Ishmael’s Daughter(s) and the Riddle of Esau’s Wives

In my previous post on the twelve sons of Ishmael, I left out at least one of Ishmael’s most important children: his daughter, or perhaps, his daughters. Their story is tied to Esau, Jacob’s brother, and chronologically comes later in the biblical narrative, but in the interest of keeping the Ishmael family together, I want to discuss it now. And what the story lacks in narrative, it gains in confusion: Genesis is simply unclear about exactly how many wives Esau had, what their names were, and who their parents were. And, depending on how you read it, Ishmael could have been blessed by one daughter who married Esau, or two. And before you dismiss that out of hand, remember that Jacob himself married two daughters of Laban, so it is entirely reasonable for Esau to also marry sisters.

A complicated tale that involves wading through bible genealogies? Where do I sign up!? Read on for more.

Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for some food. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for some food. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(This post is part of a continuing series of chronological commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning, but they get better as we go on. This is also the third post as I wind down the story of Ishmael starting with the burying of Abraham and then looking at his twelve sons.)

Esau’s family history is provided in three locations in the bible: as part of the Jacob narrative in Genesis chapters 26 and 28, in a section on the Edomite kingdoms in Genesis 36, and a brief passage that lists his sons but not his wives in First Chronicles 1.The challenge is that the two portions of Genesis which name his wives do not appear to agree on who Esau married.

When Esau and Jacob were relatively young, before Isaac was tricked into giving Jacob his elder twin’s blessing, Esau took two wives from among the Canaanites in the region.

When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite.
Genesis 26:36

Esau’s parents were disgusted by this match, but he was not unrepentant. When Isaac granted the birthright to Jacob and sent him away to their cousins in Paddan Aram, Esau may have sought to patch things up with his parents by marrying within the family as well. Enter Mahalath:

Esau then realized how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had.
Genesis 28:8-9

Whether this plot to gain favor with his favor was productive, the bible is unclear. Esau will eventually forgive Jacob and the pair will find peace. While I’ll get to it more when we get into his story, I get the feeling at least from this part of the text that Esau meant well even as his head didn’t quite match up with his heart. When we later find out about Esau’s family, the picture looks a little different:

This is the account of the family line of Esau (that is, Edom). Esau took his wives from the women of Canaan: Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Oholibamah daughter of Anah and granddaughter of Zibeon the Hivite—  also Basemath daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth.
Genesis 36:1-3

Are you confused? I know I am, so I put it in a table. This passage lists a different name for the daughter of Elon (Adah instead of Basemath), a different name for the daughter of Ishmael (Basemath instead of Mahalath), and Judith is replaced by a wife from a different father. How did that happen and what does it mean?

Esau's Wives: Genesis 26-28 vs Genesis 36

 Daughter of BeeriDaughter of ElonDaughter of IshmaelDaughter of Anah
Genesis 26-28JudithBasemathMahalath
Genesis 36AdahBasemathOholibamah

Neither of the two lists says how many wives Esau had in total. Commentaries, both ancient and modern, struggle with this ambiguity and split up Esau’s wives in one of several possible ways: some say that he had six wives, others four, and still others only three.

Esau Had Six Wives

The six wives theory asserts that both lists are correct, though partial, and Esau married two sets of sisters as well as two other women. This is not impossible and suggests a direct connection, possibly even a competition, with his brother Jacob. Where Jacob married one set of sisters (Rachel and Leah), Esau married two sets of sisters: Basemath and Adah, daughters of Elon; and Mahalath and Baemath, daughters of Ishmael. The fact that two of his wives had the same names must have led to interesting conversations at the dinner table!

His family tree then would look something like this:

Possible Family Tree For Esau With Six Wives
Possible Family Tree For Esau With Six Wives

Since it’s challenging to do family trees with so many wives, I have color-coded: Orange for Abraham/Ishmael’s family, red for Esau himself, and green, yellow, and blue for the other three families. In this chart, it’s easy to see that although Esau had six wives, he only had children by three of them: Basemath, daughter of Ishmael; Adah, and Oholibamah.

I love the symbolism of dim-witted Esau trying to out-do his brother by marrying two sets of sisters instead of just one. It does seem like something Esau would do, especially when he seemed so willing to marry Mahalath just to please his parents. But that’s not the only option.

Esau Has Four Wives

Instead of marrying two sets of sisters, Esau marries two women that have alternate names. Some commentators even suggest that he renamed Mahalath to Basemath in honor of the first Basemath after her death. That seems utterly horrid to me, but it’s one possibility. The bible has plenty of people that have multiple names, so a few more doesn’t seem that unusual. Here’s what that family tree would look like:

Possible Family Tree for Esau with Four Wives

This configuration still gives us a fun little implied narrative of Esau trying to out do his younger twin. Esau already had two names (the second is Edom, hence he’s the father of the Edomite tribe), but could be have been so jealous of Jacob/Israel’s two names that he has to give extra names to his wives as well? And then poor, slow Esau struggles to think of a second name for Mahalath so he picks the one that comes most readily to mind: Basemath, the name of his other wife! That’s ridiculous, but he did sell his birthright for some lentil stew.

Esau Has Three Wives

There is at least one more possibility: Esau really only has three wives. In this model, not only are the two potential siblings the same person, but Judith and Oholibamah are as well even though they are described as having two separate fathers (Beeri and Anah) and they are said to be of different tribes (Hittite and Hivite). I don’t put that much stock in this theory, but it happens to be the one that Rashi cites in his commentary. That family tree looks a bit like this:

Possible Family Tree For Esau With Three Wives
Possible Family Tree For Esau With Three Wives

Don’t look to Rashi to explain why he thinks that Judith and Oholibamah are the same person even though their parents appear to be different. Instead, he relates midrash about how Oholibamah is the result of an incestuous pairing between her mother and her grandfather. Not relevant yet, but there’s a very minor biblical story about Anah that I will cover when I get to Genesis 36.

When I put together my giant Torah tree (still a work in progress), I used the four wife model. This model appears to me to hang most cleanly off the text as we have received it, though a good argument could be made for the six-wife model. My personal view is that the plain text reading doesn’t support a three wife view, but I am happy to discuss in the comments here or on Facebook. This is one of those cases where you will just have to decide for yourself.

Final Thoughts

Having just spent fourteen hundred words and three color-coded charts to get to the bottom of the question of just how many daughters Ishmael had, I’m going to end this here for today. Up next, I will look at what the bible tells us about Ishmael’s Edomite grandchildren under Reuel before returning to the narrative with the birth of Jacob and Esau. I can’t wait!

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10 thoughts on “Ishmael’s Daughter(s) and the Riddle of Esau’s Wives”

  1. To understand the confusion of Esau’s wives, one must consider ALL scriptures referring to the particular topic. The Book of Jasher (which the KJV bible makes reference to in 2 Samuel 1:18 and Joshua 10:13) clears this up.

    1. Judith/Jehudith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite. (Genesis 26:34)

    **[Jasher 28:22] “And Esau there saw in the land of Seir the daughter of a man of Canaan, and her name was Jehudith, the daughter of Beeri, son of Epher, from the families of Heth the son of Canaan.”

    2. Bashemath/Bosmath/Adah, daughter of Elon the Hittite. (Genesis 26:34; 36:2)

    **[Jasher 29:12] “And when Esau saw that Jacob had fled and escaped from him, and that Jacob had cunningly obtained the blessing, then Esau grieved exceedingly, and he was also vexed at his father and mother; and he also rose up and took his wife and went away from his father and mother to the land of Seir, and he dwelt there; and Esau saw there a woman from amongst the daughters of Heth whose name was Bosmath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and he took her for a wife in addition to his first wife, and Esau called her name Adah, saying the blessing had in that time passed from him.”

    3. Mahalath/Machlath/Bashemath/Bosmath, the daughter of Ishmael, the sister of Nebajoth/Nebayoth. (Genesis 28:9; changed to Bashemath in Ch 36:3)

    **[Jasher 29:43] “Then he went to the house of Ishmael his uncle, and in addition to his older wives he took Machlath the daughter of Ishmael, the sister of Nebayoth, for a wife.”

    >>>Here Mahalath/Machlath’s name was changed to Bashemath/Bosmath<<<

    **[Jasher 30:17] "And in the third year of Jacob's dwelling in Haran, Bosmath, the daughter of Ishmael, the wife of Esau, bare unto him a son, and Esau called his name Reuel."

    4. Aholibamah/Ahlibamah, the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite. (Genesis 36:2)

    **[Jasher 30:24] "And in the sixth year Esau took for a wife, in addition to his other wives, Ahlibamah, the daughter of Zebeon the Hivite, and Esau brought her to the land of Canaan."

    1. Thanks for the info on Jasher, and one of the great things about those non-biblical books is that they frequently address the issues or gaps in the books themselves. The Book of Jasher that we have is post-biblical, although there are references in scripture that suggest there was once a book of Jasher, now lost.

  2. It’s interesting the Bible is clear about the genealogies of the main characters, but Esau is a shady outfit and his genealogy (unclear) matches his character.

  3. You MAY have overlooked the fact that Anah was not the father of Aholibamah (Oholibamah in other editions) who was the daughter/grand daughter of Zibeon the Hivite, but was Aholibamah”s mother. I think Anah was the wife of Beeri, who was the father of Judith the Hittite who would then be the same as Aholibamah. In Aholibamah’s case, you are given the name of both her father and mother who came from 2 different tribes joined together in marriage, but both tribes having descended from Canaan. I see no reason that each of these women could not have 2 names like Esau/Edom. Put the meaning of the names side by side using the name first mentioned, followed by the second name attributed to them and it would look like this:

    Judith/Aholibamah = Praised/Tent of the High Place
    She would be the first wife who holds the highest position amongst the wives. 3 sons born to her.
    Bashemath/Adah = Spice/Ornament
    She sounds like a trophy wife. One son born to her.
    Mahalath/Bashemath = Stringed Instrument/Spice. Also sounds like another trophy wife, but one who could possibly sing if the inference of stringed instrument has anything to do with her voice, or maybe she was accomplished at playing a stringed instrument. In any case, she wasn’t as useless as Bashemath/Adah. One son born to her.

    Esau, in my opinion, had only 3 wives who had 2 different names attributed to them. Genesis 36:1-5 ties it all up. I think people like to take the simple and make it complex. Also, I don’t believe that Zibeon and Anah, sons of Seir the Horite should be confused with Anah and her father, Zibeon the Hivite.

    1.)And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite:

    2.)Then went Esau unto Ishmael, and took unto the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife.

    3.)Esau took his wives of the daughters of Canaan; Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Aholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite; And Bashemath Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebajoth.

  4. The picture shows a very young looking Jacob and Esau – who were at least in their 50s (56 according to one chronology that counts Joseph’s “30 years old” when he became prime minister as 30 years since receiving the birthright after Reuben forfeits it in 35:22).

  5. The 3 wife theory assumes that Judith’s mother was a Hivite that came with baggage in the form of a daughter by incest (like Lot). Genesis 26 refers to her Hivite father, Genesis 36 to her adopted Horite father.

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