Genesis 25: The Death of Abraham

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Having successfully negotiated a burial place for Sarah, Abraham now turns to his next final task. Isaac doesn’t have a wife—a fact that places the promise of descendants in jeopardy once again. It is within Abraham’s purview to find him a wife, but he is advanced in years. So he makes his most devoted servant, the oldest and most responsible one, promise that he will not allow Isaac to “take a wife from among the daughters of the Canaanites.” The servant puts his hand “under Abraham’s thigh” and swears an oath. This symbolic act gives deep meaning to the oath. Most scholars believe the “thigh” is a euphemism for Abraham’s genitals, the symbol of his descendants, the “seed” that God has promised to bless. Modern people usually place a hand on the Bible to swear an oath. Ancient people might have placed a hand on the circumcised organ, a symbol of God’s covenant with mankind. Others think it might also have been customary for a man to put his hand under the one who ruled him, indicating submission to his authority. Either way, this is a solemn and binding act.

Some people think this servant is Eliezer, the one whom Abraham intended to adopt as an heir before Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael; but the text is silent about identifying the servant by name. Abraham tells him to go to his country, to his kinsmen, to find a wife for Isaac. One might reasonably ask, why doesn’t Isaac do this himself? Isn’t leaving one’s homeland for places unknown a familiar trademark among patriarchs? Both Abraham and Jacob do this; it affords them an opportunity to follow God’s promises on faith alone. But Isaac is not even consulted about this situation. We’re not even sure he and Abraham are living in the same area at this point.

Whatever the reason, Abraham does not want Isaac to make this journey; he does not want him to leave the land of promise, so he sends his servant instead. Does he worry that Isaac might not return? Was Isaac not well enough to make the journey? Maybe it was too dangerous. No one can know for sure, but another possible reason for Isaac’s lack of participation is to highlight the nature of God’s providence in finding him the right partner. The task seems to be way more difficult if the potential husband is nowhere in sight.

Indeed, this is one of the servant’s concerns. He says to Abraham, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land; must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” Abraham replies, “See to it that you do not take my son back there.” He repeats this same warning again later. He is decidedly adamant about this, repeating the promise given by God regarding the land. To have Isaac settle in Haran would obviate the promises that the Lord sealed with an oath. Were Isaac to do that, he would be renouncing God’s promise.

And by this time, Abraham is so convinced of the trustworthiness of God, that he assures his servant that “the Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there.” Indeed, God will provide an angel to help him locate the right woman. God has cared for Abraham and his family for many years and will do so again. His direct speech gives his servant no leeway. His word is final. He does concede, however, that if the woman refuses to come, then the servant is freed from the oath that he takes prior to his journey. And this final provision is sealed with another oath.

Throughout this negotiation, Isaac is notably absent. We will find out at the end that he has settled in Beer-Laha-roi. This is where the angel of the Lord speaks to Hagar and tells her to return to Sarah. Apparently Isaac has been living there for some time, perhaps ever since the Akedah.

Laden with gifts, the servant takes off. He does as he is told. He discovers Rebekah almost immediately and ultimately returns with her to marry Isaac.

The next chapter records the death of Abraham. The text mentions that he lived for another 35 years after Isaac’s marriage. Some scholars doubt this is to be taken literally, for there is no mention of his knowing about the births of Jacob and Esau. On the other hand, if they are living in separate areas, they may have had little contact with each other. What this chapter does, however, is illustrate the abundance of progeny.

Suddenly at the beginning of chapter 25, the text states: “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.” No additional details are given. This has led some scholars to suggest that this is another name for Hagar, his concubine and mother of his son, Ishmael. Nothing in the text supports this conjecture, but it has grown from the belief that Hagar never marries again and that she is bound to Abraham from the beginning. Though steeped in romantic sentiments, many other scholars disagree with this theory. And while there is no additional information given about Keturah, no one suggests that her marriage to Abraham lacked legitimacy. There is some confusion as to whether she is a wife or a concubine for both terms are used. But in either case, they are legally married.

He and Keturah have six sons. The children of his second wife are named. Only one, Midian, is ever mentioned again. It is believed that he is the ancestor of the Midianites. Moses’ father-in-law was a Medianite priest, and Israel would fight against them later on. The remaining five, Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Ishbak, and Shuah, disappear from history. Scholars presume they fathered tribes throughout Arabia, but their contributions are unknown. From this list it becomes apparent that Abraham really is the father of many nations. By enveloping the record of his death with genealogical lists, we are shown again that not only is God able to deliver on His promises, but also that these many nations were the fulfillment of God’s promises. Abraham’s descendants are, indeed, numerous. Abraham has also been promised that he will go to his fathers in peace and that he will live to a ripe old age. Both of those promises are now affirmed.

Abraham dies peacefully when he is 175 years old. The text states that he “breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” The repetition in this description is another sure sign of God’s blessings. Before his death, Abraham gives gifts to all of Keturah’s children, then sends them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country. To Isaac, he gives “all that he had.” Nothing is said about an inheritance for Ishmael.

Nonetheless, his estranged sons, Isaac and Ishmael, reunite to bury their father in the cave of Machpelah, the field that Abraham purchases from the Hittites. There, he is buried with his beloved wife, Sarah. Future family members will also be buried there, but there is no mention of Keturah or any of her sons, not even at this burial. Earlier, he had given everything to Isaac, in fulfillment of God’s promise. Then the text says, “And after the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac.” The promise doesn’t end with Abraham’s death. The promise continues. After all, God does promise that it will be forever, eternal. But now the story of Abraham and Sarah has ended. It will be up to future generations to work out their understanding of God and to carry the promises forward.