In Gen. 26:34, we are told that Esau, the elder twin son of Isaac and Rebekah, married two local women, Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite. Disgusted with his choice of partner(s), Rebekah insisted that the younger twin, Jacob, be sent back to the old country to her brother Laban to get a more suitable wife. After Jacob’s departure, Esau attempted to mollify his mother by taking yet another wife, though one more closely related to the clan: Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, sister of Nebaioth, his firstborn.
Now, the Hittites referred to in Genesis are not the Hittites we think of when we think of the great Anatolian kingdom that contested with Egypt for mastery of the Levant. Those Hittites were the “children of Hatti,” and their kingdom was at its zenith about 1200 BC. The earlier Hittites in Abraham’s, Isaac’s, and Jacob’s day – c. 1800 BC and forward – were the “children of Heth.” They were, in fact, simply Canaanites. They were members of tribes of the Northwest Semitic Peoples that lived all over the Fertile Crescent and adjacent parts in those days. The Israelites, descendants of Jacob/Israel, were only coming into being at this time; Abraham and his whole family, were, in fact, Northwest Semitic People just like the Canaanites, whose distinct character was in their relation to their God. Culturally, they were much of a muchness, though they had the idea that God had called them to be distinct from the other folk living in Canaan.
Genesis goes on to describe Jacob’s life with his Uncle Laban and his eventual return to Canaan with his wives and children. He is reconciled there with his estranged brother, Esau. And we are told of Isaac’s death and burial. Just before relating Isaac’s death, Genesis pauses to enumerate Jacob’s sons by their various mothers. Immediately after Issac’s death narrative, Genesis goes on (Chapter 36) to describe Esau’s sons by their various mothers. And the text goes on to cover a lot of information about Esau’s tribe, the Edomites, working far ahead before returning to take up the story of Joseph and his brothers.
Genesis 36 is as confusing a rigmarole of names as there is in the Bible. And none of it seems to matter, so we rush through it; however, there are some interesting things here, for those with the patience to tease them apart.
First of all, the wives of Esau are remembered differently. There are three of them: Adah, Oholibamah, and Basemath. No Judith. Judith might be an alternate name for either Adah or Oholibamah; likewise, Judith’s marriage to Esau might not have produced children to carry on his line. Of more consequence, in Gen. 26 Basemath is named the daughter of Elon the Hittite, whereas in Gen. 36 Adah is the daughter of Elon, and Basemath is the daughter of Ishmael. So Basemath would = Mahalath. This matters primarily because those of us with a high view of Scripture have to deal with the embarrassing problem of Scripture contradicting itself.
Now, in ancient genealogical lists generally, important names will be remembered, and their proximity in a list will tend to endure, but the exact relationship may be remembered differently. In addition, sequence will usually be correct, but sometimes “sons” may in fact be grandsons or other relations. People preserve lists because they want to remember how they are related to other people. Remembering Esau’s descendants mattered to Jacob’s descendants, and so they preserved this lore. It helped define who they were – and who they weren’t.
The Edomites and the Israelites had a long history of contact; indeed, it lasted into New Testament times. They were sometimes enemies, but nevertheless, the Edomites were seen by the Israelites as more “our kin” than were, say, the Moabites, another frequently hostile nation in the region. There is some evidence the Edomites felt the same way toward the Israelites: when Moses asked for permission for the Israelites to pass through Edom on their way to the Promised Land, the king of Edom refused permission out of caution, but refrained from attacking them as others did.
Well, let’s take a further look at Genesis 36. Verses 1-5 give Esau’s three wives and their sons. Adah bears Esau one son, Eliphaz. Eliphaz has five sons: Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz. Oholibamah, here said to be the daughter of Anah, the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite (Hivite = Horite, another group of people also likely to be called “Hittites” at this time) bears him three sons: Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. Basemath, here given as the daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth, bears Esau one son, Reuel. Reuel has four sons, Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. All set out fair and square, with no contradictions. Verses 6-8 then explain that Esau (whose nickname was Edom, “Red”) moved to the hill country of Seir, which was later named after him: Edom. He did this so as not to crowd Jacob and his numerous clan, which was generous of him. So far, verses 1-8 could be seen as a single unit, with a single author.
Verses 9-14 restate much of this in slightly different form, going on to describe the next generation, the grandsons of Esau. Eliphaz son of Adah has five sons: Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz. Additionally, Eliphaz has a concubine, Timnah, and she bears a son, Amalek (no doubt the progenitor of the Amalekites, another tribe in the region with whom Israel later had conflict). The sons of Reuel son of Basemath are Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. The sons of Oholibamah are Jeush, Jalam, and Korah.
Then, verses 15-19 describes the chiefs of the sons of Esau. This has much the same information: each grandson is a chief (“duke” in KJV); presumably, each heads up a sub-tribe. But once again, the chiefs of Edom are remembered rather differently. Eliphaz is given another son, Korah (apparently a different Korah from Oholibamah’s son, who is also mentioned in this paragraph). Interestingly, the sons of Eliphaz and Reuel – the grandsons of Esau – are remembered as chiefs, along with their fathers, but Oholibamah’s sons are not given grandsons in the list. Did they not have descendants of sufficient importance to be “chiefs?” Were their descendants not considered mainstream Edomites (perhaps they lived on the margins of the territory)? We don’t know. But in describing the sons and grandsons of Esau as “chiefs,” we are seeing something like the tribal formation of Israel, where people divided up into Levites, Benjaminites, Danites, etc. Esau, like his brother Jacob, was the founder of a tribal confederacy.
Then, in verses 20-30, we have a complicated genealogy of a tribe that is not part of the line of Abraham. Seir the Horite gives his name to Mt. Seir and the Hill Country of Seir. This is, roughly, the land just south of the Dead Sea, and more or less to be identified with the land of Edom in ancient times. From the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba lay Edom. When Esau moved there, it was inhabited by Horites (= Hivites), who are also “people of the land,” Northwest Semitic Peoples like the Canaanites (though not, as it happens, living in the land of Canaan). Why their genealogy should be preserved is a puzzle. Perhaps it is because, once again, Esau married into this tribal confederation, and his descendants basically took it over; therefore, the Israelites were at some pains to remember their connections with, and distinctions from, this people.
Seir has seven sons listed: Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan. Lotan has two sons, Hori and Heman; more interestingly, he has a sister, Timnah. Timnah is not said to be the sister of the other sons of Seir. She could be their half-sister, sharing a mother with Lotan only; or she could be the daughter of a different father, sharing a mother with Lotan. Probably the former. In any case, Timna is quite possibly the same as Timnah, the concubine of Eliphaz and mother of Amalek. If she is not, she is another woman important enough to be named of whom no information has survived, which is extremely odd and frustrating. Assuming she is the mother of Amalek, here is another connection that was once considered important to preserve.
Shobal has four sons: Alvan, Manahath, Ebul, Shepho, and Onam. Zibeon has two sons, Aiah, and Anah, and a bit of identifying info is given for Anah: he found the hot springs in the wilderness (presumably a location of considerable importance thereafter).
Anah is then said to have two children: Dishon (the father of Hemdan, Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran) and his sister Oholibamah. Her we have met before. She is the wife of Esau, and her genealogy has already been given. Now, the Anah and Dishon who have already been given as the sons of Seir are then skipped over to get to the other two sons of Seir: Ezar (father of Bilhan, Zaavan, and Akan) and Dishan (father of Uz and Aran). It is highly unlikely that there are two Anahs and two Dishons. A confusion of generations in the record is likely. Zibeon is an important figure; his son Anah becomes another important figure, important enough to be ranked as a son of Seir, not just a grandson. And something of the same sort has happened to Dishon, although whether he is a son of Anah or Seir is up for grabs. In any case, this level of detail is given in order to show how Esau’s family ties into the clan structure of Seir’s descendants. Eventually, the Horites and Edomites will be considered one people.
Verses 31-39 now give detail on the kings of Edom. Edom is no longer merely a tribal confederacy, but a kingdom. This implies a certain level of social organization. The author makes a fascinating comment in verse 31: “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.” This means that the person who wrote that line was writing from a time after the institution of the Israelite monarchy. Whether he is to be considered an author, or merely an editor, is an open question, but it is plain that the Book of Genesis in its final form could not have been finished before at least the reign of King Saul (and, of course, might have been completed significantly later).
Now, this material about the kings of Edom “feels” much later than the early “family chronicle” material of Esau the much-married. I think we may suppose (absent other evidence) that the earlier part(s) of Genesis 36 are quite old, preserving names because they are inherited material, yet no longer being able to tell quite why some of those names are included. The later writer or editor does not feel at liberty to change anything in them; however, he does feel capable of adding further material, even to the point of making his historical note about the relative speed of consolidation of Edom and Israel from tribal confederacies into kingdoms.
The kings are given in order. The writer lists eight kings, including their names, the names of their fathers, and their home bases. The last king’s wife is named, along with her mother and grandmother! No further information is given on these women, but they must have been a remarkable set of women to be so remembered. Perhaps this king married into a matriarchal priestesshood or something. Whatever the case, though, none of the kings in this list is related to any others. Kingship in ancient Edom seems to have been like Judgeship in pre-kingdom Israel. The kings may have been elected, or arisen charismatically, or even overthrown their predecessors (though this is not mentioned). In any case, there is no dynasty. None of the kings is even given a descent from Esau, nor are their patronymics or locations much use in tying them into the previous genealogy. This is another sign of a break in transmission: the earlier material is one thing, but it is handed down from of old; the current writer does not know how the one connects to the other.
King Saul warred against Edom and subdued the nation, so presumably there were no more independent kings after that. Instead, we have in verses 40-43, a listing of “the chiefs of Esau” (presumably as they were in the last writer/editor’s day). They are “according to their families and their dwelling places.” These would be the chief divisions of Edomites under Israelite (and later, Judahn) domination. There are some names preserved from the past: these would be communities conscious of their tribal descent. Other names are new, perhaps the names of towns. In any case, the Edomites’ story ends here, as a cluster of remnant communities incorporated into the kingdom centered on Jerusalem.
If I were going to guess, I would say that the material in Genesis 36 has at least three layers. The earliest paragraphs on the family of Esau and his removal to the hill country of Seir (later, Edom) comes right after the recapitulation of Jacob’s family. It reads like a family chronicle handed down within the family. At some point, however, more material has been added from (probably) an Edomite source, preserving the original tribal confederacy that the descendants of Esau took over. And then, a third writer – and possibly the final editor of this material, writing from a time at least after the inauguration of King Saul – perhaps within the reign of David or Solomon – lists the kings of Edom up to the loss of their kingdom and the chieftainships that remained under the thumb of Jerusalem.
How old is the oldest material here? Some critics are willing to consider that it dates back to a time before the descent into Egypt, maybe c. 1600 BC. Perhaps it was originally composed in cuneiform on clay tablets. The latest material, however, would be definitely post-Conquest – indeed, post-monarchy, c. 1000 BC at least. Later on, there were “kings” of Edom referred to in the Bible. Some were probably governors appointed by Jerusalem, but Edom never really became part of Israel or Judah, and was always ripe for revolt. The Edomites helped Nebuchadnezzar plunder Jerusalem, for instance. Some “kings” may have been indigenous leaders rebelling against Israelite domination. The final state of Genesis 36 seems to be describing Edom in the writer/editor’s day, so I wouldn’t put the final composition of this part past, say, Solomon’s reign.
These suggestions about how the history of the Edomites was put together for the book of Genesis shows how layered the textual history of the book is. It suggests that some parts are extremely old, but later additions and edits have been made. And the question about when the final edit of the whole Book of Genesis was done is still another question, though I would guess by the end of Solomon’s reign; the state of the original parts and how they were combined and edited is a whole other question.