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 descendents 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 descendents of Abraham's other children and
grandchildren, while the neighboring Moabites and Ammonites (west
of Israel) are described as descendents of Lot, Abraham's nephew.
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 descendents of the other tribes (and modern
Arabs!) believe that the land should belong to them, since they are descendents
of the elder sons (and thus the rightful heirs) of Abraham.
The following charts can help us visualize some of these complex
NOTES: (unless otherwise noted, all biblical references
are from the Book of Genesis)
Terah: from Ur of the Chaldeans; has 3
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 8
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 6 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).
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
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 2 wives + 2
slave-girls), ancestors of the Israelites or "12 Tribes of
The Hebrew Bible describes the "Twelve Tribes of Israel" as
descendents 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
tribes. Each tribe has its own characteristics and eventually obtains its
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 Levi is 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
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 descendents will rule over
Israel forever (2 Sam 7).