Various biblical passages describe the complex inter-relationships
in the family of Abraham (originally named Abram). Contrary to modern Western customs, it
was acceptable in ancient times to marry close family relatives, including cousins
and nieces. It was evidently also common for men to have more than one wife, and
even to have children with women who were not their wives (slaves or concubines).
For example, Abraham's first son was the child of his wife's slave-girl; and one
biblical tradition even says that his wife, Sarah, was actually his half-sister.
Similarly, the twelve sons of Jacob have four different mothers: the two wives of
Jacob (who are his first cousins) and two other women (slave-girls of his wives).
A prominent feature of the biblical texts is also the explanation of tribal
origins through various genealogies. Thus, the Israelites (the twelve
tribes of Israel) see themselves as the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob,
son of Isaac, son of Abraham. In contrast, groups like the Ishmaelites and
Edomites (to the south and southeast of the Israelites) are said to be descendants
of Abraham's other children and grandchildren, while the neighboring Moabites
and Ammonites (west of Israel) are described as descendants of Lot, Abraham's
Another important aspect of the biblical stories is what could be called family
rivalries and disputes, esp. when younger sons usurp the inheritance rights
of their older brothers. Thus, Abraham's inheritance is passed on to Isaac (not the
first-born Ishmael), and then to Jacob (not his elder brother Esau).
Combining all the above points helps to explain both the close relationships and
the bitter rivalries between the ancient Israelites and the neighboring Semitic peoples.
The Israelites (and modern Jews!) believe that the promises God made to Abraham (esp.
that his descendants shall possess the Promised Land forever) were legitimately
handed on to them through Isaac and Jacob (as described in the Bible), while the
descendants of the other tribes (and modern Arabs!) believe that the land should
belong to them, since they are descendants of the elder sons (and thus the rightful
heirs) of Abraham.
The following charts can help us visualize some of these complex relationships:
NOTES: (unless otherwise noted, all biblical references
are from the Book of Genesis)
Terah: from Ur of the Chaldeans; has three sons;
wife not named (11:26-32; cf. Luke 3:34).
Haran: dies in Ur before his father dies;
wife not named; son Lot, daughters Milcah & Iscah (11:27-28).
Nahor: marries Milcah,
daughter of his brother Haran (11:29); have eight sons, incl. Bethuel (22:20-24).
Abram: main character of Gen 12–25; recipient
of God's promises; name changed to ABRAHAM (17:5);
sons Ishmael (by Hagar) and Isaac (by Sarah); after Sarah's death, takes another
wife, Keturah, who has six sons (25:1-4), including
Midian, ancestor of the Midianites (37:28-36).
Lot: son of Haran, thus nephew of Abram,
who takes care of him (11:27–14:16; 18:17–19:29); wife and two daughters never named;
widowed daughters sleep with their father and bear sons, who become ancestors of
the Moabites and Ammonites (19:30-38).
Sarai: Abram's wife, thus Terah's daughter-in-law
(11:29-31); Abram also calls her his "sister," which seems deceptive in
one story (12:10-20); but in another story Abram insists she really is his half-sister
(his father's daughter by another wife; 20:1-18); originally childless, but in old
age has a son, Isaac (16:1–21:7); name changed to SARAH
(17:15); dies and is buried in Hebron (23:1-20).
Hagar: Sarah's Egyptian slave-girl; mother
of Abram's first son, Ishmael; much conflict with Sarah after his birth; even more
after the birth of Sarah's son, Isaac (16:1–21:21).
Ishmael: first-born son of Abraham, by Hagar
(16:1–17:27); wife or wives never named, but has 12 sons (25:12-16), the ancestors
of 12 tribes of Ishmaelites (37:25-28). - see below
Isaac: second son of Abraham, by wife Sarah,
despite her old age (17:15-21; 21:1–35:29); marries Rebekah, who has twin sons,
Esau & Jacob.
Betheul: youngest son of Nahor & Milcah;
wife unnamed; father of Rebekah (22:23) and Laban (24:29).
Rebekah: daughter of Bethuel (22:23); becomes
wife of Isaac (24:15–25:20); favors their younger son.
Laban:son of Bethuel, brother of
Rebekah; has extensive interactions with Jacob (24:29–31:55).
Esau: elder twin son of Isaac & Rebekah
(25:25); names of wives differ in two traditions (26:34 & 28:9 vs. 36:2-3);
one is a daughter of Ishmael; his sons are ancestors of the Edomites (36:1-43).
Jacob: younger twin son of Isaac & Rebekah
(25:26); conflicts with Esau (25:27–27:46); marries Leah and Rachel, daughters of
his uncle Laban (27:43–29:30); name changed to ISRAEL
(32:28); has 12 sons (with two wives + two slave-girls), ancestors of the Israelites
or "12 Tribes of Israel" (29:31–49:33). - see below
Curiosity about the ages of the Patriarchs:
Abraham lived 175 years (Gen 25:7), which equals 7 x 5²
Isaac lived 180 years (Gen 35:28), which equals 5 x 6²
Jacob lived 147 years (Gen 47:28), which equals 3 x 7²
The Bible says very little else about the "Twelve Tribes of Ismaelites" aside from naming the twelve sons of Ishmael in Gen 25:12-16 and again in 1 Chron 1:29-31.
Gen 25:12-16 – "These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah's slave-girl, bore to Abraham./ These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, / Mishma, Dumah, Massa, / Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. / These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes."
1 Chron 1:29-31 – "These are their genealogies: the firstborn of Ishmael, Nebaioth; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, / Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, / Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael."
Adbeel, Massa, Kedemah - not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible
Mibsam & Mishma - not mentioned elsewhere, but different people with the same name appear in 1 Chron 4:25-26
Hadad - not mentioned elsewhere, but several other biblical characters are named Hadad, Ben-Hadad, Hadadezer, etc.
Other biblical references to some of the sons of Ishmael (aside from Gen 25:12-16 and 1 Chr 1:29-31)
Nebaioth - also in Gen 28:9; 36:3; Isa 60:7
Kedar - also in Ps 120:5; Prov 21:4; Songs 1; Isa 21:16; 21:17; 42:11; 60:7; Jer 2:10; 49:28; Ezek 27:21
Dumah - also in Josh 15:52; Isa 21:11
Tema - also in Job 6:19; Isa 21:14; Jer 25:23
Jetur & Naphish - also in 1 Chron 5:19
The Hebrew Bible describes the "Twelve Tribes of Israel" as descendants
of the twelve sons of Jacob (also named Israel), with four different mothers. The
births of the twelve sons (and the significance of their names) are
described in chronological order in the book of Genesis (29:31–30:24 & 35:16-20).
The Bible contains several different listings of the twelve
tribes. Each tribe has its own characteristics and eventually obtains its own
Reuben is the first-born son, and thus sometimes exercises a leadership
role among this brothers; but he later loses favor and prominence.
The tribe of Joseph (through his sons Manasseh and Ephraim)
becomes the largest and most prominent by the time the Israelites enter the Promised
Land and divide it among themselves.
The tribe of Leviis uniquely important, not only because of Moses and
Aaron, but since they become the priestly tribe (all the sons of Levi
are priests, while members of any other tribe cannot be priests). The Levites do
not receive a separate territory of their own, but rather live scattered among all
the other tribes, where they serve as priests for the whole people.
Although the first king of Israel (Saul) is from the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe
of Judah becomes known as the royal tribe, due to the promise
God makes to King David that his descendants will rule over Israel forever (2 Sam
Jacob's twelve sons are first mentioned in the order of their births, in Genesis 29:31–30:24 & 35:16-20.
Leah(elder wife): 1) Reuben, 2) Simeon, 3) Levi, 4) Judah; later also 9) Issachar, 10) Zebulun
Bilhah (Rachel's slave): 5) Dan, 6) Naphtali
Zilpah (Leah's slave): 7) Gad, 8) Asher
Rachel (younger wife): 11) Joseph, 12) Benjamin
Manasseh & Ephraim – sons of Joseph, whose descendants figure prominently in the later history of Israel
Moses and Aaron – leaders of the Israelites at the time of their migration out of Egypt and wandering in the Sinai desert
Kings David & Solomon – the two greatest rulers of the united Kingdom of Israel, from about 1100 to 930 BCE
Tribe of Levi – becomes known as the “priestly tribe,” since all cultic & temple officials had to belong to this tribe
Tribe of Judah – becomes known as the “royal tribe,” since all later Kings of Judah were descendants of King David