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 C. 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 C. 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.

AlDahir said...

The name Hagar is found in Islamic literature, but not in the Arabic literature that preceded the advent of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. This essay traces the origins of Hagar. However, before proceeding with the subject it is necessary that the reader becomes familiar with the literature where her name appears and the people who first recorded Hagar as the mother of the Ishmaelites or Arabs.

The Bible: The majority Tanakh scrolls (Old Testament) were edited and/or composed between the 6th and 2nd Centuries BCE during and after the Babylonian exile or between 540 – 130 BCE. The literature and location of Babylon greatly influenced this Biblical literature. Babylon, or Biblical Shinar, was located on the Eastern trade route which ran up the Arabian Gulf to Babylon. The ultimate source for the Babylonian literature was Sumer. The Masoretic version of the Tanakh or OT, which is in use today, was compiled and edited under the auspices of the Arab caliphates, especially the Abbassids, between the 7th and 11th centuries in Tiberias and Jerusalem in Palestine and in Babylonia or Iraq. The majority of the exiled Hebrews remained in Iraq until the middle of the 20th Century, when they left for Israel.

The Bible, then, is a compilation of Near Eastern literature that can be briefly summed up as an account of a people who were attempting to establish hegemony over the very lucrative trade routes that ran through Canaan later known as Palestine. These trade routes originated in the incense growing regions on the southern coast of Arabia and extended into Canaan, the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the horn of Africa. The Hebrew tribal confederations fought for control of these trade routes with regional rivals as Egypt, Assyria, Aramaea, Babylonia and various tribal federations from the Arabian Peninsula as the Midianites and the Ishmaelites etc. They also fought with local rival tribes (Jebusties, Edomites, Moabites, local Hittites, Philistines etc.) some of whom were settled in Canaan before the advent of the Hebrews. Many of these pre-Hebraic tribes (with the exception of the Philistines), also originated in the Arabian Peninsula.

AlDahir said...

According to the Bible, Hagar was the Egyptian handmaid of Sarah, and mother of Ishmael. According to one narrative, Sarah, having no children, requested Abraham to take Hagar as concubine, so that she might adopt her children. When Hagar had conceived she became domineering, and Sarah, with the consent of Abraham, drove her into the wilderness. There, as she sat by a fountain, the Lord talked to her and showed himself to her in the same manner that he would appear later to Moses. According to Genesis 16:13: ”Thereafter Hagar used another name to refer to the LORD, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me. Have I truly seen the achowr (back parts) of (the one) who sees me.” This quote compares to Moses’ experience in Exodus, when YHWH says: Ex: 33:23: “And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts (achowry): but my face shall not be seen.”

God commanded Hagar to return to her mistress and submit to her. He promised that she should bear a son who would be called “Ishmael” (“he whom the Lord will hear”), and that he would be a strong fighter (“a wild ass among men”), and would be respected by his brethren (Gen. 16). Another narrative tells that when Isaac had been weaned Ishmael “played” with him or “mocked” him” (the Hebrew is ambiguous), and that Sarah demanded of Abraham that he cast out Hagar and her son, that the latter might not inherit with Isaac. Abraham was unwilling to do so, but upon God’s command he yielded. Hagar fled again into the wilderness, where Ishmael came near dying of thirst. In the moment of her greatest despair God appeared to her and showed her a well, promising her that Ishmael would found a great nation. She dwelt with her son in the wilderness of Paran, where he became an archer, and Hagar took a wife for him from Egypt (Gen. 21: 9-21).

The Jerusalem Targum also mentions Hagar. In this book, which is still read in the synagogues of Yemen, Hagar was a princess of two lands, Egypt and Sumer. She was the daughter of the Pharaoh whose capitol city was located at Zoan or Tanis and the granddaughter of Nimrod, a Sumerian King of Urek. According to this story, Pharaoh gave his daughter, Hagar, to Sara as a slave. The entire episode is highly unlikely as Nimrod (Ur Nammu-2100 BCE) lived approximately one thousand years prior to the 21st Dynasty Pharaohs of Zoan (1200 BCE) mentioned in this tale.

AlDahir said...

The Arabic meaning, ‘concubine’ is consistent with the Biblical narratives. The Hebrew word for concubine is ‘pelegesh’; a loanword from the Greek word ’pillakis’ while ‘syrh’ is an ancient Semitic word meaning concubine. According to Genesis, Chapters 12 & 20, Sarai was traded to 2 royals (Pharaoh & Abimelech) as a guarantee of security for Abraham. This trade could only happen with a concubine, but never with a wife. A wife would have incurred the death penalty for adultery, while a concubine was excused from punishment for having sexual relations with males other than her master.

The Biblical stories regarding these 2 women were authored by Hebrew scribes who wished to portray their matriarch as superior to their rival’s matriarch. Ophir/Havilah (Yemen) and Hagar (Bahrain and Al Ahsa) were wealthy and powerful Arab city-states, which participated in the incense, gold, copper and exotic goods trade. Except for a brief period under Solomon, the Hebrews were lacking the wealth and political power associated with the incense trade as they suffered occupation under the dominating regional powers of Egypt, Assyria, Aramaea, Babylon, Greece and Rome. The northern city-state of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. The Israelites, who were not deported by the Assyrians, fled to Judea or southern Canaan. The Babylonians destroyed the southern city-state of Judea in 580 BCE and deported the literate class of Judeans into Babylon as slaves.

The Hebrew authors, who were slaves during the Babylonian exile, thus edited their history by manufacturing a role reversal to make themselves descendants of royalty. The chief wife, Ishmael’s mother, became a slave and the concubine, Sarai, whose name was changed to Sarah, which means princess, was elevated to first wife position. This role reversal is expanded upon in Arabian hadiths whose present collection dates to 250 years after the Prophet’s death. These hadiths were written during the period the Hebrews were ’standardizing’ their Biblical texts under the auspices of the Arab caliphs. The Arab caliphs, especially the Abbasids, were known to employ these Hebrews as consultants and administrators. However, such stories as that of Hajar, are nowhere mentioned in pre-Islamic literature of the Peninsula. Therefore, it must be concluded that the Biblical names of Abraham’s wives and their relationship to one another were unknown in pre-Islamic Arabia. They were not a part of the Arabian tradition, so they were not mentioned in the Quran.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The king lists in Genesis are authentic, and analysis of the marriage and ascendancy pattern of these kings indicates that they ruled over a vast extension of land from the Nile to the Indus. This is also where we find serpent imagery and many common mythological and animal symbols.

You are perhaps making too much of the competition between wives, peoples. Sarah does not fare well in the Biblical text. After the binding of Isaac (Heb.) or Ishmael (Islam), Abraham did not live with her, but instead spent his old age in Beersheba, the home of his cousin wife Keturah.

Most of the events you describe are much later than the time of Abraham.

AlDahir said...


To which king list are you referring? The Hebrews did not have a monarchy until Saul who was actually an Edomite monarch. According to Gen 36:37, Saul was an Edomite king who lived prior to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy (Gen 36:31). According to I Sam 9, this king of Edom was incorporated into the Israelite king list as Israel’s first monarch who hailed from the tribe of Benjamin. As a Benjamite, he became a ’son of the south’; a phrase that replaced ‘Edom’ which was located to the south of Judea. The authors of this episode in I Sam 9, made Qwsh (Qysh in Hebrew-both words, Qosh and Qysh, mean bow; the weapon of the Edomite storm god) Saul’s father. Qwsh or Qws was the national god of the Edomites and the name of this deity appears in the names of the Edomite kings Qws-gabri (Qws the mighty) and Qws-malaka (Qws the king).
Saul was from Edom and David was from Moab. In other words, both of these leaders were from the south and neither of them were Israelites. Saul was an Edomite and David a Judean with Moabite ancestry. All of the descendants of David were from the South or Judah. David and Solomon were more tribal sheikhs than true monarchs. There never was a united monarchy of Israel and Judah. That was a fiction promulgated by Hezekiah & Josiah who was having trouble incorporating the defeated Israelites into Judean society. Their reforms included the manufacture a fictional ancestry which included Judeans into the Israelite king list as well as a unified religion which included the merger of Yah & El into Yhwh Elohim as the national god and a magically produced Torah scroll which promulgated a unified legal code.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The so-called "begats" in Genesis 4 and 5 are king lists. These are the Habiru ancestors of Abraham. The lines of Cain and Seth intermarried.

Anonymous said...

If Abraham considered himself childless because the inheritance could only go to his sister-wife (ie you say that Keturah's, {his cousin-wife} 1st born inherited from her paternal side), then why did Isaac's inheritance go to his cousin-wife's child ie Jacob. And why did Jacob's inheritance go to his cousin-wife child, Judah? Also, why was Jesus born of Joseph's cousin-wife, not sister wife that you say he propabably have. Surely, if this pattern is true, why could Keturah's 1st born not recieve the inheritance?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Please read the article again.

Abraham's sister wife was Sarah and Abraham's proper heir was born of her - Isaac.

The offspring of cousin wives did not ascend to the thrones of their biological fathers. Jacob had two wives. They were sisters, but probably not born of the same mothers. Further, as a sent-away son, Jacob was required to establish a territory for himself. His first born was Reuben, but apparently he was not accepted as the heir.

Anonymous said...

According to the Sefer Ha Yashar, or Book of Jashar, Leah and Rachel were twins, so they had the same father and mother.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Anon, The Book of Jashar is not an authority for me in my work in Biblical Anthropology. I rely primary on the data of the Bible itself. However, your observation is interesting and noted.

However, I believe the evidence suggests that Rachel and Leah were half-sisters. They had the same father by different mothers. See this:

Anonymous said...

I have read a book written by prof Igor Lipovsky. He mentioned that Hagar was not an Egyptian but a descendant of semi nomadic amorites. These semi nomadic amorites have settled in the Nile delta for such long times that they can be misunderstood as Egyptians. What's your take on this ?

Alice C. Linsley said...

The term "Egyptian" often designates a point of origin in the Nile Valley and many peoples of the Bible have Nilotic ancestors, including Abraham. The Amorites likewise appear to have a Nilotic point of origin. They are called "Amurru" in Akkadian, the language/script of Nimrod's territory. Nimrod was one of the sons of Kush (Cush). Likewise in the Sumerian texts the Amorites are called "Amurru" and the Sumerian population was comprised of dispersed cattle-herding Proto-Saharans.