The original question was:
Abraham had a concubine called Keturah and the Bible records he also married her. (1 Chronicles 1:32, Genesis 25:1-2) What is the time frame of these events and were Keturah’s children born before or after Sarah’s death?
Answer by John Osgood and Diane Eager
What is a concubine?
In a polygamous society, as was common in Abraham’s time, a concubine was a woman who lived with a man but did not have the legal status of a wife, or share his social status as a wife would. For example, if the man was a prince, his wife would be a princess, but a concubine would not. However, a concubine was not just a girlfriend, a mistress, or “a bit on the side”. She was a legal part of his household, and he had a duty to provide for her and protect her. She had legal obligations toward him re sex, children, and household duties. Another way of defining concubine would be a “part-time wife” or “secondary wife”.
This concept is seen when Hagar was given to Abraham while he was still married to Sarah. In Genesis 16:3 we read: “So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife.” (Genesis 16: ESV) The Hebrew word translated as “wife” is the same when referring to both Sarah and Hagar here. However, there is no indication that Abraham ever married Hagar, and she remained as a servant in his household, until she was sent away many years later. (Genesis 21:14)
Abraham and Keturah
Keturah and her children are not mentioned until after Sarah’s death. (Genesis 25:1) This verse is translated as: “Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah.” (KJV) or “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.” (ESV) Again the Hebrew word ‘ishshah is used for wife. In the context of the overall narrative, the plain meaning is that Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died, and Keturah gave birth to the children after that.
Later we are told that Abraham gave gifts to the children of his concubines. (Genesis 25:6). In the genealogy of 1 Chronicles, Keturah is referred to as a concubine (1Chronicles 1:32). In both these cases the Hebrew word piylegesh is used, which always referred to concubines and not wives in the rest of the Old Testament.
If we look through Genesis, the overall narrative of Abraham’s family seems to be as follows:
Abraham was married to Sarah when he and his household left Haran. He was then aged 75. (Genesis 12:4) Eleven years later, aged 86, he took Hagar as a concubine and fathered Ishmael. (Genesis 16:16)
When Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. (Genesis17:17 & 21:5)
Sarah died at age 127. As Abraham was 10 years older than her, he must have then been 137.
After Sarah died Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for Isaac, which he did, bringing back Rebekah. Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah. (Genesis 25:20) This would have been three years after Sarah died.
Keturah is not mentioned until after Isaac’s marriage, so Abraham would then have been at least 140 years old, but that still leaves 35 years for him to father children with Keturah. We are not told either her age or lifespan, but it is likely she was significantly younger than him, but still had a long life by today’s standards. It likely then that Keturah had been his concubine, but after Sarah’s death Abraham married her and she bore his children.
Finally, the idea of having wives and concubines may seem chaotic to us, but we need to remember that Abraham was brought up in a pagan society with little knowledge of the true God, and he lived well before the Law of Moses. During his lifetime God affirmed and protected his marriage to Sarah, and made it clear that His covenant promises would be conveyed only through Sarah’s son. However, we never read of God rebuking Abraham for his household arrangements. If Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died, then it was a fully legal marriage, both by Moses’ and today’s standards, as he was then a widower. Therefore, Keturah’s children, born after Abraham married her, as the flow of the narrative indicates, were also fully legitimate children.
Footnotes: Definitions of “concubine” from various dictionaries
Oxford English Dictionary
Concubine: (historical) (in polygamous societies) a woman who lives with a man but has lower status than his wife or wives.
Cambridge English Dictionary
Concubine: a woman who, in some societies, lives and has sex with a man she is not married to, and has a lower social rank than his wife or wives.
Easton’s Bible Dictionary
Concubine in the Bible denotes a female conjugally united to a man, but in a relation inferior to that of a wife. Among the early Jews, from various causes, the difference between a wife and a concubine was less marked than it would be amongst us. The concubine was a wife of secondary rank. There are various laws recorded providing for their protection (Exd 21:7; Deu 21:10-14), and setting limits to the relation they sustained to the household to which they belonged (Gen 21:14; 25:6). They had no authority in the family, nor could they share in the household government.
The immediate cause of concubinage might be gathered from the conjugal histories of Abraham and Jacob (Gen 16; 30). But in process of time the custom of concubinage degenerated, and laws were made to restrain and regulate it (Exd 21:7-9).
Christianity has restored the sacred institution of marriage to its original character, and concubinage is ranked with the sins of fornication and adultery (Mat 19:5-9; 1Cr 7:2).
King James Dictionary
Concubine: A Secondary or Inferior Wife.
Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Concubine: Female slave who functioned as a secondary wife and surrogate mother. The Hebrew word for concubine (pileges) is a non-Semitic loanword borrowed to refer to a phenomenon not indigenous to Israel. Babylonian and Assyrian law codes regulate primary and secondary marriages more specifically than do the Old Testament laws. Exodus 21:7-10 has been appealed to as regulative of some aspects of concubinage, but that only implicitly.
Concubines are mentioned primarily in early Israelite history during patriarchal times, the period of the judges, and the early monarchy, although some later kings also had concubines. While concubines did not have the same status as wives, they were not to be mistreated (Ex 21:7-10) nor could they be violated by other males (Gen 35:22) with impunity (Gen 49:3-4). They seem to have received higher status if they bore sons, or at least they are remembered by name (Gen 21:10; 22:24; 30:3; 36:12).
Smith’s Bible Dictionary
Concubine: The difference between wife and concubine was less marked among the Hebrews than among us, owing to the absence of moral stigma. The difference probably lay in the absence of the right of the bill of divorce, without which the wife could not be repudiated. With regard to the children of wife and of concubine, there was no such difference as our illegitimacy implies. The latter were a supplementary family to the former; their names occur in the patriarchal genealogies, (Genesis 22:24; 1 Chronicles 1:22) and their position and provision would depend on the father’s will. (Genesis 25:6) The state of concubinage is assumed and provided for by the law of Moses. A concubine would generally be either (1) a Hebrew girl bought of her father; (2) a Gentile captive taken in war; (3) a foreign slave bought; or (4) a Canaanitish woman, bond or free. The rights of the first two were protected by the law, (Exodus 21:7; 21:10-14) but the third was unrecognized and the fourth prohibited. Free Hebrew women also might become concubines. To seize on royal concubines for his use was probably the intent of Abner’s act, (2 Samuel 3:7) and similarly the request on behalf of Adonijah was construed. (1 Kings 2:21-24)
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