Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Need for Clarification re. Esau’s Wives

As we studied Genesis chapter 36, I realized that a need for a potential clarification arose regarding the number and the names of Esau’s wives. We step back for a moment to address that issue.

In Genesis 26:34 and then again in 28:9, we read that Esau’s wives were as follows: Judith (the daughter of Berri the Hittite); Basemath (the daughter of Elon the Hittite); and Mahalath (the daughter of Ishmael and the sister of Nebaioth).

Yet, in Genesis 36:2,3 his wives are recorded as follows: Adah (the daughter of Elon the Hittite); Oholibamah (the daughter of Anah and the granddaughter of Zibeon the Hivite); and Basemath (as above).

Basemath is mentioned in both accounts. However, Judith and Mahalath are mentioned in the first account and not the second, while the reverse is true for Adah and Oholibamah. So, is there a contradiction in the book of Genesis? If not, how can the differences be explained?

The literature on this is extensive and interesting. Here are some possibilities as I see them:
1. One of the early wives died and was replaced, so there were still three at the time the genealogy in Genesis 36 was written down.
2. Esau divorced one of his wives and remarried, so again there were still three at the time the genealogy in Genesis 36 was written.
3. While five different wives’ names are mentioned (Judith, Basemath, Mahalath, Adah, Oholibamah), one and/or two of those names have alternative names or nicknames (common in the Patriarchial Era).
4. A combination of two or three of the above possibilities.
5. The author did not record all of the wives in one or both occasions.
6. There were in fact four wives, a concept that would nicely parallel Jacob’s four wives.

The last suggestion above would work out like this:
1. Judith – group one original from Genesis 26:34
2. Adah -- group two, Genesis 36:2 (also known as Basemath, daughter of Elon the Hittite – group one original from Genesis 26:34)
3. Oholibamah – group two, Genesis 36:2
4. Mahalath -- group one, but from Genesis 28:9 (also known as Basemath, daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth – group two, Genesis 36:3.

The above-supposed scenario would likely mean that in the case of Wife 2 and 4, Adah and Mahalath were their original foreign names, and Basemath their nickname or alternative. No other Israelite woman used these original names to our knowledge.

I have spent several hours working through all the possibilities. There are some interesting points to note. For example:
 There is some support in historical literature for the use of nicknames.
 Basemath (named in the first group of references) and Adah (in the second both have as their kinship reference “the daughter of Elon the Hittite”, leading us to at least entertain the possibility they are one and the same.
 Mahalath (named in the first group of references) and the Basemath (in the second) are both referred to as “the daughter of Ishmael and the sister of Nebaioth”, leading us to entertain the possibility that they are one and the same.

I have decided that one cannot come to any conclusive decision, only conjectures. I do not even want to venture an opinion. My study, however, has led me to believe that all four possibilities are certainly probable if not possible. While some may not be satisfied with that, I am. While the idea of ‘four’ wives has some merit, the problem I face is twofold. First, the text especially that given with the genealogy record seems to clearly favor three wives. Second, in total we are given five different names in the text but only three at a time. Four sounds like a possible good compromise. All suggested possibilities require some restructuring of that offered by scripture. In addition, I have discovered that compromises do not always lead to the absolute truth. For that, we’ll need to wait for the end of our journey. Feel free to ask the question when you get ‘there’.

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  1. Maybe this is why the NT advocates that leaders by "the husband of one wife". They're too hard to keep track of!!

  2. "For starters anyway. Blessings."