Chayay Sarah: The Life of Keturah, Abraham’s Concubine by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Weekly D'var Torah: Chayei Sarah | OneShulChayei Sarah (חיי שרה)
Torah Portion: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1 – 1:31

“Abraham took another wife [after Sarah’s death], whose name was Keturah. She bore him [six sons]. Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; but to [his] sons by concubines, Abraham 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 rode into our humble Bedouin camp, I was helping my sisters and mother make wheatcakes—rounds of lumpy flour which I always found flat and tasteless, but they 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 great diamond gleaming from its center, and a huge bronze scimitar which could cut a melon, or a man, in half.

He rode by, eyes to front, and did not appear to see me. He must have, though, for, not two moments later, my youngest sister, Roi, came running up to our work area, there in the hot sun, and, tugging at my flour-stained 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 mother, Ishtar keep her soul!—and replied, “No, Ketty. Papa said, NOW!”

I smiled again, shrugged, rose, and walked toward our family tent, dusting the flour off my clothes the best I could. I heard murmurings inside, and the clink of coins—men’s business, of course. We women were useful only to bear their children, cook their meals, and suffer an occasional beating.

“Ah, Keturah, my darling, my precious one!” Papa’s deep voice boomed through the tent, and I wondered why no one else was there. “Sheikh Abraham ibn Terach is here to meet and marry you.”

The Great Sheikh sat off to one side, one hand on his sword, the other near a plate of dried figs that he was brushing the remains of, off his long, gray-white beard.

Marry Sheikh Abraham? 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, 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 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 strength!” Papa intoned, “She will bear you many sons, since the passing of your beloved—what was her name?”

“Sarah. Her name was Sarah,” 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, though I was dazed, frightened, and curious all at once. Our Tribal Shaman stood before us, moaned out the appropriate prayers to Ishtar and Baal, and I became Abraham’s wife. We left my home-camp and family forever, and he took me to his tent.

I will not describe the long nights, lying beside my husband and listening to his old man’s snorings. Nor the pain I endured, in both the conception and the birthing of my six boys—Old Abraham was hardly tender; more clumsy. As the years went by, the servants told me about his late wife’s 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 Abraham: 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 protest to Abraham—he was a quick one with a bullwhip, and I saw him belabor a stubborn donkey more than once….

Yet the question nagged at my heart and brain: why were my six sons not worthy of being called Children of Abraham? 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, and swung off his horse in one skillful movement. I approached him, and bowed down to the ground:

“Rise, Wife of Abraham,” 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 Abraham 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 the man, and the God Who commands him.”

And now, Abraham is dead. Ishmael and I rode off together, long before that happened. And, true to his word, Abraham gave gifts—small ones—to my six sons. What can I do? At least, 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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