The Genesis:3 Project
And Yokshan begot Sh’ba, and D’dan. And the sons of D’dan were Asshurim, and Letushim, and Leummim. Genesis 25:3
If you’re going to be honest, you probably have a somewhat negative attitude toward “brand promotion” these days. Even though names and icons that resonate with a product have been a part of our lives for a very long time, somehow the practice of associating desirable (or undesirable) associations with a personal name has been more than a little overdone of late.
Yet here we are in the very middle of the Book of Genesis, thinking we have long since left the “begats” behind, and Abraham’s second family is abruptly tracked unto the third and fourth generation. Why do we care, especially about names that are NEVER bestowed on Jewish children and sound more like the back-up vocals in a doo-wop song?
According to at least one historical commentary, these offspring of Abraham were not so incidental back in the day (well, way, way back in the day). His sons by the wife of his very old age turned out to be associated with the spice and fragrance trade – frankincense and myrrh and other exotic and expensive commodities were how the boys and their kids made a living. And it was likely a very nice living. When people bought some frankincense to freshen up the tent, they likely knew where it came from as surely as someone today knows who is (at least symbolically) responsible for Chanel No. 5.
Abraham’s brand has always been as the patriarch of the Jewish people. Indeed, when non-Jews convert to our tradition, they are given the title “child of Abraham.” These days, it is the custom to include Sarah as well, but her story is unrelated to his second family. Abraham is claimed as patriarch, physical or spiritual, of Islam and Christianity as well.
But this little nugget of lineage, tucked between the death of Sarah and the transition to the next generation of Hebrews, is good evidence that people have more than one story line in them.
The network of exotic plant and resin merchants created by the offspring of Abraham and Ketura must have resonated with earlier listeners to the stories of Genesis. The spice trade was good business then and still is today. Along with silk, incense and precious gems, routes to distant and unfamiliar centers of commerce allowed the fame of Abraham to spread. The family-based network became as much a model for Jews (and others) as his response to God’s call.
I have to imagine, because I have no evidence, that Abraham impressed on his youngest children and grandchildren the importance of maintaining the honor and integrity of the family name. The Abraham brand was unique – just like God – and easily damaged by misconduct. Yokshan and his brothers (named in other verses) did not grow up as their father built his legacy. It awaited them at their birth, part silver spoon, part albatross.
Then, as now, it was not unusual for a man to have multiple families. (It was much less usual for a woman.) There are all sorts of instructions in the Bible about how a man must treat the offspring of former wives and later wives, recognizing that some marriages don't work out, but that the children must not be made to suffer. Perhaps it is unavoidable in such circumstances that the father will have favorites and, therefore, less favorites. But as a later story involving Abraham's grandson Jacob and his boys will illustrate, nothing good comes of loving one child more than the others.
Still, Abraham protected his estate and his legacy by bequeathing everything he had to Jacob. To his other kids, he gave gifts. Maybe that sounds unfair...or maybe not. To be sure, Isaac was the heir to Abraham's land holdings, material wealth and household. But among the gifts Abraham seems to have given the sons of Ketura was the ability to follow a different path. They did not have to compete with Isaac for Abraham's brand.
Isaac always lived in Abraham's shadow. But the others made their own way, thanks to the life of spice.