Monday, August 2, 2010

Abraham's Two Concubines

Alice C. Linsley

God established Abraham as a ruler in Canaan, the land over which his mother's people ruled. The northern and southern boundaries of Abraham's territory were marked by the settlements of his two wives.  Sarah dwelt in Hebron and Keturah dwelt in Beer-sheba to the south. Abraham's wives bore him 7 sons. Daughters were born also, though they are not named in the Bible. Abraham's sons married these daughters and the daughters of Na-hor, Abraham's older brother.

Sons were born to Abraham by concubine servants as well. Ishmael, was born of Hagar and, according to the Septuagint, Eliezar of Damascus was born of Masek. In the New Jerusalem Bible (following the Vulgate) Abraham says to the Lord: "Since you have given me no offspring... a member of my household will be my heir." The Septuagint offers this: "What will you give me, seeing I go childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus, the son of Masek, my domestic maidservant."  Eliezar as a son of Abraham by a maidservant, parallels the story of Hagar. This means that Abraham had 9 sons: Ishmael, Eliezer, Isaac, Joktan, Zimram, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. There were also daughters.  Clearly, God fulfilled His sovereign will concerning Abraham that he should be the "Father of a multitude".

Hagar and Masek are to Abraham's household what the concubines Zilpah and Bilhah are to Jacob's household.  They built up the ruling houses of these patriarchs by producing many offspring. If the biblical pattern is to be trusted, we may reasonably suspect that Hagar and Masek were the servants of Sarah and Keturah, just as Zilpah was the servant of Leah and Bilhah the servant of Rachel (Gen. 30). That Masek was Keturah's servant is supported by the fact that the name Masek is still found among the south Arabian Mahra. They dwell in Yemen, Oman and southern Saudi Arabia (see map). This is where we would expect to find the descendents of Abaham by Keturah's servant Masek.

Some Mahra/Masek are semi-nomadic and others are settled in small semi-fortified villages where they farm and raise chickens for eggs and goats for milk. They are known to aggressively defend their territories and water sources and are regarded as belonging to the warrior caste. Their chiefs control the goods and persons who pass through their lands.

The Mahra/Masek are an endogamous tribe, which means that they exclusively marry within their kinship circle. Most men have only one wife, but the chief may have more than one. Children receive inheritances patrilineally, with the first-born son receiving the lion's share.  Young girls are valued for childbearing and for the bonding of families through marriage. This was especially true in Abraham's time for both wives and concubines.


Cody Vest said...

I love this blog and come back to it from time to time like its the first time I've ever read it. Its invigorating.

I was wondering if you had put together a timeline or rough timeline of events in Genesis that could help me better understand when each of these characters lived according to your findings. It would be very helpful as my children are beginning to get into school age, and these things are bound to come up.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Cody, That is a good suggestion, though the challenge excedes my ability. I'll try and if I can do it, I'll email you or post a comment at your excellent blog.

Reading your entry for today, I think you would find this essay helpful and interesting:

Best wishes!

Anonymous said...

Doesn't Genesis 15:4 say that Eliezer DID NOT COME FROM Abraham's own body?

'4 Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "This man will not be your heir ; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir."'

Alice Linsley said...

An excellent question!

Gen. 15 says: "O Lord God, what can You give me seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dam-mesek Eliezar."

The word rendered "childless" has an uncertain meaning in Hebrew. Therefore we can't argue that Abraham was childless at this point. He had already married Keturah and had children by her. Note that the Bible nowhere says that Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died.

The phrase Dam-Mesek means the son or blood of Mesek/Masek. Dammesek has been interpreted as the place name Damascus in Syria, but this is probably wrong.

Anonymous said...

In genesis 25 it clearly has the word again "Abraham again took a wife and her name was Keturah" or in NIV "Abraham had taken another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah"and this happened after Sarah died.

Alice Linsley said...

Here to marry "again" means to take a second wife. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died. It is implied by the arrangement of the material and that is a late development.

All the Horite chiefs had two wives. The first wife was taken at a young age and was the half-sister, as was Sarah to Abraham. The second wife, a patrilineal cousin or niece, was taken when or right before the chief ascended to rule over a territory. This exact pattern pertained to Abraham's Kushite ancestors, to Moses' father, and to Samuel's father.