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Abraham proceeded and took another wife named Ketura. She gave birth for him Ziman, Yakshan, Medan, Midyan… Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. Abraham gave gifts to his concubine children… and he sent them away from Isaac his son, whilst he was still alive, eastwards to the land of the east… (25:1,2,6,7)
These verses record Abraham having excluded his own natural children from his household. His attitude to them appears hard to understand in the light of the following:
1. When G-d revealed his intentions to destroy Sodom – a nation recorded by the Torah as the archetype of wickedness, he pleaded with G-d: “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” Yet he did appeal to G-d when He told him to expel Hagar and own son Ishmael from his household. Moreover, his lavish hospitality to the strangers at his tent seems hard to fit in with his throwing his eldest son out of his home with an inadequate supply of bread and water. And whereas as Ishmael’s conduct is stated in a bad light, the only thing the Torah tells us about Abraham’s later children is that they were ‘concubine children’ – this expression meaning, according to the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 61:4) that they were Hagar’s children (Ketura being another name for Hagar, who was Abraham’s concubine). The Torah says nothing negative about the deeds of the concubine children. How is his personal attribute of chesed (Micha 7:20) (kindness) reconcilable with the way he treated his children?
2. The Malbim explains the verses the following way. ‘Abraham gave all he had to Isaac’ means that since Isaac was his primary son (G-d said to Abraham… ‘through Isaac, descendants will be considered yours’ – 21:12), Abraham distinguished him from his other children by giving him physical and spiritual possessions. To his concubine children – those he had by Keturah – he gave gifts. He sent them away why he was still alive, so that they would not contest Isaac’s position as his only heir. But this explanation does not appear to reflect positively on Abraham’s chesed to his own children. He still sent them away from home.
One key to gaining a deeper understanding of these points is to consider the following tradition brought by the Midrash:
The souls they made in Haran (12:5) means that he (Abraham) brought them under the wings of the Divine Presence – Abraham converting the men and Sarah converting the women. To this end the Torah reckons it as though he had actually made them (Bereishit Rabbah 39:14).
This took place against the Abraham’s idolatrous background (explicitly stated in Joshua 24:2). Thus Abraham’s prime purpose was not to preach chesed to the world – however much as it was part of his nature, but to be a Patriarch – to bring the human race to G-d’s service. That was his life’s work. Even his chesed had to give way to his G-d ordered responsibility to humanity – however painful it might have been.
To which part of human race? There appears to be a contradiction: in one place it states that G-d promised to make Abraham into ‘a (one only) great nation’ (12:2), and later on it states that his role is a ‘father of a multitude of nations’ (17:25).
This gives us an insight into Abraham’s relations with his family:
1. G-d had already distinguished Ishmael, communicating to Abraham, ‘I have blessed him… he will beget twelve princes and I will make him into a great nation’ (17:20). Ishmael would be assured of His protection and help throughout life, independent of Abraham and his household. Thus when he was told by G-d to throw him out, he was merely handing him over to G-d to carry out His protection and promise to Ishmael. However it appears that he was over-zealous in carrying out G-d’s expulsion order by giving him less than adequate provisions. This, indeed, may be a reason for the test of the Akeidah - the Binding of Isaac – G-d was, in effect saying in the form of a rebuke: “You showed great zeal in carrying out My commandment to expel Ishmael – even to the degree which I did not command: in badly providing for him and putting him into great danger. Are you consistent in your great desire to serve Me? Would you have put Isaac into mortal danger in your desire to carry out My word? Even though I have guaranteed that he is blessed - ‘through Isaac, descendants will be considered yours’?” And, at the end of the Akeidah, G-d found and demonstrated that it was indeed so – ‘now I know that you are a G-d fearing person’ and that you acted not only with Ishmael, but with Isaac, out of trust in Me, and out of zeal to observe My commandments.
2. Following through Abraham’s G-d-ordained role as Patriarch, he had already become a father of what was to be a ‘great nation’ with the birth of Isaac. However Abraham did not see his other role of being a father of ‘a multitude of nations’ as ending with Ishmael – a multitude means more than two. This would explain why he married and fathered six more sons in his old age. However the verse does not state that Abraham sent them away as an act of driving them out of the household, as with Ishmael. Instead it records:
He sent them… eastwards to the land of the east (25:6).
The direction is significant. He performed his role as Patriarch by sending them in a direction where they would be of influence in spreading his ideals beyond the territory of the Holy Land (– the territory apportioned to Isaac). Firstly, the general direction of the descendants of Shem – Abraham’s forebears – was east of the Land of Canaan. Secondly, although Mesopotamia, located to the east of the Holy Land was pagan, their societies were to some degree distinguished: they had legal codes (such as Hammurabi’s) and they were technologically progressive (confirmed by Woolley’s excavations of Ur) – in striking contrast to contemporary Egypt where disputes were decided ad hoc by the whim of the Pharaoh in power.
Thus Abraham should be seen as a Patriarch first and foremost – with perfect faith in the Almighty and His long-term plan for him, rather than a ‘do-gooder’ solely driven by his personal emotions…
As a postscript – after Midyan allied with Moab to bring the Israelites into G-d’s disfavor through the worship of Baal Peor, G-d told Moses to go to war against Midyan and wreak revenge (Num.31:2). Against the Midyanites only, and not the Moabites. One reason for that distinction would be that the Midyanites (unlike the Moabites, who were the descendants of Lot) should have known better as they were to some degree heirs to Abraham’s influence and traditions…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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