The Family of Abraham
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

Various biblical passages describe the complex inter-relationships in the family of Abraham (originally named Abram). Contrary to modern Western customs, it was acceptable in ancient times to marry close family relatives, including cousins and nieces. It was evidently also common for men to have more than one wife, and even to have children with women who were not their wives (slaves or concubines). For example, Abraham's first son was the child of his wife's slave-girl; and one biblical tradition even says that his wife, Sarah, was actually his half-sister. Similarly, the twelve sons of Jacob have four different mothers: the two wives of Jacob (who are his first cousins) and two other women (slave-girls of his wives).

A prominent feature of the biblical texts is also the explanation of tribal origins through various genealogies. Thus, the Israelites (the twelve tribes of Israel) see themselves as the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. In contrast, groups like the Ishmaelites and Edomites (to the south and southeast of the Israelites) are said to be descendants of Abraham's other children and grandchildren, while the neighboring Moabites and Ammonites (west of Israel) are described as descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew.

Another important aspect of the biblical stories is what could be called family rivalries and disputes, esp. when younger sons usurp the inheritance rights of their older brothers. Thus, Abraham's inheritance is passed on to Isaac (not the first-born Ishmael), and then to Jacob (not his elder brother Esau).

Combining all the above points helps to explain both the close relationships and the bitter rivalries between the ancient Israelites and the neighboring Semitic peoples. The Israelites (and modern Jews!) believe that the promises God made to Abraham (esp. that his descendants shall possess the Promised Land forever) were legitimately handed on to them through Isaac and Jacob (as described in the Bible), while the descendants of the other tribes (and modern Arabs!) believe that the land should belong to them, since they are descendants of the elder sons (and thus the rightful heirs) of Abraham.

The following charts can help us visualize some of these complex relationships:

Chart Showing the Family of Abraham
Click here for a PDF version of this chart

NOTES: (unless otherwise noted, all biblical references are from the Book of Genesis)

The Bible says very little else about the "Twelve Tribes of Ismaelites" aside from naming the twelve sons of Ishmael in Gen 25:12-16 and again in 1 Chron 1:29-31.

The Hebrew Bible describes the "Twelve Tribes of Israel" as descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob (also named Israel), with four different mothers. The births of the twelve sons (and the significance of their names) are described in chronological order in the book of Genesis (29:31–30:24 & 35:16-20). The Bible contains several different listings of the twelve tribes. Each tribe has its own characteristics and eventually obtains its own territory:

Chart Showing the 12 Sons of Jacob
Click here for a PDF version of this chart (on page 2)


See also my Overview of Israelite and Jewish History

Electronic New Testament Educational Resources
The Biblical Resources Page

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This page was last updated on October 2, 2014
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