Esau’s Wives – Cracking the biblical enigma

Why does the Torah list two different sets of wives for Esau?

Peter Paul Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1624 (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Peter Paul Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1624
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)

In Parashat Toldot we are told that at the age of 40 Esau took two Hittite wives: Yehudit Bat Beeri and Bosmat Bat Ailon (Gen, 26,34). Yet in Vayishlach we are told that they were called Ada Bat Eilon the Hittite and Oholivama Bat Ana Bat Tzivon the Hivite. So which version is correct? 

Ibn Ezra writes that they are actually the same women but have multiple names and he claims that this is common in the bible (See Samuel’s sons Divrei Hayamim 6,13, see also Ibn Ezra Br. 6, 19 and Ralbag on this verse). We know as well that Yitro according to the midrash had seven names (Mechilta deRabbi Yishmael, Yitro 1). However one wonders if the names might have been connotations relating to different circumstances. We also find that the midrash does not shy away from arguing that names are at times altered in the Tanach for educational purposes, as in the case of Mahlon and Khilyon in the Book of Ruth, of which the Talmud argues that they were not their actual names. (Bava Batra 91A) (Thank goodness. Can you imagine naming your children disease and devastation?)

But what of Esau’s wives?

Rashi has a tendency, as do our sages, to present Esau in the most negative light. Rashi (on Gen. 25,28) claims that Esau would pretend to be overly righteous and ask Isaac how to remove the tithes from salt (which does not grow from the ground and therefore is exempt). He continues this condemnation of Esau, comparing him to a since who shows his splits hooves to show that he is kosher (Rashi Gen. 26,34). Where in the actual text do we see such an attitude on his part to try to win over his father’s favor by false righteousness? I think this puzzle might provide an answer. Esau gets married at exactly the age of 40, which according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra was to mimic his father (Gen. 25,20). Concerning his wives’ names; let us assume for the moment that the actual names are those found in Parashat Beshalach, what then would be the reason the name changes? Esau wants to marry and find favor in his father’s eyes. He might have noticed that his father and grandfather married within the family but that does not seem to be a factor for him. However, the names of the wives are not accidental either. If one were to look for the two main events that shaped Isaac’s life that would have to be the Akeida, in which not only was Abraham tested to see if he would willing to give up his son for God’s command, but also for Isaac who was 37 years old (Rashi) or 13 (Ibn Ezra) and would have had to help his aged father bind his hands and feet (the meaning of Akeida) on the altar in preparation for the his own sacrifice. 

There is much to say about the trauma of the Akeida and how it shaped Isaac’s spirituality making him an insular and slightly removed from earthly affairs. The second major event in his life as is described in Genesis is his meeting Rebecca for the first time. It is the first time that love between a man and a woman is mentioned in the Bible (Gen. 24, 67). Rebecca is one of the few human beings who is able to penetrate into Isaac’s insular world, despite her own fear of being from an inferior pedigree (see Gen. 25, 22 and Rashi 3). These two experiences shape Isaac’s behavior; the Akeida, as mentioned shapes his form of belief to of one of Divine reverence (Yirat HaRommut, “And he swore by the fear of Isaac his father,” Gen. 31, 53) and the connection with Rebecca taught him love of God and man, all men, even those souls who seem totally lost, like Esau, who need their father’s understanding and love (Gen. 25,28).

 SO WHICH version is  correct?  (credit: Sigmund/Unsplash)) SO WHICH version is correct? (credit: Sigmund/Unsplash))

Esau knows this and plays on these two events. The first wife is named Yehudit Bat Beeri. Yehudit like Yehuda has the first three letters of God’s four letter name (the tetragrammaton). It means, like Yehuda, that one is praising God (see Gen. 29, 35). This is probably an unlikely name for a Hittite. What is the praise referring to? Bat Beeri. The daughter of the Well. What happened at the well? That’s where Abraham’s servant met Rebecca for the first time and praised God for helping him find a wife for Isaac. 

Coincidence or design? Let’s continue. The second wife is named: Bosmat Bat Ailon. Why? Bosmat comes from the word besamim which is fragrant incense. Bat Ailon refers to the ayil (in Hebrew it is even more striking) which Abraham was told to take instead of Isaac at the Akeida to be an offering and a pleasant fragrance before God. (see Gen. 8, 21). So the two wives just happen to reflect in their names the two most important events in Isaac’s life. 

Esau, I assume, was hoping the “coincidence” would bring his father to think that the matches were bashert (made in heaven). This, however, was not the result “for they [the wives] were a grief of mind for Isaac and Rebecca” (Gen. 26,35). This is not surprising since, according to the midrash, they were idol worshipers (Gen. Rabbah 65, 4), and according to the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees (25, 1) they led a promiscuous and corrupt lifestyle. Until now, I have argued that the actual names of Esau’s wives were as in Vayishlach: Ada Bat Eilon the Hittite and Oholivama Bat Ana Bat Tzivon the Hivite, and this seems reasonable since the text in chapter 36 mentions these latter names multiple times.

However, we still have to solve the issue of Esau’s third wife. When Esau sees that his mother sent Jacob to Lavan’s house to find a wife from the family, he realizes that his father is not particularly enamored by Canaanite women (Gen. 28,8). Therefore, to mend the situation he goes to Uncle Ishmael to marry again and takes his daughter Mahalat Bat Ishmael, sister of Nevayot (Gen. 28, 9). He does not divorce the Hittite wives, which could actually be seen as a redeeming quality, yet, Rashi again criticizes him for this (Rashi on Gen. 28, 9). We are again faced with the same problem as before. Ishmael’s daughter in Parashat Vayishlach is called: Bosmat Bat Ishmael and not Mahalat? I am going to argue, as before, that the actual name of this woman was Bosmat, as in Parashat Vayishlach, but despite the fact that this woman’s name was actually Bosmat, Esau had already used this name for his Hittite wife and it might seem too much of a coincidence for this new wife to have the same name. I actually think that it was not by coincidence that Ishmael called his daughter this, possibly in memory of the Akeida since according to the midrash he was one of the two lads waiting for Abraham to return (Gen. 22, 5 see Rashi). 

In addition, the Talmud claims that Ishmael mended his ways and felt comfortable as a son of Abraham and as a brother of Isaac (Bava Batra 16B). The name Esau relates to his father for Ishmael’s daughter is Mahalat which according to Rashi means forgiveness (Rashi on Gen. 36,3; Yerushalmi Bikurin 3, 3). In this context it would be appropriate since Esau is seeking his father’s forgiveness, (even though the Midrash claims that the marriage to Ishmael’s daughter was part of a plot to kill Jacob and inherit both families (Gen. Rabbah 67, 8).

Despite Esau’s seemingly religious pretentiousness, he really does have a redeeming quality. He loves his father and is constantly looking for ways to be accepted by him (see Psikta Rabati 23 on Esau and Kibud Av). 

Contrary to what is said about Ishmael we do not find that Esau changed his ways. In fact the prophet Ovadia – which is the haftarah (selections from the Book of Prophets) for Parashat Vayishlach – describes a reckoning in the end of days with Esau for all that he and his descendants did toward Jacob and his descendants. 

The writer, a rabbi, is a lecturer in Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University and a research fellow at Ariel University.