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The Israelites

Forging of a nation

by and

Published: 2 September 2021 (GMT+10)
Terah-family-tree
Figure 1: The genealogy of the 12 Tribes of Israel (at bottom) can be traced along multiple routes from Terah through all four of Terah’s named children.

The history of the Israelites is an interesting topic for all students of Scripture. It also intersects with the study of world history, modern genetics, and genealogy. Yet, we tend to have an oversimplified understanding of where they came from. We also tend to think of them as a monolithic kin group, which is simply incorrect. True, they started off as a family: one husband, four wives, 12 brothers, and at least a couple of sisters. This family had also intermarried over several generations.1 Yet, they extensively married outside of their immediate kin group many times over the centuries. In the end, the genetics of modern Jews has a clear origin in the Middle East, but with the addition of DNA from many outsiders.2

Studying this fascinating people group does not tell us much about Creation, per se, but it does tell us much about theology. We also learn important facts that help us to address the origin of ‘races’ and questions about racism in general. Thus, it would benefit the student of Scripture to consider their origins in depth. Who are they?

Israel began with the biblical patriarch Jacob (who was renamed “Israel” in Genesis 32:28), but their roots trace back through Isaac, Abraham, Terah (figure 1), and all the way to Noah and, ultimately, Adam. This nation had 12 main tribes, each founded by one of the 12 sons of Jacob. Yet, even at that early stage there was much intermarriage with non-Israelites (e.g., Genesis 38), meaning that they imported a lot of non-Israelite DNA and non-Israelite practices over the centuries.

During Jacob’s lifetime, he and his family moved to Egypt. When the Israelites left Egypt 215 or 430 years later (see below), they were a distinct people group. Despite spending a few centuries in a foreign land, they maintained a distinct language3 and a sense of belonging to their kin group. This is truly remarkable when you think about it. It helped that they were assigned land in the eastern Nile Delta (Genesis 47:6), but they were also united by a common religious faith (based on God’s revelations to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and practice (e.g., circumcision4). They were separated from the bulk of the Egyptian population, but they still interacted a lot with the dominant culture, as seen in the pages of the Bible. How did this small band of brothers, sons of one man with four wives, who lived in a small town in the Judean hills, become the Israelite nation in only a couple hundred years?

Unlike most people in today’s individualistic society, people in ancient times were much more apt to describe themselves according to their family. We can see this in the way they named themselves. For example, in Genesis 15:17 Abraham was called a Hebrew, which can also be translated Eberite.5 Eber, of course, was the great-grandson of Shem, the son of Noah. We do not know why, but association with Eber was very important for Abraham. Shem is an obvious choice. He is a son of Noah and represents one of the first three patriarchal divisions in the post-Flood world. It is from him we get the word ‘Semitic’. As we just saw, Eber gives us ‘Hebrew’. Jacob/Israel gives us ‘Israelite’, and, later, Judah will give us the word ‘Jew’ (figure 2).

One interesting possibility is that Eber was the head of the clan that received the early Semitic language family at Babel when the earth was divided in the days of his son, Peleg. However, this is conjecture.

Jesus-genealogies
Figure 2: The family tree of Jesus. The Patriarchs discussed in this article (Shem, Eber, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) are in the red section at the top.

The making of a ‘people’

Clearly, patriarchal associations were a driving force in those ancient societies, but what happens to people living among them who are not descended from some patriarch? Are there ways that dissimilar people can become welded together under a common patriarchal banner? Yes, there are.

First, in any multi-generational situation, intermarriage is bound to happen. Any children born to a patriarchal linage are considered patriarchal, even those born to concubines. For example, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah may not have had the same status, but they were just as much children of Jacob as those born to Rachel and Leah. Adoption is another way to bring non-biologically related people into the group. For example, we may assume that some sort of adoption was involved in Abraham’s plan for Eliezer of Damascus to inherit his household (Genesis 15:2).

Second, common religious practices help to bind people, especially when those practices are different from other groups of people. Circumcision was an Israelite religious practice that was applied to all males living in Abraham’s camp. In fact, God mandated circumcision before Isaac was even born. They also believed in one transcendent God, unlike most every other culture known at the time (Melchizedek being one exception, Genesis 14:17–21). The religious dietary laws that were imposed during the Exodus would have been another, but they come too late to explain the people coming out of Egypt.

Third, language is a common uniting factor. Children growing up in one culture, even if their parents are from another, tend to adopt the language and customs of their friends. Anyone growing up among the Israelites would have become an Israelite.

Fourth, there are issues of status. Each of the Israelites knew what clan they belonged to, and they knew that some clans had a higher status than others. Women would have gained status by marrying into a more powerful family. Even the unrelated servants would gain status just from being associated with a powerful family.

A few words about status

There are many aspects of status that come into play in the biblical account. The Israelites were aware of it, and God applied it directly on several occasions. Consider the arrangement of the tribes around the Tabernacle during their years of wandering (figure 3). The most important positions were given to the descendants of Jacob’s wives. Lesser positions were given to the descendants of Jacob’s concubines. On the east, toward sunrise, were the sons of Leah. To the west, toward the sunset were the sons of Rachel. On the north were the sons of Bilhah and one son of Zilpah. To the south was the other son of Zilpah and two of Leah’s children, Reuben and Simeon.

12-Tribes-Israel
Figure 3: The arrangement of the 12 Tribes of Israel around the Tabernacle (center). The tribes are color coded according to descent (bottom right). The large dashed rectangle denotes the tribe of Levi, with the positions of the various subclans in a smaller font. The small dashed rectangle denotes the position of the two eldest sons of Joseph, each of which had become a tribe in its own right.

Reuben was Jacob’s eldest son and so should have received prime position among the tribes, but he was disgraced due to gross immorality and thus demoted (Genesis 35:22; Genesis 49:3–4). Likewise, the next two sons in line, Simeon and Levi, were disgraced due to their fierce anger (Genesis 34; Genesis 49:5–7). Since the first three sons were disqualified, Jacob transferred their right of inheritance to Joseph, giving Joseph a double portion of the inheritance (Genesis 48:21–22).6 We can see that in the fact that Joseph is not listed, but his two eldest sons (Manasseh and Ephraim) are. Among the Levites, the families of Moses and Aaron (who were the priests) were, of course, on the east side. The sons of Levi are arranged around the other sides of the Tabernacle. Kohath was the grandfather of Moses and Aaron. His other descendants were situated along the southern edge of the Tabernacle. For the other sons of Levi, Gershon was on the west and Merari was to the north.

We know that Joseph had other sons after Jacob arrived in Egypt (Genesis 48:6), but no mention is made of them again. This is a mystery that helps to illustrate an important point: the data in the Israelite genealogies is accurate but fragmentary. We don’t even have a complete record of all the children of Jacob (Genesis 46:7 indicates Jacob had more daughters than just Dinah), and the record of the 70 direct descendants does not include “his sons’ daughters” (Genesis 46:7) who came with them to Egypt. Levi had at least one additional daughter, Jochabed, once he settled in Egypt, where he lived for almost 100 years after settling there. Yet, if Jochabed was not the mother of Moses, we would never even have heard of her! The biblical genealogies are very sketchy and only include complete lists of a few people in Levi (the high priests) and Judah (the kings).

Another element that is not recorded comprehensively is the degree to which Israelites married outsiders, but we know enough to say that ‘foreign’ DNA was present in the nation from its inception. Judah’s son Shelah, who had many sons, was the offspring of his Canaanite wife, and Perez and Zerah were the sons of Judah through Tamar, an Egyptian. Simeon had Shaul by a Canaanite woman. Manasseh and Ephraim were half-Egyptian, as were Perez and Zerah. All these instances of intermarriage are noted but not condemned. What are condemned are intermarriages and other liaisons with Gentiles that caused Israel to stray from God. But believing Ruth, even though she was a Moabite, was commended.

Also, additional people must have joined themselves to the main tribes. Consider the unrelated servants who were living among the Israelites. The children of any servant girl who married an “Israelite” would be Israelites. Likewise, the unrelated sons in a family of faithful, multigenerational servants who married an Israelite woman would be grafted into Israel proper. For instance, Sheshan (from the tribe of Judah) had no sons, so he allowed his Egyptian servant (Jarha) to marry one of his daughters. A genealogy of thirteen generations (about 300 years!) is given for that Egyptian (1 Chronicles 2:34–41). This probably happened around the time of the Exodus and was recorded about the time of David or during the Babylonian captivity.

Scripture itself considers how descendants of a non-Israelite may over time be considered Israelites with the full benefits of biological descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This happened in the third generation for mixed children of Edomites or Egyptians but in the tenth generation (essentially forever) for mixed children of Ammonites or Moabites (Deuteronomy 4–8). Yet, these prohibitions were largely ignored throughout the history of Israel. For example, Ruth the Moabitess was famously the grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:13–22), Absalom and Tamar were children of David and Maacah, daughter of the King of Geshur (2 Samuel 3:3; 13:1), and Rehoboam’s mother was Naamah the Ammonite (1 Kings 14:21, note: at this point the king of Israel was less than 50% “Israelite”!). If Absalom, who should not even have been allowed in the assembly because of his heritage, could set himself up as king and be accepted by the people, we should not be surprised that many Israelites had mixed heritage.

Geographical considerations

12-Tribes-of-Israel-map
Figure 4: The allotment of land to the 12 Tribes of Israel. The arrangement very much follows the status of the tribes, going back centuries from their rise, their subsequent exploits, and Jacob’s ‘blessing’ at the end of his life. Yet, much of this land was never successfully occupied. For example, Dan failed to take their assigned land and ended up far to the north. The Israelites also failed to push out the people of the land in general. This would serve as a source of much conflict, and much intermarriage, over the next several centuries.

We can see additional issues of status when the land of Canaan was apportioned to each of the tribes (figure 4). The central portion was given to the descendants of Rachel: Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin. In fact, Manasseh was such a large tribe that they were given land on both sides of the Jordan River. The descendants of Leah were given land in the south. Judah was in a comfortable position in the Judean highlands. Disgraced Reuben was relegated to the east side of the Jordan near the Dead Sea. The descendants of the disgraced Simeon were such a small tribe by this point that they were simply given towns within Judah. The tribe of Levi also received scattered towns, but since the Levites were also the priestly tribe, this was perhaps not too bad. The scattering of Simeon and Levi was proclaimed by Jacob centuries earlier (Genesis 49:7). Zilpah’s and Bilhah’s descendants were given land in the far north and on the east side of the Jordan. Dan struggled to gain a foothold within the land they were assigned, eventually attacking an isolated, forested area in the northern part of Naphtali’s allotment and claiming it for themselves.

It seems reasonable that unrelated people that live together for generations will slowly blend into a unified culture, but how many people are we talking about?

Population growth

Israelite-population
Figure 5: The dashed line represents the approximate size of the Israelite population when they left Egypt. The sloping lines represent different computer models of population growth. As long as the Israelites were marrying in their late teens (ages given in the figure legend), and as long as they were having children one or two years apart (x-axis), they could have achieved a population size of 2.7 million individuals in a 215-year “Short Sojourn”. After Carter and Hardy (2015).

The Bible names 70 descendants of Jacob who arrived in Egypt during the great famine of Joseph’s time (Genesis 46:8–27). There are unnamed women besides Dinah (Genesis 46:7), but we are dealing with “70” descendants of Jacob. When they left Egypt, they numbered in the millions (Exodus 1 and Numbers 12). This is an enduring mystery that has both perplexed scholars and delighted skeptics for centuries. Yet, the numbers are not a problem if you consider the mathematics of exponential population growth. Under at least some conditions, it is possible to produce a population of 2.7 million (estimated from the number of adult males) at the time of the Exodus (figure 5).7

Yet, there is a debate about how much time they spent in Egypt. If the “400-year” clock (Genesis 15:13) starts with the arrival of Jacob in Egypt, the time spent in Egypt was 430 years. This is the “Long Sojourn” hypothesis. If, however, the clock starts when God made that promise to Abraham (c.f. Galatians 3:16–17), the time in Egypt was only 215 years. This is the “Short Sojourn” hypothesis. For the Long Sojourn, almost all growth scenarios are sufficient to create the Exodus population size. For the Short Sojourn, early marriage and high birth rates are required.

The biblical data favor a short Sojourn. It is possible to overlap the number of generations and the ages given for multiple people at the time of their death across a 215-year span. It is not possible to do this with a long, 430-year Sojourn, however. We will detail this in a future article.

A short sojourn does mean that the ‘multiplication problem’ is harder. However, it becomes much easier when we consider that there were more than 70 people arriving.

It’s not about genetics!

Since there is such a clear record of the Israelites constantly intermarrying with outsiders, even from the very beginning, clearly being an “Israelite” has little to do with DNA. But there is more to that story than most people assume. You see, there is a chance that Jacob’s genes would not even be represented in the future nation. Even though he had 12 sons (and a few daughters) that became important heads of major clans of a large nation, over the many intervening centuries, there is no guarantee that any of his DNA would persist. The probability that his DNA has been lost is small, but it is not ‘zero’. Ancestral DNA disappears from long lineages. Let us explain.

Abraham was an important chieftain, with large holdings of sheep, goats, and cattle. He had a very large household, which was centered in Hebron (30 km/18 mi south of Jerusalem) for three generations (Genesis 23:2; Genesis 35:27–28; Gen 37:12–17). How large was his household? Abraham took 318 trained men with him when he went to rescue Lot (Genesis 14:14–16). The Bible specifically says these men were “born in his house”. Including the old, the young, men, and women, he must have had on the order of 1,000 people living in his tents. These same men, and their sons, were soon to fall under the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17), which would have had a profoundly unifying effect, leading to greater cultural cohesiveness. This household was inherited by Isaac, then by Jacob. How large was Jacob’s “house” when he left for Egypt? Could it have been as high as 10,000 or even 100,000 individuals? Consider that there were only 70 people in Jacob’s immediate family when they arrived. Jacob’s DNA would have been pretty rare if they took the others with them instead of letting them starve to death in the wilderness during a great famine, which sounds reasonable. A group of this size also explains why they were given an entire area in the Nile Delta, rather than just absorbing into one of the existing Egyptian towns or cities. Of course, we cannot know how large the household was. When Abraham sent the sons he had with Keturah to the east, he gave them gifts (Genesis 15:1–6). He may have set them up with servants as well. There may have been a constant migration of people out of the Israelite community when it was located in Hebron, but we cannot know.

genetic-ancestors
Figure 6: Any individual has a limited number of genetic ancestors and an uncountable number of genealogical ancestors.

Second, one of the strangest quirks of genetics is that ancestral DNA disappears over time. Due to recombination, DNA gets scrambled every generation, and blocks of ancestral DNA get broken into smaller and smaller sections. Yet, since recombination happens at a large scale (there is an average of about one recombination per long chromosome arm per generation, and those arms are millions of nucleotides long), the small blocks are not guaranteed to be inherited. Your DNA will not be found in most of your future descendants. Likewise, just because you are descended from someone in the past does not mean you have their DNA. People object to this, saying things like, “But I am descended from Charlemagne!” My answer is, “Sure, but you probably don’t carry any of Charlemagne’s DNA!” Figure 6 shows how fast ancestral DNA is lost in any family line. After 20 generations, 99.9% of all lineages cannot be traced back to a specific person because that person failed to pass on his (or her) DNA.

In some family lines, it was but six generations between Abraham and the Exodus. Thus, it is almost certain that Abraham’s DNA was within the Exodus population. Also, since so many different people traced back to Abraham (and Terah, etc.), the chance of his DNA staying in the population over time is greatly improved. Wikitree.com tells one of the authors (RC) that he is descended from Charlemagne along 5,664 known lines. Thus, even if the probability of inheriting his DNA along one specific line is quite low, the probability is multiplied several thousand times, and these are just for the known lineages. It is likely that some people of Jewish descent carry DNA from these patriarchal lineages, but it is also likely that many do not. Also, non-Jewish people would also carry some of this DNA. In other words, it will be nearly impossible to identify the specific DNA that comes from the Patriarchs in modern people.

Genealogies grow faster than genes spread

Yet, even if ancestral DNA can be lost over generations, the family tree still stands. You are the child of your parents as much as your distant ancestors, and ancient people had no knowledge of DNA. Kinship was kinship.

As you go back in time, the number of branches on the family tree grows exponentially. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. At that rate, you would have 1,024 ancestors 10 generations (about 300 years) ago, over one million ancestors 20 generations (about 600 years) ago, and over one trillion ancestors only 30 generations (900 years) ago. Clearly, this is impossible, for the population of the world was only in the hundreds of millions around AD 1100. In fact, that many people have never even been born. The answer to the riddle is that you have a lot of loops in your family tree, where people who were related to each other married and had children. In fact, this cannot be helped.

The math of genealogies tells us they grow quickly and will soon permeate an entire population. You claim you are descended from Charlemagne? Great, so is everybody else in Europe, as well as most of the people in the world! What this means is that Jacob’s genealogy would have quickly taken over the Israelite population, even if his DNA did not. We can see the difference between genealogy and genetic ancestry in figure 6, which was created from a computer program I (RC) wrote to model recombination and inheritance of DNA in people across many generations.

Conclusions

In the end, “Israel” started out with a small number of children that were born to one man living among a large and mixed population that was, in turn, made more cohesive by matters of religion and language. Clearly being an “Israelite” is not a statement about genetics. But even if they were not unified by their DNA, by the time they left Egypt, most every person in the population could rightly claim to be an Israelite, even if their male direct-line ancestor was only a minor servant in Abraham’s house four to six centuries earlier. Yet, even if they were not unified in their genealogy, other things like language and religion would have held them together. The Israelite nation was forged within a diverse mix of genetic and genealogical relationships. This helps us to answer many questions about the origin of races (which don’t actually exist) and really makes you wonder about modern antisemitism and some people’s feelings of racial superiority. If our genealogies really are that intertwined, and if segments of DNA really can come from so many potential ancestors, clearly all humans have similar roots and are in a similar position: sinners in need of redemption!

References and notes

  1. Carter R, Extensive mixing among Israelites and non-Israelites in biblical history, Journal of Creation 31(3):112–118, 2017; creation.com/israelite-genetic-mixing. Return to text.
  2. Carter, R.W., The genetic history of the Israelite nation, Journal of Creation 32(1):2018. Return to text.
  3. Hebrew belongs to the Semitic language family, as opposed to the Afro-Asiatic language spoken in ancient Egypt. This is not to say that Hebrew has not changed. The language Moses spoke seems to have changed from the time of Jacob. For example, consider the spelling differences between Jacob’s grandsons listed in Genesis 46 and Numbers 26. Return to text.
  4. Other cultures (specifically the Egyptians and Canaanites) also practiced forms of circumcision, but as far as we can tell from the images they left behind, it was different from the Israelite practice, usually just a nick. In Israel, the practice was not necessarily universal and at times they dropped it entirely (c.f. Joshua 5:2–8). Individual practice also varied. See for example Exodus 4:24–26. Return to text.
  5. Hebrew: עִבְרִי (‘Ibri) is very similar to עֵ֫בֶר (‘Ēber) Return to text.
  6. Incidentally, Deuteronomy 21:15–17 would prohibit this from taking place routinely. Return to text.
  7. Carter, R. and Hardy C, Modelling biblical human population growth, Journal of Creation 29(1):72–79, 2015. Return to text.