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Esau's genealogy


The purpose of this page is to consider the genealogies of Esau given in Genesis with particular reference to their date. Genesis 36 contains a summary of Esau's descendants, together with a list of some early kings of Edom "before any Israelite king reigned". The mention of Bozrah in verse 33 has led to the suggestion that Genesis as a whole is of late composition, since Bozrah only attained prominence in the Iron Age.

The proposal here is that Genesis 36 (and the near-copy in 1 Chronicles 1) does not signal late composition for the whole of the book. However, it is indeed a later interpolation into the main text of Genesis, for reasons to be outlined below. The suggested date is thought more likely to be in the transition period from late Judges to early monarchy. It is possible that the original source was an Edomite tradition about their origins and leadership. The early part of the chapter, listing Esau's immediate descendants, may indeed date from approximately the indicated time, but the kinglist, spanning 8 successive reigns, clearly goes well beyond this.

The sections below consider in turn the names of Esau's wives, the general treatment of Esau, and the generations involved.

Esau's wives

The names of Esau's wives are listed differently in the two relevant portions of Genesis, suggesting a separate information source. In chapters 26 and 28 we read:
  1. Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite and
  2. Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite, later followed by
  3. Mahalath sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael
(pictorial representations of the genealogies are given later). In Genesis 36 we read:
  1. Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite and
  2. Oholibamah daughter of Anah and granddaughter of Zibeon the Hivite, later followed by
  3. Basemath daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth
For reference, the names have the following meanings: So there are three main possibilities. We could be dealing here with:
  1. Contradictory accounts, or
  2. a larger collection of wives with only some mentioned in each list, or
  3. different names for the same women.
The suggestion here is that there were in fact 4 wives (which would parallel Jacob's four wives). They are:
  1. Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and
  2. Adah also known as Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite, and
  3. Oholibamah daughter of Anah and granddaughter of Zibeon the Hivite (Horite in Gen. 38), later followed by
  4. Mahalath also known as Basemath sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael.
With this supposition, Adah and Mahalath would be the original (foreign) names for the women, with Basemath given as an alternative. Apart from the possibility that - like other Biblical individuals - their given names were intended to reflect something of their role, there is an alternative speculation that their role was religious. Within this model, Oholibamah would have served as priestess, with one and later a second assistant given new names reflecting their religious duties. It should be emphasised that this is a speculative reconstruction.

Esau's move to Seir

Another clue that the document represents a separate tradition is in the different accounts of Esau's motive for moving. Within the main narrative, Jacob outwits Esau on several occasions and is then forced to flee to Harran to avoid any repercussions. Esau marries and moves to Seir in deliberate rejection of his parent's wishes. When Jacob finally returns Esau has already moved. The general impression one gets of Esau from this is unfavourable - he is deceived by his brother, vindictive, and keen to disobey his parents. The Genesis 36 tradition, on the other hand, presents him in a more favourable light. He moves to Seir to avoid his flocks and Jacob's over-consuming the resources of the land, just as Abraham and Lot had voluntarily separated a little earlier. There is no reference to family discord. This suggests a source favourable to Esau and so probably Edomite in origin.

The generations

The first 30 verses of the chapter consider the immediate descendants of Esau, and their own family lines. They do not span a time beyond the other lifetimes mentioned in Genesis and are presumably contemporary with the lives of Jacob and Joseph. However, the later verses span 8 successive reigns of rulers, none of which appear to be related to each other. The method of selection of ruler is not mentioned at all, so we are left to speculate whether it was done by common agreement, proof of worth (perhaps military prowess), or external decision. Each ruler is given a different town of origin, so it is clear there is no fixed capital city in Edom at this time, and no single town recognised as definite leader. However, the fact of urban living is clear. This kind of urban settlement, which archaeologically is attested through Middle and Late Bronze, mirrors the Egyptian records of campaigns into this region. The rulers appear to follow each other with no gaps, but in the light of other genealogies it should not necessarily be assumed that this is strictly true.

None of the names can be matched with certainty elsewhere in the Bible, but perhaps Beor, father of Bela (verse 32) is the same individual as the father of Balaam (Numbers 22). If so (and again it must be said this is speculative), Bela would be contemporary with the Exodus, and the subsequent rulers would fit alongside the Judges era. There is no connection supplied by the writer between the names in the earlier part of the chapter and this part, so the time-gap involved is unknown. Also, the exact extent of the time interval cannot be determined without knowing the lengths of reigns and whether there were in fact any gaps not mentioned. In light of the fact that verse 31 "before any Israelite king reigned" can also be rendered, "before an Israelite king reigned over them" could be taken to mean that the sequence runs up until the defeat of Edom by David (2 Samuel 8:13-14) or Solomon (1 Kings 11:14-22). This would be supported by the fact that the Edomite leader fighting against Solomon was called Hadad, just as the last-named ruler of Edom in Genesis 36:39. It is likely that this is a dynastic name, indicating that Edom had at last settled into a family succession model of rule.

In short, the kinglist suggests a time period roughly parallel to that of the Judges era, and in its general flavour is supported by other pieces of evidence. The time frame extends well beyond the period covered by the rest of Genesis. Combining all these features, it is reasonable to suppose that it is a document retrieved at a rather later date and included here as being of relevance to Esau. The main narrative is restarted in chapter 37.


From Genesis 26-28

Genesis 26-28 genealogy of Esau

From Genesis 36

Genesis 36 genealogy of Edomites