Canaanite Wives

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

The Jewish nation was forged in the slave-pits of Egypt. But what were we before then?

Before then, we were a family. We started small – just Jacob, really – and within 60 years we were a family of 70. Who got to be counted in this number? Who got to be part of Jacob’s family during the critical period when the building blocks of the future Jewish nation were being laid?

I want to apologize in advance if this week’s column is somewhat technical and academic. But it is intended to explore the identities of the matriarchs of the Jewish nation. Not the capital-‘M’-Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; but rather, the wives of the twelve sons of Jacob, from whom all genealogical Jews descend.

Who did Jacob’s sons marry?

Well, it depends who you ask. The Midrash records a dispute between Rabbi Nechemia and Rabbi Yehuda. According to Rabbi Nechemia, Jacob’s sons took wives from the local Canaanite women. According to Rabbi Yehuda, however, each of Jacob’s sons was born with a twin sister, and they married each other. See Genesis Rabba, 80:21.

What would compel R’ Yehuda to adopt such an extraordinary and unusual interpretation? Well, there are a few reasons, both textual and thematic.

First, R’ Yehudah recalls how careful Abraham was that Isaac not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan, instead sending his faithful servant far away to Abraham’s own homeland to find Isaac a bride from among Abraham’s own extended family. Genesis, 24:3-4. He recalls how Isaac and Rebecca, too, sent Jacob outside of the land of Canaan to find a wife, not wishing him to marry any of the local girls. Genesis, 28:1-2. He recalls further that when Noah’s youngest son, Ham, inappropriately “viewed Noah’s nakedness,” Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan, decreeing that he would be a servant to Ham’s brothers Shem and Yafet. Genesis, 9:25-27. Thus, the women of Canaanite descent all possessed a simple hereditary flaw: they were cursed and relegated as slaves. Consequently, our Patriarchs did not want their sons marrying Canaanites; as Abraham had earlier expressed to Eliezer, “an accursed one cannot unite with a blessed one.” R’ Yehuda sees Abraham’s commandment to Eliezer in which he communicated his aversion to Canaanite brides as having become a family tradition which was surely upheld by Jacob’s sons. Since, they could not marry Canaanites, and there is no record of them having left the land of Canaan to find non-Canaanite wives, they just have married within their own family. Ergo, they had twin sisters and married them.

There are a few textual supports for R’ Yehudi’s opinion. When Jacob believed Joseph to have been killed, torn apart by wild beasts, he mourned for a long time, and the Torah states that “all his sons and all his daughters arose to console him, but he refused to be consoled.” Genesis, 37:35. Torah, however, records the birth of only one daughter – Dinah. So who were “all his daughters”?

Then, in this week’s Parshah of Vayigash, after Jacob leans that Joseph is not only alive, but is the ruler of Egypt, he and his family descend to Egypt. The Torah says that “all the souls coming to Egypt with Jacob, those descended from him, excluding the wives of Jacob’s sons, all the souls were sixty six.” Genesis, 46:26. From the juxtaposition of the phrases “those descended from him” and “excluding the wives of Jacob’s sons,” R’ Yehuda concludes that the wives of Jacob’s sons that are being excluded from the count were nonetheless “descended from him.” See Ramban. He thus concludes that the sons’ wives were the twin sisters born with them.

Obviously, this view poses serious questions.

First, um, can anyone say “incest”? To get around this one, we’d have to distinguish between paternal siblings and maternal siblings – perhaps as Abraham did when he explained to Abimelech that Sarah was “my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” Genesis, 20:12.

There, Rashi explains that “the daughter of one’s father is permitted to a Noahide for marriage.” However, even if we suppose that Jacob’s sons avoided marrying their maternal siblings, that didn’t leave them with much choice, as Leah was the mother of a full six of the twelve sons (and their sister-twins). Thus, the selection for Leah’s sons would have been restricted to the twin daughters born with the six sons of Zilpah, Bilhah and Rachel – which means that those six sons would have been limited to Leah’s daughters. So – a selection from among six paternal siblings. Possible, but it seems unlikely.

Second, why would the Torah be so obtuse about twelve other children of Jacob? Torah certainly notes when Dinah is born, announcing that “afterwards, she bore a daughter, and she named her Dinah.” Genesis, 30:21. So why would Torah discuss one daughter but not the others?

Third, look at the other verses that need to be interpreted differently to accommodate this view. When Judah marries the “daughter of a Canaanite man” (Genesis, 38:2), the word “Canaanite” is reinterpreted to mean “merchant” – even though just several verses earlier, the Torah had discussed the merchants to whom Joseph was sold, referring to them by the traditional Hebrew word for merchants, “Socharim.” Genesis, 37:28. Then, in this week’s Parshah, the Torah lists those that accompanied Jacob to Egypt, including “Saul the son of the Canaanitess.” As we discussed here, this too is interpreted as meaning Dinah, who is apparently called a “Canaanitess” because she was raped by a Canaanite. Genesis Rabba, 80:11. In each instance, the simple meaning of “Canaanite” or “Canaanitess” is rejected in favor of a far less intuitive meaning, simply because we cannot accept the fact that Jacob’s sons might have married Canaanite girls.

Similarly, when the Torah enumerates “all the souls coming to Egypt with Jacob, those descended from him, excluding the wives of Jacob’s sons,” one would not assume that “the wives of Jacob’s sons” referred to their twin sisters; whereas one would expect twelve of Jacob’s daughters to be listed among those that accompanied their father to Egypt. Indeed, Rashi states that, according to R’ Yehuda, we must conclude that these sister-wives died prior to the descent to Egypt; for were they alive, they would surely have been mentioned. Even this explanation is not without its weaknesses, as even Judah’s late sons Er and Onan are mentioned in the text, even though they were no longer alive. See Genesis, 46:12. Why would Jacob’s daughters be any different?

Finally, is it a fact that the Abraham’s descendants continued the tradition of not marrying locally? Esau certainly took his first wives from the daughters of Canaan. See Genesis, 26:34. It was not until Isaac sent Jacob away to find a wife elsewhere – and even then, only at the urging of his mother, Rebecca – that Esau too took a wife from among the daughters of his uncle Ishmael. Genesis, 28:8-9. Considering that “Isaac loved Esau” (Genesis, 25:28) and had desired to give his comprehensive set of blessings to Esau (Genesis, 27:1-4), the fact that Isaac had no particular instructions for Esau regarding who he took as a wife is significant. Joseph, too, did not appear to be overly particular about who he married. He married Osnat (Genesis, 41:45), who was either the daughter sired upon Dinah by Shechem, a Canaanite (as we discussed here), or the biological daughter of Poti-Phera, an Egyptian. Although Egypt (Mitzrayim) was the older brother of Canaan, and was therefore not the direct target of Noah’s curse, Egypt was still the son of Ham, the son that had incurred Noah’s wrath that resulted in the curse. See Genesis, 10:6. Nor did Judah appear to be overly selective in who he chose as his mate. Even if we accept that the “daughter of a Canaanite man” means the daughter of a merchant, that says nothing about his origins. Where was he from? Who did he marry? Who was the mother of his daughter? He certainly lived in Canaan, which is where Judah met his wife. Are we to assume that both he and his wife were transplants from some other country?

Under R’ Nechemia’s view, that the brothers took local wives, none of these problems exist. There was no incest. Judah’s wife might well have been the daughter of a Canaanite man. Joseph might have freely married an Egyptian girl. Shimon may have married a Canaanite wife with a son from a previous marriage – hence the name “Saul the son of the Canaanitess.” Esau would have taken Canaanite wives, until such time that he heard his parents articulate a preference for a different heritage. No incest.

Nor would R’ Nechemia find R’ Yehuda’s proof-texts to be convincing. When it says that Jacob’s daughters arose to comfort him as he mourned Joseph, the word “daughters” could easily be a reference to his daughters-in-law. As Rashi notes there – and as we ourselves may observe – “a person does not hesitate to call his son-in-law his son and his daughter-in-law his daughter.” And when it states in this week’s Parshah that “all the souls coming to Egypt with Jacob, those descended from him, excluding the wives of Jacob’s sons,” it could be easily explained that the exclusion of Jacob’s daughters-in-law was not only from the number of those journeying to Egypt, but also from the statement “those descended from him.” Thus, “excluding the wives of Jacob’s sons” was simply an explanation of what was being excluded by emphasizing “those descended from him.”

And yet –

One can almost feel R’ Yehuda’s desire to maintain the purity of the Jewish bloodline; to protect and insulate this nucleus of what would later become the Jewish nation from external influences. Ishmael, Abraham’s black sheep, born of an Egyptian woman, was surgically removed from the family unit. Esau, Isaac’s black sheep, a wicked man who consorted with Canaanite woman, was similarly excluded. Then Jacob marries his first cousins and has thirteen children. Who will they marry? What mothers will raise their children? Surely not the immoral and idolatrous Canaanites! Sarah’s idolatrous upbringing is overlooked because she married Abraham, who reintroduced monotheism to the world. Rebecca’s, Rachel’s and Leah’s idolatrous upbringing is overlooked because, well, they were of Abraham’s family. But the Canaanite? They were steeped in immorality, with no redeeming genetic code. It cannot be that such people would be invited into the family!

On the other hand, weren’t we destined to be a light unto the nations? And isn’t it a testament to Jacob’s sons that their moral code (ignoring, for a moment, their kidnapping, assault and sale of Joseph) was strong enough to withstand whatever outer influences their wives may have brought into the home? The laws prohibiting intermarriage had not yet been given; couldn’t the tribes have seen intermarriage as an opportunity to spread light?

This has always been the tension that has characterized the Jewish nation. We are intended to be a light to the world. But we are intended to do so, not as a collection of individuals, but as a nation. Maintaining our nationhood requires a certain degree of insulation, guarding against the fierce winds that would scatter us, keeping our national identity and our unique moral code and destiny intact. But we are ultimately an outward-looking nation, as we seek to illuminate and elevate the world around us.

We are like the model home in a master-planned community, in which a seeming disproportionate effort is made to ensure the beauty and Feng Shui appeal of the home is perfect and on full display. The appliances must perfectly match; the colors must be perfectly coordinated; the materials must be of the highest quality. This is not done because of the intrinsic value of the model home itself; rather, this is to inspire the rest of the world, and to ignite the imagination of other potential home-owners as to what their homes could look like. Similarly, when we are commanded to love each other, it is not because only we are worth loving; it is because our impact on the world requires that we demonstrate what a nation is capable of. When we are selective about whom we allow to join our family, it is not because of our inherent superiority; it is because our ability to form a model nation depends upon sticking carefully to the model plan.

Shabbat shalom!