So Much We Do Not Know

11 NOVEMBER 2017 / 22 CHESHVAN 5778

What if we started with what we don’t know?
What if we ended with curiosity?

At the end of this parsha, Chayei Sarah, Abraham takes a wife: Keturah.

Perhaps Isaac brought her with him when he returned from Ber Lehai Ro’i. Perhaps he had been spending time with his half-brother Ishmael after his experience with Abraham on Moriah. Perhaps as is widely accepted by the rabbis she and Hagar were one in the same, but like Sarah and Abraham she now had a new name. Perhaps the comfort Isaac took in Rebecca made him aware of his father’s loneliness and inspired him to encourage companionship. Gen. 16:14 [Tanhuma, Hayyei Sarah 8]


Of course, we don’t know. We can’t.

We do know that when Abraham died, “his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpeleh, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre.” (Genesis 25:9) In Abraham’s death, we know these two brothers were together.

This week, I’ve learned that even in antiquity Ishmael was associated with a group of semi-nomadic tribes in the Arabian peninsula, a people who existed well before the rise of Islam. In Ishmael on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab, Carol Bakhos wrote a deep study of the rabbinic treatment of Hagar’s son. She examines Ishmael’s conflicted portrayal over a thousand-year period and traces the shifts and nuances in his representation within the Jewish tradition before and after the emergence of Islam.

In classical rabbinic texts, Ishmael is depicted in a variety of ways. By examining the biblical account of Ishmael’s life, Carol Bakhos points to the tension between his membership in and expulsion from Abraham’s household – on the one hand he is circumcised with Abraham, yet on the other, because of divine favor, his brother supplants him as primogenitor. As I am coming to understand, initially, he is pretty directly Israel’s “Other.” Yet, Bakhos notes, the emergence of Islam and the changing ethnic, religious, and political landscape of the Near East in the seventh century affected later, medieval rabbinic depictions of Ishmael, whereby he becomes the symbol of Islam.

We have always inhabited a complicated world of intertwined political, social, and theological forces.

How might this insight about Ishmael help us in reading the story of Hagar, or Keturah, and Sarah?

R'Simeon ben Yohai taught: "Hagar was Pharaoh's daughter. When Pharaoh saw what was done on Sarah's behalf in his own house, he took his daughter and gave her to Sarah, saying, 'Better let my daughter be a handmaid in this house than a mistress in another house.'" [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 45:1)

Perhaps Hagar was royalty. When it became apparent to Sarah that she would be unable to bear children, perhaps she saw Hagar as an appropriate alternative partner for Abraham. In Chapter 16 if we look close enough we are invited to consider the relationship between Sarah and Hagar before sex with Abraham, pregnancy, and parenthood came between them. We are invited, but not for long.

Hagar is introduced in the Torah as an Egyptian servant of Sarah, acquired during Sarah's brief stay in Pharoah's court. [see Genesis 12:11-20] The Midrash cited by Rashi paints the picture: Hagar would tell (other women): "My mistress Sarah is not inwardly what she is outwardly; she appears to be a righteous woman, but she is not. For had she been a righteous woman, (she would have conceived) see how many years have passed without her conceiving, whereas I conceived in one night." [Midrash Rabbah 45:4]

Perhaps Hagar believed that she was born to lead. Perhaps given the opportunity to rule in Abraham's house, she believed that she had received a divine sign that she, who was born to be queen, was also the rightful partner to Abraham.

And, of course, God said to Abraham: 'Whatever Sarah your wife says you shall listen.' [Genesis 21:12] Sarah, likewise, had good reason to believe leadership and partnership with Abraham was her right, that her stepping back so Abraham could have a child through Hagar was proof of her rightesousness, and not the opposite. Perhaps Sarah was also justified in feeling that she should not be supplanted just because it was Hagar who was able to produce a child.


Studying this story with Muslim and Jewish teens last year, it was the mothers, and not the father, we kept finding ourselves coming back to. Yes, we are all the children of Abraham – cousins. But we are also the children of these two women, these mothers, Hagar - or Keturah - and Sarah. We found ourselves troubled by their animosity for each other, and their harshness with each other. We imagined what life might have been like for their two children, growing up in a home of two women in deep conflict. We read that Sarah “gave” Hagar to Abraham and wondered if that’s the way they would have told their story, if they had been mistress and servant, as intended by Hagar’s father, or if they had been friends. We asked so many questions, and we had ideas . . . but . . . no firm answers.

Abraham – the Ivri – the one on the other side. Ishmael, the “other” in all of rabbinic Judaism.  

Our world. Complicated. Always complicated. How is it possible to find our way in it?

Perhaps, we could start with what we do not know.

And maybe  . . . maybe we could end with curiosity.

After all, we can’t explain it, but at the end of this parsha named for his wife Sarah, Abraham takes a wife named Keturah.






Amy Ariel1 Comment