Sagas of the Hebrew Patriarchs

One of the most complete narrative accounts of Hebrew descent and marriage occurs in Genesis in the details of the lives of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These well known legends provide illustrations of some basic principles of the ancient Hebrew social order along with some contradictory evidence on the dynamics of endogamy, inheritance, and succession.

Genealogy of the Hebrew Patriarchs and Matriarchs

  1. This diagram is based on a figure provided by Doug White and Paul Jorion (1992)
  2. A few comments on the above diagram are necessary, since I have had to introduce conventions to deal with the complexity of the biblical account.
    • The usual equal sign symbol for marriage is replaced with a horizontal line running beneath and connecting husbands and wives. Thus Terah is indicated as having two wives; Abraham is married to Sarah and Hagar.
    • Upward running diagonal lines indicate cross-generational marriages or sexual encounters. Thus Nahor is married to his brother's daughter and Isaac, to his father's brother's son's daughter.
    • Counter-running diagonal lines indicate descent from a couple who have married across generations. Thus Bethuel is Nahor's and Milkah's son, and Jacob and Esau are children of Isaac and Rebekah.
  3. All people shaded in blue fall in to a single patrilineage descended from Terah.

Summary of events depicted.

The Old Testament account of Hebrew origins begins with Terah of the Chaldean city of Ur (in Mesopotamia) and his three sons: Haran, Nahor, and Abraham. ( Genesis 11:24-32). Haran has a son, Lot, by an unspecified wife. Nahor marries Milkah, who is noted as Haran's daughter. Whether the Haran mentioned here is Nahor's brother is unclear, since Nahor's father-in-law is identified as the father of Milkah and Iscah, but not of Lot. Abraham is married to Sarah. No mention is given of Sarah's parentage, but later in different Genesis passages, Abraham tells both Pharaoh ( Genesis 12:10-20) and King Abimelech ( Genesis 20) that Sarah is his sister to avoid the displeasure of these rulers, both of whom show a sexual interest in her. When Abimelech confronts him with his deception, Abraham answers that Sarah is indeed his wife but also his half sister by Terah's second marriage.

The three brothers experience divergent fates. Haran dies; Abraham migrates to Canaan, taking Haran's son, Lot, with him; Nahor remains in Mesopotamia, fathering one son, Bethuel, who in turn has two children Laban and Rebekah. ( Genesis 22)

In Canaan, God promises Abraham that he will become the father of a great nation, but Abraham and Sarah fail to have children. Sarah gives her husband her Egyptian hand maid, Hagar, who bears a son, Ishmael. Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac. Although Ishmael is his eldest son, Abraham designates Isaac as his heir and successor. Isaac's descendents continue in the line of Hebrew descent. Ishmael's form a separate and distinct people, the Ishmaelites. ( Genesis 16)

In the meantime, Lot has separated from Abraham and gone to Sodom. Sodom (and Gemorrah) are destroyed because of their iniquities, but Lot, because of his virtue is allow to escape with his wife and two daughters. His wife dies along the way. Lot flees into the hills with his daughters, who trick him into sleeping with them. Each daughter gives birth to a son, who become the ancestors of the "accursed" Moabites and Ammonites. ( Genesis 19)

Isaac grows to manhood and when he is ready to marry, Abraham and Sarah make contact with their kinspeople in Mesopotamia to avoid a marriage with the local Canaanites. Isaac is quickly linked up with Rebekah, his patrilateral parallel cousin. Isaac and Rebekah have twin sons, Esau, the eldest by a few minutes, and Jacob. Esau trades his birthright to Jacob for food. He later marries two local Canaanite women, who displease his parents, but eventually regains favour by marrying his parallel cousin, Ishmael's daughter, who is refered to as Mahatath in one passage and Bashemath in another. Isaac dies, but just before his death is deceived by Rebekah and Jacob and gives his blessing and patrimony to Jacob rather than to his eldest son. Fearing Esau's wrath, Jacob flees to his mother's brother's (Laban's) house in Mesopotamia. There he contracts with Laban to work for seven years as bride service for his (parallel) cousin Rachel. After the term of service, Laban insists that Jacob marry Leah, his eldest daughter, and Jacob has to serve another seven years to eventually earn Rachel's hand (Genesis 24-29).

Jacob returns to Canaan and is reconciled with Esau. Esau becomes the ancestor of a separate people the Edomites. Jacob becomes the progenitor of the Hebrew people through twelve sons born from Leah, Rachel, and their two handmaids. Each son, except Joseph, becomes the ancestor of a tribe of Israel, which bears his name. Joseph's descendents are divided into two tribes, Manasseh and Ephraim, after his two sons, as a consequence their adoption by Jacob ( Genesis 48). In his final blessing, Jacob gives special recognition to Ephraim and his progeny, in spite of Joseph's protest that it should be rightly be given to Manasseh, as the eldest son.

In addition to his twelve sons, Jacob also fathers a daughter, Dinah (Genesis 34). No account is given of any of Dinah's children or descendants.

Themes for discussion

  1. The divisions among the Israelites and their immediate neighbours and among the tribes of Israel are modeled after a segmentary descent system.
  2. The normal succession rule of primogeniture is consistently broken;
  3. The delineation of the Israelites as a favoured peoples is determined through a process of lineage endogamy (inmarriage) rather than primogeniture through
  4. Collateral lines are disqualified because of exogamy (outmarriage), as in the cases of Ishmael, the son of an Egyptian, and Esau, who marries Canaanite wives.
  5. Collateral lines are also disqualified because of incest, as in the case of Lot and his daughters.
  6. Incestuous marriages also occur within the main line of succession

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 1995
Last updated: September 2003