The Genesis account of Esau’s wives seems to give two lists that differ.

List One

Gen 26:34 And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite.

Gen 28:9 Then went Esau unto Ishmael, and took unto the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife.

List Two

Gen 36:2-3 Esau took his wives of the daughters of Canaan; Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Aholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite; and Bashemath Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebajoth.

Why these seemingly discrepant accounts and details?

A Bible Contradiction of Course

One commentator concludes: “At any rate, the two lists (Genesis 26 and 36) are contradictory, even if the whos, hows, and whys elude us”. Among those who have considered this matter, we can note different individuals who have concluded that Esau’s wives numbered two, three, four, five, or six. The estimable Gordon Wenham, author of the two volumes on Genesis in The Word Commentary series, concludes “… that chapter 36 and 26:34; 28:9 represent different traditions of Esau’s marriages”. While acknowledging the difficulty of reconciling the various accounts of Esau’s wives, we cannot accept such a dismissal of the inspired record.

The Records Tabulated

In attempting to reach a conclusion that accepts the Divine record and reconcile (as best we can) the references to Esau’s wives, we found it helpful to tabulate the relevant verses:

Having reached a conclusion that Esau had four wives we must add some comments as we review the various accounts to support that conclusion.

The Daughters of Heth

The Apostle Paul in Hebrews (we believe him to be the author) says of Esau: “Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright” (Heb 12:16). This man followed his appetites with no regard for Divine principles whatever, so that he became the exemplar for the Apostle of men of that evil stamp.

The Wives of Esau
1Gen 26:34Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite
2Gen 26:34Bashemath the daughter of Elon the HittiteGen 36:2Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite
3Gen 28:9Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son the sister of NebajothGen 36:3Bashemath Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebajoth
4Gen 36:2Aholibamah the daughter of Anah, the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite

 

It is doubtless his propensity to let fleshly appetites prevail that led him to his first two wives among the Canaanites: “Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite” (Gen 26:34). Isaac and Rebekah did not always see eye to eye, but on this matter they certainly did. These Hittite women “were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah” (Gen 26:35). So bitter was that feeling that Rebekah was moved to declare to Isaac, “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these which are of the daughters of the land what good shall my life do me” (Gen 27:46). So these two are “Hittites”, they are “the daughters of Heth”, they are “of the daughters of the land”, and all the more attractive to fleshly Esau on that account.

So when we come across Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite in Genesis 36:2 we have no difficulty in matching her with Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite in 26:34. It was not uncommon for people to have two names, or for a woman to change her name at marriage. It has also been suggested that Adah, meaning “ornament” or “beauty”, was a term of endearment. Therefore the first two wives in Genesis 26:34 and the mention in Genesis 36:2 can be readily reconciled in my view.

The Daughter of Ishmael

Next, it seems, that Esau sought a daughter of Ishmael to marry. Why so? Esau’s thinking is described for us in detail in Genesis 28:6-9. He did want to please his parents, and more particularly thought further blessing might apply. So he concluded that he must marry within the family and make sure that she wasn’t a Canaanite. He may also have thought that whilst Jacob had already left home to comply, he could find someone close by: “Then went Esau unto Ishmael, and took unto the wives which he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth to be his wife” (Gen 28:9). He probably convinced himself that this would find approval by Isaac and Rebekah; but he had little spiritual understanding as to why Ishmael was sent away from Abraham’s camp!

So as we look back at our table we note in Genesis 36:3 that Mahalath is styled Ishmael’s daughter, the sister of Nebajoth; and because this is the identical description given in Genesis 28:9, we can conclude that it is the same woman but with another (second) name, Bashemath.

So Mahalath and Bashemath are the same person. Maybe she already had Bashemath as her second name when Esau sought her out: he must have known Ishmael’s family. Perhaps he thought that his parents would be happy now. They did not like Bashemath the Hittite, but they would just love Bashemath, daughter of Isaac’s own brother.

The Hivite

Genesis 36:2 introduces us to Aholibamah, the daughter of Anah, the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite. We have not met this woman before. Some try to align her to his other wife, Judith, daughter of Beeri, but there is no real evidence to justify this connection. It seems more likely she is an additional wife not referenced previously. By being omitted from the generations of Esau in Genesis 36:1-5 it would appear that she contributed no children to the growing power and influence of Esau’s household and therefore has no place in his family tree.