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Were Esau's wives Hittites from Canaan? Was his third wife, Mahalath, more acceptable to Isaac and Rebekah?

If Esau's wives were Hittite and Canaanite, does that mean they were Hittites from Canaan? Like we're Joneses from Illinois (Joneses and Illinoians)? Did Esau believe that his third wife (Mahalath) would be more acceptable to Isaac and Rebekah? I take it she wasn't a Canaanite since she lived in a different area. I had always assumed Esau married the wrong girl again to spite his parents since they took more interest in who Jacob was selecting for a wife – I never thought Esau was trying to please them. 9/7/09

We will begin with a very brief quiz: The article in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible on Canaanites is replete with the words “often,” “may have,” “in all probability,” “most likely,” “opinion,” “if,” and so on. The article on Hittites uses words like “historical enigma” and “plausible.” Clearly, not much is certain about the Canaanites and Hittites. Instead trying to give you a detailed summary of these two articles, I’m going to stick with a very high-level answer that seems to be well supported by both of them: Yes.

We all know that Washington was the Father of Our Country, many of us know that he had no children, and a few of us know that Illinois is named for the Illini. The original Illini were completely wiped out by another Indian tribe (not by the white settlers), but there are nevertheless a few hundred thousand living Illini – alums of the University of Illinois. This is the exact sense in which the Bible says, “X was the father of the X-ites.” Although in most cases X is recorded as having had a lot of kids, it’s not always clear from the Biblical text whether these kids are children, grandchildren, adopted children, or assimilated or spiritual children (which in this little comparison would be like foster children). Thus Abraham is the genetic “father” or ancestor of most Jews, many Muslims, and some Christians, but he is the spiritual father of the entire Judeo-Christian and Islamic communities. Abraham is the genetic ancestor of many non-Jews as well (remember the 10 Lost Tribes?), but they don’t count in the “Father-of-Our-Country” sense.

The “land of Canaan” is everything west of the Jordan River (see map). It probably also included some territory north of this, say, everything west of the Orantes River, which is in the far west of modern-day Syria. Now, you can judge how big an area this was in two ways: by its size in miles, or its size in travel times. In miles, the place is tiny. For those of us who live in the Western United States – think Connecticut. Why is it a State? Why isn’t it a County?? On the other hand, the travel times were much longer than they are today. If you had, say, women, children, flocks, and herds, you might make 10 miles a day, top speed. In that sense, Canaan is about the size of the East Coast of the United States by car – several days or maybe a couple weeks from one end to the other. Just as the East Coast is divided into quite a few States, so Canaan was divided into quite a few kingdoms. These little kingdoms were united by a common language somewhat like modern English – mostly they could understand each other, but sometimes not – and religion, ditto. They were divided by distance, terrain, wars, and off-and-on alliances.

So, who was the Father of Canaan? Not surprisingly, Canaan, who was the son of Ham (Genesis 10:6), who was the son of Noah (Genesis 10:1). Long before the time of the Jews, the sons of Canaan were as follows: When the Jews got around to invading Canaan, or Palestine, to claim the Promised Land, seven nations figured prominently in the list of peoples whom they were to displace: the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, and Girgashites. Heth was the Father of the Hittites.

So. Everybody living west of the Jordan at the time of the Israelite return from Egypt was a Canaanite. These Canaanites were subdivided into many ethno-cultural groups, of which the Canaanites and Hittites were two. Yes, indeed, Esau’s first two wives were “Hittites from Canaan,” just as you are “Joneses, or Illinoians, from Illinois.” Now, of the seven nations, the Hittites seem from a number of scriptural references to be the best-assimilated into the Jews. For example, Solomon had Hittite wives (1 Kings 11:1), and Uriah the Hittite was a high-ranking military officer under David (2 Samuel 11 and 12).

However, Esau’s third wife wasn’t a Canaanite at all. She was an Ishmaelite, i.e., from the tribe of Ishmael, who was the elder son of Abraham and the older half-brother of Isaac. Mahalath was just as close a blood relative as Rachel and Leah, although Ishmael had been specifically excluded from the Covenant (Genesis 17:18-21).

I’ve always read Genesis 28:8-9 to say that Esau married Mahalath to please his parents: Reading it again with your question in mind, I see that the text is not explicit about his reason. Therefore I could easily be wrong. I Googled “rabbi Mahalath,” and it turns out that the rabbis are divided along the exactly the same lines: some think Esau married her to please his parents, and some think he did it from base motives. (see Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael by Tamar Kadari.)

As we have seen many times before, it doesn’t pay to be too dogmatic about these things.


Copyright 2009, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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