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Who was Abraham’s second wife Keturah? The Torah writes nothing about her background and origin – although if she was a wife of Abraham and mother to six of his children, she must have been a pretty important person!
Thank you for raising the interesting issue. The Torah’s account of the end of Abraham’s life (Genesis 25:1-6) is actually quite curious. After Sarah dies and a wife is found for Isaac, one would think the story of the Jewish people has moved on from Abraham – to the next generation of Isaac, Rebecca and their sons. Yet the Torah tells us that Abraham in his extreme old age marries again and fathers several more children. And his second wife is someone the Torah identifies by name but states nothing further. Who is this Keturah and what was the significance of her marriage to Abraham?
Before moving on, it should be mentioned that Keturah is called Abraham’s concubine, not his full wife (Genesis 25:6, I Chronicles 1:32). Although Abraham took Keturah as a spouse, she was never his true wife. No one could replace Sarah, the foremother of Israel. Thus, Keturah and her children were by far secondary to Isaac and played no direct role in the story of Israel. The Torah likewise records that Abraham gave gifts to the children of his concubines and sent them off during his lifetime (Gen. 25:6). His full legacy – both spiritual and material – continued with Isaac.
Even so, as children of Abraham, they were most certainly blessed and to some degree spiritual heirs of his sanctity. There is even an opinion that the descendants of Keturah were obligated in circumcision for all generations, implying their status is elevated above all the other nations of the world (Maimonides Hil’ Melachim 10:8 based on Talmud Sanhedrin 59b). (This was an obligation on Abraham and his household (see Genesis 17). It would have certainly applied to his children through Keturah. According to this opinion, it continued to their children and descendants as well.)
Furthermore, one of Abraham’s children was Midian, presumably the progenitor of the nation of Midian. Generations later, Moses would marry the daughter of Jethro the Midianite, and other descendants of Jethro converted as well (see Judges 1:16). (Beyond that, Midian had a more checkered history. When Israel was in the desert, the Midianites sent their daughters to tempt them to sin (Numbers 25:6, 31:2,16), and during the era of the Judges they were one of the neighboring nations who opposed Israel (Judges 6).)
Lastly, there are those who suggest that the wisdom of the Eastern religions actually spawns from the children of Keturah – whom Abraham sent east (Gen. 25:6). Perhaps they took some of the spiritual heritage they gained from Abraham and later discovered their own paths.
So who was Keturah? There is a well-known Midrash that it was actually none other than Abraham’s earlier concubine and mother of Ishmael, Hagar (Bereishit Rabbah 61:4 and elsewhere, see Rashi to 25:1). After sending her and Ishmael out of the house (21:14), he sent back for her – as she remained righteous all throughout the years. (The Midrash offers different reasons why she was given an alternate name here – such as that it reflected her righteousness – that her deeds were as aromatic as incense (ketoret).)
Based on this Midrash, Hagar would have been quite old at the time Abraham took her back. Since this presumably occurred after Isaac’s marriage at 40 (25:20), and Ishmael was 14 years older than Isaac (compare Gen. 16:16 to 21:5), she bore Ishmael at least 54 years before her remarriage – yet still, she gave birth to six more children. Of course this wasn’t unheard of in that era, while human lifespans had not yet shrunk down to their present levels.
In any event, Abraham was at least in his 140’s at that time (he would live to 175). Although the miracle of Abraham and Sarah bearing a child when they were 100 and 90 was quite emphasized in the Torah (Gen. 18:12, 21:7), no doubt once Abraham regained his vigor, it remained with him for some time to come (Ha’amek Davar).
Others believe that this opinion in the Midrash should not be taken literally and Keturah was a different woman, no doubt much younger. Her ancestry is not mentioned, although she was presumably a local Canaanite. Although Abraham was quite insistent that Isaac not marry a Canaanite (24:3), and Rebecca later insisted the same for Jacob (27:46), that was due to the importance of fathering the Jewish people. Since Abraham’s later children were not Jewish, they could descend from a mother of ordinary lineage (see Rashbam, Ramban).