Hebrew Genealogy

Each of the various groups that are nested into the Hebrew segmentary system can be designated as a patrilineage in the technical sense of the term, as every "Israelite" could supposedly trace a chain of descent links from his or her father through known male ancestors back to Jacob. Such a detailed recording of descent lines is abundantly illustrated in the first chapters of I Chronicles, where dozens of genealogies are recounted through over twenty generations from the national ancestors to major figures of the Hebrew kingdoms and the Babylonian diaspora. The importance of established pedigrees is also apparent in the Book of Ezra, which recounts the resettlement of Jerusalem by Jewish groups from Persia after the exile. The status claims of several immigrants, including some Levitical priests, are discounted upon reference to a written genealogical record ( Ezra 2:59-63). Another extended genealogical example is provided by the opening passages of the New Testament, which traces Jesus' ancestry through 42 links starting from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Mathew 1).

The recounting of such detailed and extensive ancestry raises the question of how accurate the genealogies were and the extent to which specific links or ancestral founders might have been forgotten, misrepresented, or even invented in the course of time. Examples from other genealogical systems clearly provide instances in which deviations from actual descent are constructed (see Turkish lineage organization). In ancient Israel the problem of authenticity was partially reduced by the practice of maintaining written records. However, even documented genealogies are subject to distortion, especially when they authenticate claims to status, property, and power. Thus there are numerous inconsistencies in the biblical accounts. For example, when Moses allots the major Trans-Jordan region of Gilead to the tribe of Manasseh after the conquest of Amorite territory, a major subdivision of this grant is awarded to Jair, "the son of Manesseh" ( Numbers 32:41). In another passage, however, Jair is placed in an different descent line within the tribe of Judah as the son of Segub, who has inherited territorial rights from his Manassenite mother ( I Chronicles 2:21-23). This patrimony passes on to Jair, but is then reclaimed by "descendants of Machir [Manasseh's son]". The reasons for these variant genealogies cannot be fully reconstructed, but their presence might very well have voiced counterclaims to territory by the two largest and most powerful tribes in the region.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 1995