Hagar and Keturah — Exegetical Parsimony and Structuralism

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah (Genesis 25:1)

The Written Torah (Torah shebi-Khtav) only tells us that Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. The oral Torah (Torah shebeal-Peh) provides more details. Midrash Genesis Rabbah quotes Rabbi Juda the Prince arguing that Keturah was non-other than Hagar who returned to Abraham and was renamed:

Keturah: This is Hagar. She was called Keturah because her deeds were as pleasant as keturah (incense), and because she remained chaste (katrah, from the Aramaic for “restrained”) and did not consort with another man from the day she separated from Abraham. (Genesis Rabba 61:5)

Western Targumim,[1] Rashi, and Maharal[2] take the same position citing this midrash in their commentaries on this verse (Genesis 25:1). Other classical commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, and Rashbam,[3] disagree and maintain that Hagar and Keturah were two different women.[4]

What are we to make of this dispute (machloket)? When we find a dispute among Talmudic authorities about a ritual law, we apply the principle, “elu v’elu divrei Elokim Chayim,” that is, “This and that are the words of the Living God,” meaning both opinions are right, although only one of them may be applicable at this time or unther these circumstances. However, this rule does not apply when the dispute relates to matters of fact (machloket b’mitziut). Such disputes present serious difficulty as they require that only one opinion must be right. The question of whether or not Keturah and Hagar were one and the same person is just such a dispute—either they were, or they were not.

Before we address this particular dispute, let us note that this is by far not the only such dispute in the Torah and, more broadly, in the Scriptures. Almost every time an unnamed character is mentioned in the Written Torah the Oral Torah identifies this unnamed person with another character who has a name and appeared in the Scriptures before. In some cases, named characters in the Scriptures are also identified as characters that had appeared earlier, albeit under different names. One such example is Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro, Exodus 3:1), who popes up in the Torah in various places under different names: as Reuel (Exodus 2:18), as Jether (Yeter, Exodus 4:18), as Hobab (Numbers 10:29), as Heber (Judges 4:11), as Keni (Judges 1:16, 4:11), and Putiel (Exodus 6:25). Another famous example is Prophet Elijah (Eliyuahu HaNavi) identified as Phinehas (Pinchas), Aaron’s grandson, or as archangel Sandalphon.

Let us return now to Keturah and Hagar. To resolve the seemingly irreconcilable dispute, whether they were the same person or not, we need to recall that Torah is not a history book, as all classical commentators take pains to stress. In fact, every time we encounter an event that seems to be out of order, classical commentators remind us that the Torah is not written in chronological order, because it is not a history book.

On a simple level, Torah (etymologically related to the word, hora’ah—an instruction) is a book of moral, judicial, and ritual instructions—a manual of how God wants us to live moral and just lives for our own benefit and that of others. On a mystical level, Torah is a manifestation of God’s Wisdom. The Torah, given to us on Mount Sinai, “speaks in the language of man.”[5] However, Torah exists not only on earth, but also in heaven, that is, in spiritual worlds. What we read in our earthly Torah is the expression of some very lofty and abstract ideas contained in the heavenly Torah.

From this perspective, it seems that the import of a specific historical person pales in comparison to what that person represents. Consequently, two people personifying the same spiritual actor (be that an angel, sefirah, or partzuf), or representing the same concept are equated and identified as the same.

Let us call it the principle of exegetical parsimony—the tendency among Biblical commentators to minimize the number of Biblical personalities by equating those that represent the same concept or spiritual archetype.

The question then becomes, Why classical Biblical commentators drew the equal sign between some figures but not others. Kabbalists would tell us that those great Jewish sages possessed ruach hakadosh, (“the holy spirit,” which is a lower level of prophecy); that is, they were enlightened and could perceive the spiritual archetypes of the Biblical personalities. However, why did they feel compelled to reveal it to us—the readers of the Bible? What does it add to our understanding of the Torah to know that Keturah was, in fact, Hagar? It is logical to assume that such identifications serve to encourage us to examine relevant Biblical narratives from the point of view of structural analysis. It is as if the sages tell us, “Don’t worry about the names, or the places, or the times—look at the structure and find the common patterns!”

Structuralism is an interdisciplinary movement in philosophy, linguistics, literary criticism, and mathematics that seeks to discover common patterns and relationships between elements in larger structures. It is an outgrowth of linguistic structuralism.

In sociology, anthropology, and linguistics, structuralism is a general theory of culture and methodology that implies that elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader system.[6]

Structuralism first appears in the works of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.[7] In his necrology, the Seattle Times wrote,

Structuralism – defined as the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity – compared the formal relationships among elements in any given system.[8]

Claude Lévi-Strauss built his work on the foundation laid by Russian linguist Trubetzkoy[9] and Swiss linguist Saussure.[10] In the early part of the twentieth century, structuralism flourished in France. Inspired by structuralism ideas, a group of French mathematicians published under the num de plum “Nicolas Bourbaki” many volumes of modern mathematics cast in highly abstract form focusing on mathematical structure.[11]

Structuralism is particularly vivid in mathematics. The same system of axioms can be “interpreted” by various mathematical objects forming mathematical theories that are structurally equivalent. Thus, for example, such distinct mathematical objects as sets, logical predicates, and probabilities all obey Boolean logic. This makes set theory, predicate logic, and theory of probabilities structurally equivalent.

Structuralism also became popular in literary analysis. When we read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we think of two young people in medieval Verona—Rome and Juliet—falling in love, notwithstanding the vendetta between their respective families,  Montague and Capulet. When we see Leonard Bernstein’s Boadway musical, West Side Story (1957), we see two young people, Tony and Maria, falling in love on the Upper West Side of New York City despite their respective families belonging to warring gangs, Jets and the Sharks. These are different people with different names, living in different places and at different times. Nevertheless, the storyline is precisely the same. In West Side Story, just as in Romeo and Juliet, the love between two innocent people associated with two warring clans inevitably leads to violence and a tragic ending. In this case, the structural equivalence of these two plays is apparent, because it was intended. In other cases, it takes an effort to look at two stories from twenty thousand feet in the air, to defocus from the specifics, such as names, places, time, and focus on the storyline to see the parallels. The reward for this effort is discovering that we are dealing with the same story, the same emotions, the same relationships, and the same struggles. According to Simon Blackburn,

[T]he belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract structure.[12]

Structuralism is the intellectual movement of the twentieth century. However, it appears that exegetical parsimony practiced by classical Biblical commentators indicates that they espouse structuralism many centuries before twentieth-century intellectuals.

Classical Biblical commentators want us to focus on the structure of the narrative, not the historical identity of Biblical personalities. “Never mind if this woman is called Keturah or Hagar—the archetype personified by each of them is the same. Focus on the structure, on their relationship with their husband (Abraham), their son (Ishmael), and, above all, their God—the God of Abraham,” they seem to be telling us.

With this in mind, we can attempt to resolve the machloket (“dispute”) between the commentaries as to was Keturah and Hagar the same person or not. As I discussed in my previous post, “Keturah—an Allegory of Entanglement,” the name Keturah (meaning “to tie”) hints at the notion that marriage “entangles” the married couple. It seems that different commentators cited above focus on precisely this issue. Those who maintain that Keturah was Hagar (Rabbi Juda the Prince, quoted by Genesis Rabbah, Rashi, and Maharal) focus on the fact that Abraham was married to Keturah—meaning he was “entangled” with her, as her very name implies. They were also focused on the fact that Abraham was married to Hagar (whether Hagar was a bona fide wife or a concubine is irrelevant to this analysis—he lived with her and sired a child through her) and, therefore, also “entangled” with her. Thus, these sages focus on their “entanglement.”[13]

The other sages saw different dynamics. Knowing that Hagar was the handmaid of Sarah, she belonged to Sarah. In fact, this is precisely what Abraham (at that time still called Abram) tells Sarah (still called Sarai) in response to her complaints about Hagar’s contempt for her:

But Abram said unto Sarai:

Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her that which is good in thine eyes. (Genesis 16:6)

If Hagar was the property of Sarah (Sarai), she was entangled with Sarah, not with Abraham. This is why Sarah (Sarai) offered Hagar to Abraham in her stead, as a concubine, so that Sarah could have a child through Hagar. In antiquity, as a servant, Hagar had no personhood and no legal rights. If she had a child from Abraham, it was considered as if that child was Sarah’s. Thus, there could be no entanglement between Abraham and Hagar, who was entangled with her mistress, Sarah. It was indeed, Sarah, who was entangled with her husband, Abraham. They were entangled not only because they were husband and wife, but also because their spiritual archetypes are entangled. In Kabbalah, Abraham represents partzuf Aba,[14] whereas Sarah represents partzuf Ima.[15] These two partzufim,[16] Aba and Ima, are called companions that never part. They are always united; in the language of Kabbalah, they always “couple,” that is, interact. These are all different words to express the notion that Aba and Ima are “entangled.”

Keturah, on the other hand, was not a slave; she was a free woman. She freely married Abraham and became his bona fide wife. She indeed was entangled with her husband, Abraham. Hagar was not. From this vantage point, two stories are not parallel, and there is no reason to equate Keturah with Hagar.

This example demonstrates how the of exegetical parsimony forces us to look deeper, to focus on the structural analysis of the narrative, identifying structural parallels (where they exist) between different Biblical stories.



[1] Targum Yerushalmi—translation of the Torah to Western Aramaic, which was the spoken language of Jews from the time of the Babylonian exile.

[2] Rabbi Judah Loew (or Löw) ben Bezalel (between 1512 and c. 1526 – 1609), known as Maharal of Prague, was the chief rabbi of Prague and a prominent Biblical commentator, Talmudist, Kabbalist and philosopher. In Jewish folklore, he is famous for ostensibly creating a Golem—an android, that is,  an animated anthropomorphic being that was created from clay using the method described in Sefer Yetzirah.

[3] Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (c. 1085 – c. 1158), known as Rashbam, was a leading French Tosafist and grandson of Rashi. He was a biblical commentator and a Talmudist.

[4] The Book of Jubilees also maintains the Keturah and Hagar were two different women: “he married Keturah only after Hagar’s death,” Jubilees 19:11; See also the entry, “Jubilees, the Book of” (1907); The Jewish Encyclopedia. (Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1906) or online at http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8944-jubilees-book-of (retrieved 11/12/20).

[5] Dibra Torah k’lashon bnei adam. See Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 1:26.

[6] Craig Calhoun, ed. “Structuralism.” Dictionary of the Social Sciences. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[7] Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) was Jewish-French anthropologist and philosopher who was a key figure in developoing structuralism, and structural anthropology, and is called “the father of modern anthropology.”

[8] Angela Doland, “Anthropology giant Claude Levi-Strauss dead at 100,” Seattle Times, (Associated Press, 4 November 2009).

[9] Prince Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetzkoy (1890–1938), Russian linguist, historian, and literary critic, who is considered one of the pioneres of Structuralism. See Amir D. Aczel, The Artist and the Mathematician: the Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed. (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), pp. 129–159.

[10] Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), Swill linguist and philosopher, considered to be one of the foreruners of structuralism. He is considered one of the founders of 20th-century linguistics.

[11] Amir D. Aczel, The Artist and the Mathematician: the Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed. (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006).

[12] Simon Blackburn, ed. “Structuralism.” Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd rev. ed.). (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 353.

[13] As in the previous post, we use the quantum-mechanical term “entanglement” metaphorically to underscore the parallel that just as in quantum mechanics entangled particles constitute one system described by one wave function, married couple also constitutes one “system”—one family and, just as in quantum mechanics, their lives— their “states” —are inexctricably mixed together.

[14] Partzuf is a Divine visage, a dynamic configuration of interincluded sefirot in the world of Atzilut. Aba in Hebrew means “father.” Partzuf Aba is the visage of the supernal father, that is a ful complement of all ten sefirot as they are included in the sefirah of Chokhmah and function as one unit.

[15] Partzuf Ima is the visage of the supernal mother, that is a ful complement of all ten sefirot as they are included in the sefirah of Binah and function as one unit.

[16] Partzufim is plural of partzuf.

Originally published on QuantumTorah.com.

About the Author
Dr. Alexander Poltorak is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Physics at The City College of New York. In the past, he served as Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Globe Institute for Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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