Rereading Hagar

Some want to read Hagar back into the story, giving her character new subtleties and possibilities.


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Parashat Haye Sarah begins with Sarah’s death and ends with a surprise wedding announcement: at 140 years of age, Abraham remarries and fathers six more sons (Genesis 25:1): “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.” 

american jewish world serviceA successor to Sarah, a stepmother to Isaac, another kinship line descending directly from Abraham? This is big news, and yet no more information about Keturah, apart from the listing of her progeny, follows. 

In a bold act of imagination, rabbinic legend identifies Abraham’s new wife as Hagar, his former concubine. The last time Abraham and Hagar were together, he had agreed to have her and their son, Ishmael, banished to the desert to almost-certain death. How could anyone imagine that they would reconcile?

The medieval commentator Rashi makes his case based on wordplay. Keturah has the same root (k-t-r) as the Hebrew word for incense and the Aramaic verb “to bind.” He spins this into a drash that describes Hagar as a pleasant woman who remained loyal–or bound–to Abraham, and, through her good deeds, earned the nickname Keturah.

A New Dimension to Hagar

This interpretation strains belief. Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, bluntly states: “By the plain meaning of the text, Keturah is not Hagar.” Yet many prominent commentators agree with Rashi and manufacture new justifications for the linkage. Is Keturah Hagar?

I’m not sure it matters. What encourages me is that some rabbis want to read Hagar back into the story and give her character new subtleties and possibilities. The word hagar means “the stranger.” In her first appearance, Hagar functions for Sarah and Abraham as the oppressed outsider in their triangle of love and fertility. 

The rabbis, however, stretch to connect Hagar and Keturah, creating a new arc to the story. Hagar as Keturah offers the possibility of healing past wrongs while raising new questions: How did Hagar and Abraham’s reconciliation occur? How much about their relationship, in its various stages, do we not know? The linkage to Keturah widens the text, encouraging us to see a new side of Hagar. This offers a model for reading text which has creative possibilities beyond traditional biblical exegesis.

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.

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