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.
(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.
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.
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.
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 Beeri||Daughter of Elon||Daughter of Ishmael||Daughter of Anah|
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:
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:
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:
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.
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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