Saturday, December 19, 2009

Who was Oholibamah?

Alice C. Linsley

Oholibamah is one of the most fascinating women in the Old Testament. Her name means "most high tent" or "high tent shrine" and she is mentioned six places in Genesis 36. Based on the genealogical information in Genesis 36, we may conclude that she was associated with the Horite Hebrew priests of the royal house of Seir. Seir ruled over Edom and appears to a successor to the earlier rulers of Edom, including Abraham and Isaac.

Oholibamah's mother was the female clan chief, Anah. Her father's identity is not known. It appears that the authority was vested with the mother in this case. That would mean that Oholibamah required permission from her mother's household to marry Esau the Younger, the son of Isaac and Rebecca.

We find a similar pattern with Rebecca. Rebecca ran to her mother's household for permission to marry Isaac (Gen. 24:28).

Esau the Younger is named after his maternal grandfather, following the custom of the cousin bride's naming prerogative. Looking at the diagram above, we must imagine daughters born to Esau by his two wives Basemath and Adah, daughters of the great Hittite ruler Elon. One of these daughters married Isaac and named their first born son "Esau" after her father. The identity of this daughter is a riddle that remains to be solved, but that daughter appears to be Rebecca.

It appears then that Rebecca's royal mother from whom she sought permission to marry Isaac was Basemath. Basemath is a royal name that means perfume. It is the Hittite version of the name Keturah which also means perfume. Keturah was Abraham's cousin wife.

The cousin bride's naming prerogative is also seen in the kinship of the family of Moses. Amram had two wives: Ishar and Jocheded. Ishar is identified as the cousin wife because she named her first born son Korah, after her father.

© 2004 Alice C. Linsley

Diagram of Moses’ Ancestry

       ∆ Seir
           ∆ Zibeon
         O Anah
                    Esau ∆ = O Oholibamah (Gen. 36)
                        ∆ Korah the Elder
                      Ishar  O =  ∆  = O  Jochebed
               ׀       ׀
              Korah ∆      ∆ Moses

Here we again encounter Oholibamah. She is the only woman in Genesis whose mother, Anah, is figured in the line of descent in place of the father. Anah was the daughter of Zibeon. Genesis 36:24 tells us that Zibeon had a son named Aiah. Yet it is Anah, his daughter, who takes center stage as the mother of Oholibamah. Aiah is mentioned only once inn the Bible, but Anah and Oholibamah are mentioned repeatedly.

That Anah and her daughter Oholibamah are important is evident from the diagram above. It is rare that females are listed in the line of descent of chiefs. In Oholibamah's case, she is listed because of her status - not because her father had no sons. We are told that she had a brother named Dishan.

Genesis 36:2 tells us that "Esau took his wives from the daughters of the Canaanites: Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite; Oholibamah the daughter of Anah, the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite; and Basemath, Ishmael's daughter, sister of Nebajoth." However, Genesis 26:34 states that Basemath is the daughter of Elon the Hittite. How are we to resolve this apparent contradiction?

We must look at the location of Isaac's first encounter with Rebecca. Abraham's servant fetched Rebecca from Paddan-Aram and brought her to Isaac in the region of Beersheba. This was the territory of the Ishmaelites. It appears that the Hebrew clans of Mesopotamia and the Hebrew clans of the Negev intermarried and someone assigned Basemath to the Ishmaelite Hebrew.

Oholibamah is remembered as a wife of Esau and that marriage was arranged because of Oholibamah's high rank. she was probably the daughter of a Hebrew priest. She is important also as the mother of Korah, also a priest. The word "Korah" refers to a priest who shaves his body inn preparation for his time of service at the shrine or temple.

Korah the Elder is the maternal grandfather of Korah the Younger who opposed Moses in the wilderness. Korah the Younger is Amram's son by his cousin bride Ishar.

According to Genesis 36:5, Esau and Oholibamah had three sons: Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. All were born in Canaan. Korah the Younger died when the earth opened and devoured him and his fellow conspirators who defied Moses' authority in the wilderness (Numbers 26:10). Here we find the continuing theme of competition between two brothers, and see that the events described in Exodus and Numbers are not far removed from those narrated in Genesis.

According to Genesis 36:18, Oholibamah's three sons became the chiefs of their clans. Someone of Oholibama's clan "found the hot springs in the desert, as he pastured the donkeys of his father Zibeon" (Genesis 36:24b).

Again we see that the cousin bride named her first-born son after her father. We first saw this in Genesis 5 with Naamah, Methusaleh’s cousin bride, who named her first-born son ‘Lamech’ after her father. We found it also with Keturah, Abraham's cousin bride, who named her first-born son Joktan after her father.

Genesis 36 poses difficulty because Anah is also listed as a ‘son’ of Zibeon (verse 24) and Oholibamah is listed as an Edomite chief (verse 41). "These were the names of the chiefs of Esau, in their tribes and places, in their countries and nations: Chief Timnah, Chief Alvah, Chief Jetheth, Chief Oholibamah, Chief Teman, Chief Mibzar, Chief Magdiel, and Chief Zaphoim." The term ‘son’ in reference to these two women means person through whom descendents are traced and 'chief' suggests that Oholibamah was the titular head, not necessarily the ruler.

Oholibamah is an enigma. She is mentioned repeatedly as an important woman of Edom, yet little is known of her. Her connection to the house of Korah is indisputable, and Korah's claim to the rights of primogenture were probably justified.

David had Edomite blood through Tamar and Moabite blood through Ruth. Likely, David's priestly can be traced through Oholibamah. This is why II Samuel 8:18 speaks of David's sons as being priests. They didn't serve in the office of priest, but they were of the Hebrew ruler-pries caste, and this was the lineage of Jesus Messiah.

Oholibamah appears to prefigure the Virgin Mary. Her royal mother's name was Anah, a variant of Anna. The Virgin Mary, whose womb became the tabernacle of the Most High God, was the daughter of Anna. Oholibamah, an ancestor of David, is another type of the Woman in Genesis 3:15, but Genesis 3:15 finds fulfillment in Mary, the Mother of God.

There is a lovely Toparion appointed for this Sunday in the Orthodox Church. Here are the words:

Prepare, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all!
Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave!
Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with Divine Fruit:
if we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.
Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning!

Related reading: Was Mary A Dedicated Royal Virgin?; The Mother's House and the Father's HouseGod's Word Never FailsMary's Priestly Lineage; The Social Structure of the Biblical Hebrew (Descent); The Social Structure of the Biblical Hebrew (Right to Rule)


olmon said...

(O‧hol‧i‧ba′mah) [Tent of the High Place].

1. A Canaanite wife of Esau. She bore him three sons, Jeush, Jalam, and Korah, all of whom became sheiks of Edom. Oholibamah was a daughter of Anah and granddaughter of Hivite Zibeon.—Ge 36:2, 5-8, 14, 18, 25; see ANAH.

2. The designation of an Edomite sheik; some scholars would apply these listed names to places, believing they should read, “the sheik of Oholibamah,” and so forth.—Ge 36:40, 41; 1Ch 1:51, 52.

Snark said...

What a nice blog! Thank you for posting your observations/study. This is helpful.

Alice C. Linsley said...


The Hebrew traced lineage through both the mother's line and the father's line. The cousin-bride's naming prerogative is an example of tracing the maternal line. See The Social Structure of the Biblical Hebrew.

Also, the Horite Hebrew of the Nile, Mesopotamia, and Edom had only two wives.

There were two men named Esau and the data about their wives has been conflated.