Chayay Sarah by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Chayay Sarah: The Life of Keturah, Ibrahim’s Concubine

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


Ibrahim took a concubine [after Sarah’s death], whose name was Keturah. She bore him [six sons]. Ibrahim willed all that he owned to Isaac; but to [his] sons by concubines, Ibrahim gave gifts while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the Land of the East.

–Gen. 25:1-6 (adapted)


When the Great Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Terach rode into our humble Bedouin camp, I was helping my sisters and mother make wheatcakes—flat and tasteless rounds of lumpy flour, which were the main sustenance for us desert-dwellers. I remember staring at the majesty of the Great Sheikh—well-oiled beard down to his belly, a keffiyeh with a sparkling diamond gleaming from its center, and a gigantic bronze scimitar which could cut a melon, or a man, in half. A small shield dangled from his back: this man was ready for any danger.

He rode by, eyes to front, and pretended not to see me. He must have, though, for, not two moments later, my youngest sister, Roi, came running up to our workplace, there in the hot sun, and, tugging at my flour-spotted sleeve, cried out, “Elder Sister Ketty, Papa wants you.”

“Can’t it wait, Roi?” I asked, smiling at her—she was always my favorite, “I’m just finishing this batch of wheat cakes. Tell him I’ll be there in three minutes.”

My beautiful baby sister pursed her lips—really, she looked just our poor, dead mother, May Ishtar keep her soul!—and replied, “No, Ketty. Papa said, NOW!”

I shrugged, rose, and walked toward our family tent, dusting the flour off my clothes the best I could. No time to wash up or do my hair, I thought. I heard murmurings inside, and the clink of coins—men’s business, of course. We women were useful only to bear men’s children, cook meals for men, and suffer an occasional beating at their hands—usually, for no reason at all.

Holy Ishtar, I prayed silently, keep me safe from the groping paws of men, pushed back the flap, and entered the tent. There they were: Papa, Sheikh Ibrahim the Stranger, and a few layabouts from the tavern-tent. 

“Ah, Keturah, my darling, my precious one!” Papa’s deep voice boomed out through the tent, and the layabouts grinned, prepared to watch the fun. “Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Terach is here to meet and marry you.”

The Great Sheikh sat off to one side, one hand on his sword-hilt, the other picking out dried figs from a clay plate—a glazed one; he must be an important personage, to rate a glazed plate. He was stout and strong, true, but even in the halflight of the black goatskin tent, I could see the wrinkles in his face and that his hands trembled with the palsy of age, and note the length of his grayish-white beard.

Marry Sheikh Ibrahim? A voice went through my head. Look how old he is—why, he could be my father, or grandfather, perhaps! I began to tremble. Papa did not, or pretended to not, notice. He rose quickly, crossed to me in two long steps, and yanked my right arm to draw me closer to the visitor, the better to show my charms off to the Sheikh. I stumbled behind him—he was that eager for the Old Man’s gold. Meanwhile, my dazed mind was going, This is wrong, so wrong! I cannot marry this tribal elder—why, Uribaal, my boyfriend since childhood, plighted his troth to me, just—just—

 “See my daughter’s beauty, combined with her strength! Look at that arm!” Papa intoned, “She will bear you many sons, since the passing of your beloved—what was her name?”

“Sarah. Her name was Sarah, God rest her soul,” frowned the Great Sheikh, speaking for the first time—and not to me; more to himself.

It all happened so quickly after that—Aunty Yirah dragged the tribe’s veil, hijab, and wedding-dress out of her storage-bags, and my sisters draped me in it after sponging off most of the desert dust. I was in shock: dazed, frightened, and curious all at once.

My sheikh-husband-to-be rose, combed out his beard with his fingers, and squeezed my hands in his—his hands felt like roughened wood, after a lifetime chasing sheep and goats.

“Mistress Keturah, will you be my bride?” he asked gruffly, and I nodded, recognizing that this was a mere formality. Father beamed at the layabouts, and passed out huge mugs of barley beer.

The rest spun by in a whirl: someone fetched the Tribal Shaman, that drunkard, and he shakily stood before us, moaning out the appropriate prayers to Ishtar and Baal. And so it was that I became Ibrahim’s wife. He swung me up behind me on his horse and, for the first time, gave me the shadow of a smile. Galloping off, we left my home-camp and family behind,forever. Upon returning to his encampment, he hurried me past the greetings of his son Isaac and daughter-in-law Rebecca (She was to prove a good friend to me; Isaac was a milquetoast), sat me down, clapped his hands, and watched the maidservants bring me butter, cheese, and matzot.

And then, the Great Sheikh took me to his tent.

I will not describe the long wilderness nights in Ibrahim’s moldy-smelling tent, lying beside him and listening to his old man’s snorings. Nor the pain I endured, in both the conception and birthing of my six boys. Old Ibrahim was hardly tender in his love; he was clumsy. Still, I understood my place—not to be a beloved wife, but rather a concubine, expected to bear him sons, and designed for that purpose alone. Love did not enter into it.

As the years went by, the servants whispered to me about his late wife Sarah and her infertility. Surely, I believed, my six tall, strong sons would testify to both the prolific nature of their mother, and to their deserving at least a portion of their father’s will; but alas, this was not to be. As a concubine merely, I was secondary to my lord and master’s dead wife—though she was still alive, to Ibrahim: many a long night I would lie next to him, and hear him calling to her in his sleep: “Are you there, Sarah my love? Do you remember when I sold you to Abimelech? Ha! We fooled him, didn’t we….”

Selling a wife to a king, and to a pharaoh? How sordid—how unseemly! Still, I did not dare question Ibrahim—he was a quick one with a bullwhip, and I saw him belabor a stubborn donkey once, and a lazy servant, many times.

Yet the question nagged at my heart and brain: why were my six sons not worthy of being called Children of Ibrahim? I saw his favorite, that skinny little drip Isaac, and wondered why their God had chosen him, rather than my big, strapping boys….

Until the day HE entered our little camp: Ishmael, riding a white charger, and armed with sword, buckler, and bow: a true warrior. He smiled at me—perfect white teeth in a face tanned by the desert sun, just before he swung off his horse in one skillful movement. I approached him, and bowed down to the ground:

“Rise, Wife of Ibrahim,” Ishmael laughed, “or, should I say, Mama?”

We both laughed, then, and entered one of the auxiliary tents, there to talk—and he answered many of my questions.

“Do not press Ibrahim for your boys’ inheritance,” Ishmael cautioned me, his finger on my lips, “for the Great Sheikh—I cannot bring myself to call him ‘Father’ after how he treated my poor mother and me. He will gift your sons before he dies, like a king gives bounty to his serfs.”

“Not serfs, but sons!” I replied, my eyes blazing.

“I understand and sympathize,” said Ishmael, laying a hand on my arm—and I shivered at his touch, “but there is no help for a concubine, my dearest Keturah. Blame God’s prophet Ibrahim, and the Deity Who commands him.”

It was then that my yearning heart fell in love with this bold, dark-eyed desert warrior, my Ishmael.

And now, Ibrahimat last is dead. I was lucky to escape: Ishmael and I rode off together, long before that happened. And, true to his word, Ibrahim gave gifts—small ones—to my six sons. What could I do? My courageous, strong boys will survive, and make their way through life. For myself, I have found love after my miserable concubinage: I have my Ishmael, my dear one…

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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