How many descendants did Jacob have?

Posted on Oct.04, 2009. Filed in Genesis, Exodus. Average rating: 2.5 / 10 (Rate It).

The twelve tribes of Israel descended from the sons and grandsons of Jacob, but the Bible shows evidence of some confusion as to precisely how many descendants Jacob had.

Genesis gives a comprehensive list that shows that Jacob had seventy-one descendants. This list is in four sections, one for each of Jacob’s wives, beginning with Leah:

Now these are the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his offspring, who came to Egypt. Reuben [1], Jacob’s firstborn, and the children of Reuben: Hanoch [2], Pallu [3], Hezron [4], and Carmi [5]. The children of Simeon [6]: Jemuel [7], Jamin [8], Ohad [9], Jachin [10], Zohar [11], and Shaul [12], the son of a Canaanite woman. The children of Levi [13]: Gershon [14], Kohath [15], and Merari [16]. The children of Judah [17]: Er [18], Onan [19], Shelah [20], Perez [21], and Zerah [22] (but Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan); and the children of Perez were Hezron [23] and Hamul [24]. The children of Issachar [25]: Tola [26], Puvah [27], Jashub [28], and Shimron [29]. The children of Zebulun [30]: Sered  [31], Elon [32], and Jahleel [33] (these are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-aram, together with his daughter Dinah [34]; in all his sons and his daughters numbered thirty-three). [Genesis 46:8-15, NRSV]

So Jacob had six sons through Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun) who together had twenty-seven children, making thirty-three, and also a daughter (Dinah) making thirty-four.

The list then continues with Jacob’s descendants through Zilpah:

The children of Gad [35]: Ziphion [36], Haggi [37], Shuni [38], Ezbon [39], Eri [40], Arodi [41], and Areli [42]. The children of Asher [43]: Imnah [44], Ishvah [45], Ishvi [46], Beriah [47], and their sister Serah [48]. The children of Beriah: Heber [49] and Malchiel [50] (these are the children of Zilpah, whom Laban gave to his daughter Leah; and these she bore to Jacob–sixteen persons). [Genesis 46:16-18, NRSV]

So in addition to the thirty-four descendants that Jacob had through Leah, he had a further sixteen through Zilpah, making fifty in total.

Next to be numbered are Jacob’s descendants through Rachel:

The children of Jacob’s wife Rachel: Joseph [51] and Benjamin [52]. To Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh [53] and Ephraim [54], whom Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, bore to him. The children of Benjamin: Bela [55], Becher [56], Ashbel [57], Gera [58], Naaman [59], Ehi [60], Rosh [61], Muppim [62], Huppim [63], and Ard [64] (these are the children of Rachel, who were born to Jacob–fourteen persons in all). [Genesis 46:19-22, NRSV]

These fourteen descendants take the running total to sixty-four. The list concludes with Jacob’s descendants through Bilhah:

The children of Dan [65]: Hashum [66]. The children of Naphtali [67]: Jahzeel [68], Guni [69], Jezer [70], and Shillem [71] (these are the children of Bilhah, whom Laban gave to his daughter Rachel, and these she bore to Jacob–seven persons in all). [Genesis 46:23-25, NRSV]

In all, then, this list names seventy-one descendants of Jacob. This number is confirmed is the following verse, which reads:

All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own offspring, not including the wives of his sons, were sixty-six persons in all. [Genesis 46:26, NRSV]

This verse, which states that sixty-six of Jacob’s descendants came with him into Egypt, confirms that Jacob had seventy-one descendants, because we know that five of his descendants did not come with him into Egypt: the two children of Judah who died in Canaan (Er and Onan), and Joseph and his two children (Manasseh and Ephraim) who were already in Egypt.

Unfortunately, Exodus 1:5 states plainly that Jacob had only seventy descendants:

“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy.” [Exodus 1:1-5a, NRSV]

So how many descendants did Jacob have, seventy-one or only seventy?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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3 Comments Ratings

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  1. 1

    Two responses seem possible here:

    1) 70 is approximately equal to 71.

    2) Among Jacob’s grandchildren, only Shaul (number 12 in the full list) and the sons of Joseph include a special notation about their mother. There was obviously nothing shameful in the birth of Joseph’s sons. There may have been in Shaul’s birth. He might have been a bastard by the Canaanite woman. He might not have been counted in the total for Exodus for that reason.

  2. 2

    It does look like the key should be in Leah’s section of the genealogy (Genesis 46:8-15), where 34 names are listed but the count is given as 33. Whether it’s Shaul or Dinah that’s included on the list but excluded from the count I’m not sure.

  3. 3

    I believe number 34 (Dinah) is the problem. In every genealogy given in the Bible, females are only seldom mentioned. Look at Christ’s genealogy. He has nearly 50 forefathers but 5 “foremothers”.

    Dinah was simply not included when Jacob was said to have had 70 descendants.

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