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Were Two Women Among the Chiefs of Edom?

Chief Timna and Chief Oholibamah

Genesis 36 contains the family record of Esau, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, who is also called Edom. Esau had many sons who became the chiefs of their clans. However, at the end of the chapter, there are eleven chiefs who seem to be somewhat distinct from the other chiefs previously mentioned.

These are the names of Esau’s chiefs, according to their families and their localities, by their names: chief Timna, chief Alvah, chief Jetheth, chief Oholibamah, chief Elah, chief Pinon, chief Kenaz, chief Teman, chief Mibzar, chief Magdiel, and chief Iram.[1] These are Edom’s chiefs, according to their settlements in the land they possessed. … Genesis 36:40-43 cf. 1 Chronicles 1:51-53.

“Timna” is given as the name of a chief in Genesis 36:40 and 1 Chronicles 1:52. However, it’s a name that has already occurred two times in Genesis 36 where it is clearly the name of a woman (Gen. 36:12, 22).

Similarly, “Oholibamah” is given as the name of a chief in Genesis 36:41 and 1 Chronicles 1:52, but it is the name of one of Esau’s Canaanite wives mentioned several times earlier in chapter 36 (Gen. 36:2, 5, 14, 18, 25).

Were Chief Timna and Chief Oholibamah in verses 40-41 also women?

Rather than being personal names, “Timna,” “Oholibamah,” and the other nine names in Genesis 36:40-43, may be the names of clans and/or their settlements which were typically governed by male chiefs.[2] Note the beginning of Genesis 36:40: “These are the names of Esau’s chiefs, according to their families and their localities …” Moreover, Genesis 36:43, which follows immediately after the list, states, “These are Edom’s chiefs, according to their settlements in the land they possessed.” (Italics added.)

The names “Timna” and “Oholibamah” in Genesis 36:40-41 may refer to a clan and, especially, its location, and these names were included in the titles, “Chief Timna” and “Chief Oholibamah.”[3] Nevertheless, these two clans or settlements were named after women.

What do we know about these women?

Mother Timna and Mother Oholibamah

Timna was the concubine of Esau’s firstborn son, Eliphaz. Eliphaz had several sons, and Timna was the mother of one of them (Gen. 36:11-12; 1 Chron. 1:35-36).[4] A woman named Timna is also identified as Lotan’s sister (Gen. 36:22; 1 Chron. 1:39). Lotan was the son of Seir the Hororite who married into Esau’s family. Seir was an indigenous inhabitant of Edom but formed an alliance with Esau and was treated as Esau’s son. (See Gen. 36:20-22.)

While some scholars think Timna the concubine and Timna the sister are two different women, I think they are the same. The timing fits. And why randomly mention Lotan’s sister in verse 22 if she was not the same woman previously identified as Eliphaz’s concubine in verse 12?

Timna has a prestigious bloodline and powerful connections, and so did Oholibamah who is identified as the granddaughter of Zibeon the Hivite, daughter of Anah,[5] wife of Esau, and mother of three sons: Jeush,  Jalam, and Korah (Gen. 36:14, 18).[6]

In the Hebrew Bible, women are usually only mentioned in genealogies to distinguish the mothers of various sons when the father was polygamous. But occasionally a woman is included in a genealogy if there was something unique or special about her. Timna’s and Oholibamah’s husbands were polygamous―Eliphaz had a wife apart from Timna, Esau had three wives—but Timna and Oholibamah may have been outstanding in their own right.

My best guess about “Timna,” mentioned three times in Genesis 36, and “Oholibamah,” mentioned eight times in Genesis 36, is that they were influential women who may have functioned as matriarchs, powerful mother figures, in their lifetimes.[7] Nevertheless, I think “Chief Timna” and “Chief Oholibamah” were most likely titles given to male descendants whose positions and provinces were named after these matriarchs.


[1] Only three names in Genesis 36:40-43 are the names of sons and chiefs previously mentioned in Genesis 36: Alvah (Alvan), Kenaz, Teman. Other names are not included elsewhere in the list of Esau’s male descendants: Jetheth, Elah, Pinon, Mibzar, Magdiel, and Iram. Are these place names?

[2] An interesting webpage looking at the history of the Timna Valley, especially its history of copper mining which extends back millennia, is on the Bible Walks website. The Timna Valley has been connected with the Timna mentioned in Genesis 36:40 and 1 Chronicles 1:51. Both Eusebius and Jerome identified Timna with an Edomite site called “Thamna” which stood in their day. (Source: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

[3] The names “Timna” and “Oholibamah” are identical in Hebrew throughout Genesis 36. They are not inflected differently when used for the chiefs. See Timna’s name in Hebrew on Bible Hub here. See Oholibamah’s name, here.

[4] Timnah’s son was named Amalek. He is identified as an Edmonite chief in Genesis 36:15 and he was the ancestor of the Amalekites who became fierce enemies of the Israelites.

[5] Anah is understood to be Oholibamah’s mother, not her father, by some commentators.

[6] Zibeon and Anah are mentioned in Genesis 36:2, 14, 20, 24-25, 29.

[7] Some of the content of Genesis 36 is repeated in 1 Chronicles 1: the name “Timna” occurs three times in 1 Chronicles 1, and the name “Oholibamah,” once.

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Image Credit

The Spiral Hill in Timna Valley. Photo by Алекс Шейнгайт (Alex Sheingait). Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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