I have always found the Abraham and Keturah story fascinating. At the end of this week's parashah, Chayei Sarah, we discover that Abraham has a life after Sarah dies: He marries Keturah. Together, Abraham and Keturah have six sons: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. (Genesis 25.2) These children are given gifts and sent away so that they would not challenge Isaac for the inevitable inheritance and, more important, for God's b'rit.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus also found this story interesting, and his comments regarding Keturah turn both the Bible and Greco-Roman history on their head! In his book The Jewish Antiquities, Josephus has Abraham send his sons abroad to found colonies, mainly in North Africa. (Book I.238-240) In fact, Josephus goes so far as to claim that the daughter of Midian's son Apher (Aphranes) married Hercules!
Apologetic literature, such as the writings of Josephus, sought to portray Jews in the most favorable light possible. And what could be grander than linking Abraham through his granddaughter's marriage to Hercules? As a result, the Roman reader of the first century regarded Abraham as the ancestor of a noble lineage, one worthy of mating with the noble line of Greek superheroes and gods.
Today the message of this apologetic is still relevant. We also tend to link our Jewish "superheroes" past and present with the best elements of society. The success of a Jew in the public square elevates our communal sense of self-worth. When a Jewish pitcher throws a no-hitter, don't we, as Jews, feel wonderful? Conversely, when a prominent Jew goes to jail, do we not feel collective shame?
This message is not in the story itself but in our interpretation of it. All of us "spin" the Torah to suit our purposes. And guess what? That's fine! Jews have been doing that for thousands of years. When we discover a novel meaning to a verse of Torah, it means that we have learned something new. That is what we are supposed to do! So, like Josephus, let us continue to look at the Torah, study it, and draw meaning from it. While our lineage may not be as distinguished as that of the children of Abraham, by learning and interpreting Torah, we can create a noble lineage of our own.
Questions for Discussion
- What does Abraham's second marriage teach us about the Jewish approach to death and bereavement?
- Is it appropriate for us to live our lives vicariously as Jews, or should we see ourselves as the potential equals of great biblical figures? If so, how can we do that?
- How do you think Isaac felt about his father's decision to remarry?
Rabbi Jordan M. Parr is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Children of Israel in Augusta, GA.