Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Wives of Esau

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Wives of Esau

Article excerpt

The Bible mentions Esau's three wives in two different chapters, yet the names given to them are inconsistent. In Genesis 26, Esau is said to have taken Canaanite wives, Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite (Gen. 26:34). In addition, Esau later married Mahalath daughter of Ishmael (Gen. 28:9). However, when the Bible details the genealogy of Esau's descendants in Genesis 36, it gives other names for Esau's wives--Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite, Oholibamah daughter of Anah daughter of Zibeon the Hivite, and Basemath daughter of Ishmael (Gen. 36:2-3). The traditional commentators find various ways of reconciling this discrepancy. At one end of the spectrum, Rashi explains that both accounts discuss the same three women and for various reasons they are referred to by different names. At the other end of the spectrum, some explain that Esau took the wives mentioned in Genesis 36 in addition to those mentioned earlier, making the number of Esau's wives six in all. Other commentators take intermediate approaches, declaring that some of the wives named on the two lists are identical, while others are not.

    Genesis 26:34; 28:9             Genesis 36:2-3

1.  Judith daughter of Beeri the    Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite
    Hittite

2.  Basemath daughter of Elon the   Oholibamah daughter of Anah
    Hittite                         daughter of Zibeon the Hivite

3.  Mahalath daughter of Ishmael    Basemath daughter of Ishmael

RASHI'S APPROACH (THREE WIVES)

Rashi (to Gen. 36:2-3) understands that Esau had only three wives and that the same women are mentioned in both Genesis 26 and 36, but they are referred to by different names. He explains that Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite was previously referred to as Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. She was first called Basemath because she regularly offered incense (besamim) to false gods. Oholibamah daughter of Anah daughter of Zibeon the Hivite was previously referred to as Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite because Esau called her Judith to trick his father Isaac into believing that she had rejected idolatry. (1) He further identifies Basemath daughter of Ishmael with Mahalath daughter of Ishmael, so named because Esau's sins received forgiveness (mehilah) (2) when he married her. Without delving into such hermeneutics, Kimhi (to Gen. 36:2) also understands that the Bible is referring to the same three women. He merely explains that each of Esau's wives had two names and that were listed under different names in different places. (3)

R. Nathan Ashkenazi ben Samson Spiro (1490-1577) (4) brings textual support for Rashi's explanation. When the Bible lists Esau's wives in Genesis 36, it states: Esau took his wives from among the Canaanite women--Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite, Oholibamah daughter of Anah daughter of Zibeon the Hivite, and Basemath daughter of Ishmael (Gen. 36:1-3). Spiro reasons that since the Bible states that "Esau took his wives" (and not simply "Esau took wives"), one can infer that the wives listed here had been mentioned previously. This, according to Spiro, is why Rashi felt compelled to explain that the three wives mentioned in both places are identical. (5)

On two occasions, Josephus refers only to the three wives of Esau mentioned in Genesis 36, namely, Oholibamah, Adah, and Basemath. He does so in the section of his Antiquities which roughly corresponds to Genesis 26 and again in the section corresponding to Genesis 36. (6) Josephus thereby ignores the names mentioned in Genesis 26. He evidently preceded Rashi in his effort to reconcile the two Biblical accounts, assuming that the three wives mentioned in Genesis 36 are identical with those mentioned in Genesis 26.

RASHI'S APPROACH: DIFFICULTIES AND RESOLUTIONS

Several difficulties arise from Rashi's approach. Firstly, if Adah was Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite, why is she listed as first among Esau's wives in Genesis 36, but second in Genesis 26? …

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