Was Keturah Abraham's Wife or Concubine?
Although Keturah is mentioned only four times in the Bible (in two different sections of Scripture—Genesis 25:1,4; 1 Chronicles 1:32-33), her relationship to Abraham has come under severe scrutiny. Skeptics have charged the Bible writers with erring in regard to their portrayal of Keturah. Allegedly, Genesis 25:1 and 1 Chronicles 1:32 are contradictory, because the first passage indicates Keturah was Abraham’s “wife,” while the other says she was “Abraham’s concubine.” Based upon the understanding of some that there is a distinction of the words “wife” (Hebrew ‘ iššâ) and “concubine” (pilegeš) during the monarchic period, even some Bible believers may be somewhat perplexed at the different titles given to Keturah. Was she Abraham’s wife, or was she his concubine? Many are aware that during David’s reign as Israel’s king, he had “wives” and “concubines” (2 Samuel 19:5). Also, during Solomon’s kingship, “he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (1 Kings 11:3). In these contexts, the terms “ wives” (‘iššâ) and “concubines” (pilegeš) are distinct terms that rarely, if ever, are used interchangeably. Such begs the question, “Why was Keturah called Abraham’s wife in one passage, and his concubine in another?” Are these two sections of Scripture really contradictory, as Bible critics would have us believe?
First, for Genesis 25:1 and 1 Chronicles 1:32-33 to be a contradiction, one must know whether or not these passages are referring to the same time. It is possible that Keturah was Abraham’s “concubine” in the beginning, and then became his “wife” at a later time. If such were the case, Bible writers could legitimately use both terms when describing her.
Second, although it was unusual for the terms “wives” and “concubines” to be used interchangeably during the monarchic period, evidence indicates that in patriarchal times, using these terms to refer to the same person was somewhat normal. Consider the following:
And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But Abraham gave gifts to the sons of the concubines which Abraham had; and while he was still living he sent them eastward, away from Isaac his son, to the country of the east (25:5-6, emp. added).
Isaac, son of Sarah, was set apart from all of Abraham’s other sons, which were born to him by his concubines. By implication, Keturah, who was not the mother of Isaac, was described as a concubine (cf. 1 Chronicles 1:32).
Bilhah, Rachel’s maid (Genesis 29:29), was one of Jacob’s “concubines” (35:22). But, she also was called his “wife,” both before and after she gave birth to two of Jacob’s sons (30:4; 37:2).
Genesis 16:3 calls Hagar Abraham’s “wife” (‘iššâ), while Genesis 25:6 implies that Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, also was his “concubine” (pilegeš).
Although Genesis 25:1 says, “Abraham again took a wife” (Keturah), verse 6 of that same chapter indicates Keturah also was his concubine.
Hebrew scholar Victor Hamilton believes this concubine-wife relationship to be dissimilar to what was seen during the days of David and Solomon. It is reasonable to conclude that this “coidentification” in Genesis indicates “that the concubines of Abraham and Jacob were not pilagšîm [concubines—EL] in the later sense, but that no term was available for that type of concubinage; thus pilegeš and ‘iššâ were used as synonyms to describe these women in the patriarchal narratives” (1990, p. 446). In an article that the late Semitist Dr. Chaim Rabin wrote regarding the origin pilegeš, he stated: “By alternating the terms within the easily apprehended framework of a story, a similar impression of ‘in-betweenness’ was created” (1974, p. 362).
Keturah was a concubine-wife. Its seems that she was more than a concubine (often considered a second-rate wife of servant status), but not on a par with Sarah, Abraham’s first “wife,” and mother of the promised son (Genesis 17:15-22). Just as Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine-wife, did not rival Rachel or Leah, Keturah was not equivalent with Sarah. Thus, Bible writers were not mistaken when referring to Keturah and Bilhah as both wives and concubines; they simply used two words to indicate the “in-between” position the women held.
Hamilton, Victor P. (1990), The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Rabin, Chaim (1974), “The Origin of the Hebrew Word Pilegeš,” Journal of Jewish Studies, 25:362.