The Unknown Mothers of the Tribes of Israel

Posted by on Dec 15, 2020

Who are the mothers of the tribes of Israel and what do we know about them? We know much about Sarah, Rivkah, Leah, and Rachel, the recognized and honored matriarchs of Israel.

Sadly, little honor is given to the other wives of the patriarch Ya’akov, the forgotten Bilhah and Zilpah, to the point that they are rarely mentioned and hardly recognized as matriarchs of Israel, as Leah and Rachel are.

But how much do we know about the unknown mothers of the tribes of Israel, the wives of the twelve brothers, from whose wombs the twelve tribes sprang? To them and their silent work this study is dedicated.

This study is a continuation of the articles “The father and mother of many nations” and “The forgotten matriarchs of Israel“.

The mother of the tribe of Yehudah

The story of the favorite son of the patriarch Ya’akov, Yoseph the son of favorite wife Rachel, is interrupted by the story of Yehudah, the son of the unloved wife Leah.

Yoseph was sold by his brothers as a slave to merchants who travelled to Egypt. In this ordeal Yehudah was the main instigator. Upon their return the brothers lied to their father Ya’akov that wild beast had devoured his favorite son Yoseph. Then, unexpectedly the Yoseph story is interrupted by the story of Yehudah.

What this interruption teach us is that, most probably, Yehudah felt guilty of selling his brother Yoseph to slavery and left the family, when he saw his father’s distress.

Thus, Yehudah’s story begins in Genesis 35 with the marriage to a foreign woman, a daughter of a certain Kana’anite, as we read in the first verses of the chapter.

According to the most translations, Yehudah seemingly transgressed the patriarchal prohibition of marrying a woman of the cursed line of Kana’an, if he indeed had done so.

We witnessed this prohibition given to Avraham’s servant Eliezer concerning a wife for his son Yitschak. We also recall the grief that Esav’s Kana’anite wives brought to his parents Yitschak and Rivkah, and that Ya’akov too was forbidden from marrying a daughter of the Kana’anites and was sent to Charan to find a wife from his mother’s relatives.

But the plain and literal reading of the text of verse 2 shows something different.

And it came to pass at that time, that Yehudah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a man Adullamite, whose name was Chirah. And Yehudah saw there a daughter of a man merchant (kana’anite) whose name was Shua; and he took her, and went into her.  (Gen 38:1-2)

The medieval Tanak commentator Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040 – 1105) notes that כנעני kana’ani, means “merchant” — (Pesachim 50a) and according to him Yehudah did not marry a Kana’anitess but a daughter of a merchant.

But Ibn Ezra writes that it is possible that the word Kana’anite is to be understood in the usual way, i.e. a local inhabitant of the Kana’anite tribes.

So, as the word “Kana’anite” means an ethnic Kana’anite but also a trader, it is possible that Yehudah did not marry a Kana’anitish woman, but a daughter of a merchant.

We derive this from the plain reading of the text, because the Torah was careful to say, “the daughter of a Kana’anite man”, and not “Kana’anitess”. If this had indeed been the case then the Torah would have indicated it by writing, “he took a Kana’anite woman whose father was called Shua” — the more natural way to say it thus spelling it out clearly that he married a Kana’anitess. And in this case, had she been a Kana’anite, Yehudah would have been guilty of a great violation of the prohibition not to marry the daughters of this tribe.

Therefore, this could mean that (1) she herself was not a Kana’anitess but a daughter of a Kana’anite (possibly from other marriage), or (2) she was a daughter of a merchant.

Yehudah’s wife conceived and bore him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married Tamar, but because he was evil in the eyes of YHVH, he died. Onan refused to impregnate Tamar to fulfill his duty toward his deceased brother to her heir, and he died too.

Shelah was too young to marry her and Tamar stayed widow in her father’s house. And after a long time the daughter of Shua, Yehudah’s wife, died and he did not give Shelah to Tamar.

Thus we are coming to the well-known story of how Tamar became Yehudah’s wife and consequently the mother of the lineage of kings of Israel.

To gain offspring for herself, Tamar dressed up as a cult prostitute and laid with Yehudah. She conceived and gave birth to twins: Perets and Zerach. Perets would be the one from whom the royal lineage of kings would come out through King David.

According to Rashi, the words לו ותהר “she [Tamar] became pregnant for him” in verse 18, are significant. We do not find this expression לו “for him” in connection with Yehudah’s first wife that died. This comes to tell us that through Perets and Zerach Yehudah’s descendants would be known rather than through his other surviving son Shelah about whom we know very little. This also means that through Perets and Zerach, Tamar would become the mother of the tribe of Yehudah.

It is interesting to note that in many ways Yehudah finds his redemption through Tamar. He left the family by marrying a strange woman but he brought forth seed by the righteous Tamar (see verse 26), whose name in Hebrew means “date palm tree”. This meaning of her name is seen in the fact that the righteous are often described as trees, as seen in Psa 1:1-3, Psa 52:8, and Pro 11:30.

And it is through the righteous Tamar that Yehudah and his seed will be remembered, for Tamar shows herself to be much like the matriarchs of Israel.

Like Rivkah, Tamar brought forth identical twins, and the second son became the firstborn.

And it is through Perets, the son of Tamar, and his descendants Yehudah will find redemption, for through his line David came forth to rule over Israel, and ultimately Yeshua the Messiah.

As Perets will be known as the ancestor of king David (Rth 4:18, 1Ch 2:5) and through him, Tamar became not only the mother of the tribe of Yehudah but also the mother of all the kings of Israel and thus she deserved the place of one of the matriarchs in the genealogy of Yeshua Mashiach; the other one being Ruth.

Thus, Yeshua’s genealogy can be traced through two non-native women who became mothers of the tribe of Yehudah: Tamar and Ruth.

It is interesting to note that that Yeshua Mashiach (the Messiah) is the offspring of a number of morally questionable unions: that of (1) Yehudah and Tamar, (2) Boaz and Ruth, and (3) David and Bat-sheva.

Two kingdoms resulted from the story of selling Yoseph in slavery and from the story of Yehudah and Tamar: Yehudah became the leading tribe of the Southern Kingdom (aka the House of Yehudah), while the Northern Kingdom of Israel was known as the House of Yoseph (Zec 10:6).

Therefore, we may say that the inclusion of Chapter 38 into the Yoseph narrative hints at the future Yoseph-Yehudah polarity in the history of the people of Israel. With which we are coming to the story of the mother of the tribe of Yoseph.

The mother of the tribe of Yoseph

And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenat the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.  (Gen 41:45)

Yoseph was sold by his brothers in slavery in Egypt. Consequently, he had been in Egypt for 13 years as a slave, and at least three years in prison.

After he was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams concerning the coming famine, he became a second in rank in Egypt, only after Pharaoh himself. As a reward, the king of Egypt gave Yoseph Asenat for a wife.

Asenat bore him two sons before the year of famine came (Gen 41:50). Unlike his father Ya’akov, who let his wives name his children, it is Yoseph who named his sons and gave each of them a Hebrew name.

That he did not renounced his Hebraic heritage, it is seen not only from the fact that he gave his sons Hebrew names, but also from the fact that despite being given an Egyptian name and title, he kept his Hebrew name and even Pharaoh continued to refer to him by the name Yoseph (Gen 41:55).

In support of this, there is a Jewish tradition of Asenat that she was humbled by Yoseph and became righteous. We should not be surprised by this, because after all, she became the mother of Ephrayim and Menasheh.

After Ya’akov came down to Egypt to reunite with his beloved son, he adopted the two sons of Yoseph and they gained status equal to that of the other sons of the patriarch.

Asenat did not give more children to Yoseph after the adoption of Ephrayim and Menasheh, and Yoseph was continued in his sons who became separate tribes of Israel.

Thus, the number of the tribes of Israel became 13, and Asenat became the mother of two tribes of Israel.

The mother of the tribe of Levi

And the name of Amram’s wife was Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, who she had born to Levi in Egypt; and she bore to Amram Aharon and Mosheh, and Miryam their sister. (Num 26:59)

While most of the translations of the above verse say, “Jochebed, the daughter of Levi, who was born (third person, singular, passive voice) to Levi in Egypt”, the text actually is saying, “Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, who she had born (third person, singular, active voice) to Levi in Egypt”, as we have translated it above.

Who was she that gave birth to Yocheved, the mother of Mosheh? From the immediate context, the she is the mother of Yocheved and the wife of Levi. But then there is the difficulty to explain as to why does the Torah say, “born in Egypt”?

According to Rashi, the wife of Levi gave birth to Yocheved in Egypt, but her conception took place in the land of Kana’an. This we learn from Sotah 12a, B.B. 120a, 123b.

And from Gen. Rabbah 94:9 and Num. Rabbah 13:20, we also learn that the wife of Levi gave birth to her as they came down to Egypt, and thus she completed the number of seventy souls who entered, for if we count them individually we will find only 69 (see Gen. 46:8-27).

We continue,

And a man of the house of Levi wend and took to wife a daughter of Levi. (Exo 2:1)

According to Exo 6:20 and Num 26:59, it was Amram, of the Levitical family of Kohat who married “a daughter of Levi”, Yocheved. The Torah is again silent as to the name of her mother, for this is how far the narrative goes to refer to the mother of the tribe of Levi as “she”.

Most unfortunately, we know nothing about the mother of the Levites from whom the priestly lineage would spring, besides what we learn from these short passages.

The unknown mothers of the tribe of Israel

So far we have identified by name two of the mothers of the tribes of Israel: Tamar the mother of the tribe of Yehudah and Asenat the mother of the tribes of Ephrayim and Menasheh.

But who are the other mothers of Israel? We read in Genesis 46 regarding Ya’akov’s family that went down to Egypt,

And Ya’akov rose up from Beer-sheva. And the sons of Israel carried Ya’akov their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him. (Gen 46:5)

This short account in verse 5 has the only reference to the wives of the twelve sons of Ya’akov. And nothing more.

According to it, all of Ya’akov’s children with all their respective wives and children arrived with him in Egypt. This means that except the mother of Ephrayim and Menasheh, Asenat, all of the other mothers of the tribes of Israel were born in the land Kana’an. About those forgotten mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel we know too little.

They may be presumed to have been of Moabite and/or Ammonite descent. The brothers might also have married the daughters of Ishmael, the son of Avraham, or the daughters of Keturah, Avraham’s second wife who had born him six sons. Or perhaps, Ya’akov’s sons took wives from among their female servants. We do not know.

Nor do we know whether the rest of the brothers had only one wife, like the patriarch Yitschak and Yoseph, or they married more than one wife, like the patriarchs Avraham and Ya’akov.

But what we know is that there is interesting reference in the same account of those that went down to Egypt with Ya’akov, and more particularly in Gen 46:10 and Exo 6:15.

According to it, one of the sons of Shimon, Shaul, is described as, “Shaul the son of a Kana’anite woman”. This Shaul, the son of Shimon, had his own descendants, according to Num 26:13. Therefore, indeed at least one of the brothers took a wife from the Kana’anites.

In conclusion of our study, we may say that, the mothers of three of the tribes of Israel, Tamar and Asenat, are (most unfortunately) rarely mentioned in the Rabbinic commentaries and never recognized by the religious authorities as the mothers of the tribes of Israel, nor are the other unknown mothers.


May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.