Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah tells of the conception and birth of Isaac. This is followed by the expulsion from the family of Hagar and Ishmael – the Egyptian concubine and her son, who Abraham fathered when Sarah thought she was barren. 

On the second day, we read the story of the binding of Isaac: “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, take Isaac… and offer him up.” 

The two stories bespeak Abraham’s distress at losing his sons. After the promise that he would have many descendants, we fear for the thread to the next generation. 

Of course, Isaac is not sacrificed. Abraham is again blessed with the promise of countless descendants, and the story moves on. Sarah dies, Isaac reappears for his marriage to Rebecca, Abraham dies at the ripe age of 175 and Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury him at Machpelah, where Sarah was interred. 

But six brief verses tell another story. After Isaac’s marriage, Abraham takes another wife – Keturah, and has six sons, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Abraham gives gifts to this new family and sends them away, ensuring the inheritance goes to Isaac while he lives.  

Who is Keturah? Some say she is Hagar, whom Isaac brought to comfort the widowed Abraham, but this is unlikely. Midrash tells us Sarah was the descendant of Shem, Hagar of Ham and Keturah of Japhet. All three patriarchs were sons of Noah. 

In marrying each of them and having descendants, Abraham is fulfilling the promise that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him, for he is combining the separate branches of the human family tree into his tree. All humanity is folded into God’s blessing as Abraham becomes the first Hebrew and the father of all nations.  

  •  Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years

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