In reading about Avraham’s marriage to Ketura, many commentators show discomfort with the notion that Avraham would marry a third wife after the death of Sarah. Since Yitzchak had already been chosen as the only child that would continue his legacy (21:12), what was he trying to accomplish by having more children? One would think that someone of his stature would have weightier matters to attend to than the day-to-day trials and tribulations of matrimony and child-raising that would perforce follow. Indeed – whether with Yitzchak or more contemporary rabbinic widowers – when the great wife of a great man dies, the default seems to be to live a more solitary path. And for some (R. Bachya, Abrabanel and R. Y. S. Reggio), the problem is even worse, since they understand that Ketura is actually from the dreaded Canaanites that Avraham had forsworn as matrimonial candidates for his own son, Yitzchak.
To avoid some of these issues, Shadal tells us that the episode with Ketura (25:1-6) really happened while Sarah was still alive. And according to Abarbanel, avoiding these issues is also what led some of the rabbis to say that Ketura was really another name for Hagar, who Avraham accordingly remarried at this point. But since neither of these approaches stick to the most straightforward reading, most commentators seek a different explanation. Their answers go in essentially three directions: 1) Something important needed to be accomplished by having other children (especially such that Yishmael would better understand his status); 2) It is never ideal for a man to be alone, and always commendable to have more children; and 3) It is only with regards to a first wife that a man must be so particular, such that it is only natural that Avraham would choose to get remarried without great fanfare or selectiveness.
I would like to suggest a different explanation. R. Yochanan (Nedarim 32a) posits that Avraham failed when he did not take the souls that he had redeemed in the war with the four kings. Instead of letting them return to the king of Sodom, he should have brought them to ethical monotheism. Indeed, this was not Avraham’s first chance at saving the people of Sodom. When he split from Lot, their choice was to either go the area around Sodom or parts further northwest. Netziv explains that Avraham was being magnanimous in allowing Lot to choose which he preferred. Perhaps. But if it was kind to Lot, it was cruel to the people of Sodom. For Avraham should have known that there was almost no way Lot could improve these people that the Torah calls very evil (13:13). There was really only one man who had a chance at this, and that was Avraham himself. Yet he chose to bypass that challenge and so not tell Lot that he himself would be the one to go there.
One can understand Avraham. It is quite possible that he would have failed as badly as Lot. But it seems that it was still his prerogative to try. This helps explain something that has perplexed me for many years: Why did God tell Avraham about the destruction of Sodom? In the case of Moshe, God tells him that He will destroy the Jewish people precisely when there is a possibility for Moshe to intervene. But what is the point here? Was it not already hopeless? Maybe the answer is that God was showing Avraham the fruits of his own inactivity. In the subsequent conversation, Avraham’s own words show his culpability. When he asks God about fifty righteous men, he was no doubt aware that it is far from impossible that he could have had a significant impact on fifty men. So Avraham wonders out loud whether his deputy, Lot, might have had that impact as well. When God informs him that this was not the case, he keeps going down hoping that Lot had at least made some impact; all the while realizing that he himself could have impacted on the requisite number of men that would have saved Sodom. And so God wrenchingly teaches Avraham that Sodom will be destroyed because he had twice refused the challenge to save it.
Avraham lived a more than exemplary life and almost single-handedly changed the course of history. But the story of Sodom left something still waiting for him to do, and that was to attempt to influence those least likely to be influenced. It was too late to impact on Sodom, but he could still do so with the highly problematic Canaanites all around him. With this awareness, Avraham took the bull by the horns and finally showed himself to be a mentor for all peoples that God created. If he had previously kept his distance, he would now go to the other extreme of marrying a Canaanite woman, and fathering and raising her children.
The actual impact of Avraham’s final marriage remains unclear. But what is clear is that Avraham understood that even after the binding of Yitzchak, he had not yet completed his life mission. There was one more issue to sort out and correct. And so it was only after the creation of his Canaanite family that the Torah could conclude with the very next section that he died at the end of a goodly old age.