What on Earth is an Ephrathite?

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Note the mention of “Ephrathites” in the middle of Chapter 1, verse 2

It’s funny where Bible study can take us.

It’s been about a month since I read the book of Ruth for the first time, so I sat down to look at my highlights again and write a First Reading to share with you here.  I didn’t get very far before my brain decided to take me on a side trip that led straight back to “the begats.

The word “Ephrathite” jumped out at me from chapter 1, verse 2.  A month ago, it seems, I hadn’t noticed that word.  I hadn’t highlighted it.  I hadn’t made any kind of note at all.  I furrowed my eyebrows, and said, “What on earth is an Ephrathite?”

My first question was, “Is that what we call people from the tribe of Ephraim?”

“No, Amy,” I responded to myself.  “Those are Ephraimites.  You should know that already.”

My second question was, “I thought all of the people in Ruth were from Judah, so why are we calling them something else?”

I don’t know, Amy,” I responded to myself again.  “Let’s Google it shall we?

Google it, we did.

Down the rabbit hole of nerd-tastic Bible study I went, and before long, I was combing through the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles again.  I told you those “begats” would come in handy! I just never figured they would come in handy so soon!  /grin

I am something of a visual-tactile learner, so I tried to draw up a family tree for the tribe of Judah.  I did my best to make something orderly that I could follow with my eyes on notebook paper.  As you can see in the photo below, however, it got really complex and gigantic and messy with a swiftness. It’s certainly not a functional tree, but the important thing is that it helped me figure out what an Ephrathite is.

Ephrathites were descendants of Ephrath, who lived in or around the city of Bethlehem, which was also called Ephrath.

Confusing, right?

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My attempt at making a visual shape for the family of Judah this morning.  1 Chronicles, chapter 2 is where you will find these listings.

A Tale of Two Calebs from the Tribe of Judah
Ephrath (or sometimes Ephrathah) was the name of a woman.

Ephrath was the second wife of Caleb, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah.  Ephrath’s husband Caleb is actually something of a mystery in Scripture, and after this first little go at researching it, I can understand why.  I’ll lay out what I found, and if you are a scholar or pastor who believes I’ve gotten any part of this wrong, I humbly invite you to correct me in the comments.

But this was fun.  Okay, so here’s the deal:

Caleb #1:  Caleb the Spy
Ephrath’s husband, according to the Talmud and rabbinical tradition, was Caleb the spy, from Numbers 13.  This Caleb was the son of Jephunneh, a Kenizzite of Edom.  This Caleb represented the tribe of Judah in the group of 12 who were sent to catch a glimpse of the Promised Land in Numbers 13.  Those who remember the story will know that Caleb and Joshua were the only two scouts who kept their confidence and faith in God’s promise after seeing the giants and fortified city-states of Canaan.

As an interesting side note, the name Caleb means “dog,” which is an epithet used to describe non-Israelites/Gentiles throughout Scripture.  It certainly lends credence to the argument that Caleb son of Hezron and Caleb son of Jephunneh are both of Gentile birth.  Whether or not it convinces me that they were the same man…is another thing.

This famous Israelite, Caleb, son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite, was born in a line of Edomites, but was also clearly an adopted member of Judah and much beloved.  He became a hero of Judah and the inheritor of the land around the great city of Hebron.  He was personally acquainted with Joshua and contemporary to the time of Joshua’s conquest.

This same Caleb–Caleb the spy, son of Jephunneh–was the father of Acsah and uncle to Othniel, son of Kenaz (Judges 1:12-14), and neither Othniel nor Kenaz (Caleb the spy’s younger brother) are listed in the 1 Chronicles, chapter 2 account of Caleb son of Hezron.  I am inclined to think we’re talking about two different men for that reason more than any other.  Caleb the spy’s father was called Jephunneh.  Caleb the spy’s younger brother was Kenaz, which is an Edomite name.  Caleb the spy’s daughter married Kenaz’s son, Othniel, who was the first judge listed in the book of Judges.  None of that is listed in 1 Chronicles, chapter 2:18-20, in the family tree for Caleb, son of Hezron.*

It’s worthy of further study.

Caleb #2: Caleb, Great-Grandfather of Bezalel the Architect
For now, however, and happily for my sanity, there is another Caleb who fits.  This Caleb was a Judahite ancestor of Bezalel the architect who led the construction of the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant in Exodus, starting with chapter 31.  In 1 Chronicles 2:18-20, Bezalel is called the son of Uri, son of Hur.

Hur was the son of Caleb, son of Hezron…and Hur’s mother was Ephrath.  So, the biblical record fits better, and it is also more likely to be Caleb, great-grandfather to Bezalel, because the generational timeline fits.

The city of Ephrath held that name long before the conquest of Joshua.  It is mentioned in Genesis 35 that Rachel, wife of Jacob/Israel, was buried on the road to Ephrath, so we know that it was called Ephrath long before it was called Bethlehem.

I think it likely that Ephrathah, the woman, was named for Ephrath, the town she was born in, and her husband Caleb, son of Hezron, is only 3 generations removed from Judah, son of Jacob/Israel.  It makes much, much more sense to think that her Caleb was the great-grandfather of Exodus’ great architect Bezalel than to think that her husband was a man who lived in the time of Judges.  Don’t you think?

Jacob/Israel begat Judah
Judah begat Perez
Perez begat Hezron
Hezron begat Caleb
Caleb begat Hur (with 2nd wife, Ephrath/ah)
Hur begat Uri
Uri begat Bezalel

Make sense?  It does to me.

Anyway…

My mind boggles at the idea of a line of Israelite men referring to themselves with a matriarchal ethnic identifier, but there it is.   Ephrathites.  The people who were descended from Ephrathah, wife to Caleb and mother of Hur.  The people who lived in and around the city of Ephrath, later called Bethlehem.

The important thing I learned today is that when we see the name Ephrath referring to a place, it means the city of Bethlehem in Judah. When we see people referred to as Ephrathites, it means that they were Judahites from in or near the city of Bethlehem.

*Note about Caleb, son of Hezron from 1 Chronicles 2:49
There is a another section at the end of the 1 Chronicles, chapter 2 about Caleb and Hur, but it is written in a different style.

It does not mention Kenaz or Othniel or Jephunneh or Kenizzites or Edom, but it has a short clause added onto the very end of v.49:  “Caleb also had a daughter Acsah.”

There is also a bit about a concubine of Caleb’s named Ephah (v.46) which is not used anywhere else that Ephthah is mentioned, and none of the children listed for Ephah are named Hur.

It seems like an afterthought, an edit made in the confusion of post-exilic record-keeping, which we know was an issue.  Obviously, this is highly speculative on my part, but so it is for everyone who has studied it.  I honestly can’t wait to dig into this later.

None of these mentions are attached to the original line of Hezron or Judah, so I find it very confusing and random.  It’s definitely something for further study, and it explains why there is a “mystery” around the two Calebs (although, I think the solution is rather obvious).  Such is the way of ancient records, I suppose.  There are all kinds of contradictions in these lists, and I haven’t yet had a chance to really study them fully.

For now, however, I’m going with what I’ve put forward for you here.  It makes much more sense to say that they are two men with the same name who lived in the tribe of Judah during different generations.  Ephrath’s Caleb cannot be the great-grandfather of Bezalel AND a man who was still a leader of Judah some 60+ years after Bezalel built the Ark and Tabernacle.  Unless I’ve just got my math way off on this, I don’t see how they could possibly be the same man…though I do understand how the need to fill in those gaps post-Babylonian Exile could end up with mistakes in lists of genealogy full of men with the same name.  Anyone who has ever studied genealogy is familiar with that issue.

 


17 thoughts on “What on Earth is an Ephrathite?

  1. I enjoyed feeling like a “mystery sleuth” along with you in this post. Though really, you do all the research and sleuthing, we just get to benefit from it!

    1. Thanks! You never know if something this dry and nerd-related will translate for others, but for those of us who like to dive in and swim around in these types of questions, it was a delight to find a controversy/mystery to investigate. 🙂

      1. I vaguely remember a talk or lesson that I once heard about “The ‘-ites’ In The Bible.” It was quite humorous. Sort of along the lines of “So what kind of ‘-ite’ are you?!?” In some respects people have not changed all that much. We just don’t stick ‘-ite’ at the end of our labels today!

  2. I love your chart showing the two Calebs! One thing I want to note is that Caleb#2 (the son of Hezron) was likely born in Egypt (and presumably his wife Ephrathah as well.) Also, I have come to the conclusion that the word “Ephrathite” as used here in the book of Ruth (also in Judges 12:5 and I Samuel 1:1) actually does mean a descendant of Ephraim. How I came to this conclusion and its relevance in the story of Ruth will be the subject of a soon-to-be-written article, Lord willing. But because I’m a horrible procrastinator (or rather a really advanced procrastinator) I didn’t want to wait until then to jump into the conversation; I’m already a year late.

  3. Thanks for posting this! I had just been lead to Ruth and that same word caught my eye. I searched on Google and this came up! What an awesome explanation and great digging into the Word! I appreciate your study.

    1. Mrs Nix, thanks for this too. I had just been led to Ruth and that word jumped out at me too. I too searched on Google and your page came up. I love the depth of explanation and your family tree was very helpful. Now I am going back to study Ruth with a bit more understanding. Thank you. In my bible it states that the purpose of the book of Ruth is to “show that God rewards those who trust Him”. Back to study…

  4. I appreciate you taking me down this biblical rabbit hole. Exciting! Im curious though how you came by the meaning of Caleb “dog?” I ask because I named my son Caleb I thought because of the valor, confidence and a yes we can attitude Caleb exemplifies in scripture. Inquiring minds would like to know

    1. I no longer recall when or where I read that meaning for the first time. The name actually means something like “full of heart,” which is why you were given the “valor” translation for naming your son. Caleb in the Bible was certainly valorous and brave, so even if it had been inaccurate (which it’s not), the biblical story makes Caleb a strong and wonderful name.

      That said, the name was often given to foreigners coming into the tribes of Israel because the Hebrew word for dog is “kelev,” which sounds like “Caleb.” In addition, there are no vowels in Hebrew, so the word for dog is spelled exactly the same way as the name Caleb. They are identical in Hebrew. The ancient Hebrew speakers were VERY fond of these kinds of phonetic and poetic wordplay. They are found throughout the Bible, and they are loaded with meaning and humor and, occasionally, insult. Sarcastic wit is very present in the Old Testament, and though I do not read or write Hebrew (not a single word), I find language fascinating and listen to Hebrew scholars talk about various things in podcasts/read books about it, etc.

      The word dog is loaded in the Old Testament, and even Jesus uses the term to refer to Gentiles in the New Testament on at least one occasion. It was not always an insult, but it usually was. Occasionally, like with Caleb, it was indicative of fondness, family, and adoption into the tribes of Israel.

      It’s a very interesting study, actually.

  5. Mrs. Nix: There’s an article written by a woman named Deborah Hurn. Google her name as well as “the kenezites” and you will find a two-part article on Caleb that is most rewarding to consider. I would recommend using the link to get to the second part of the article (it is quite scholarly, and it backs up things you read in this article, but takes them a step further.

  6. Awesome research here! There is so much important information in the genealogies that we miss if we skip over them. The names can be daunting, but it is fun to lay out the family trees as you have done here. Thanks for all the work you’ve done! I’m leading a Bible study after the New Year in the book of 1 Samuel and was wanting to understand more about where the term Ephrathite came from in 1 Samuel 17. You have given me a lot of food for thought!! Keep up the good writing!

  7. You have done some great research, Mrs. Nix! There is so much fascinating information in the genealogies which a lot of people just pass over because it seems daunting. It’s like God loves hiding stuff for us to find if we search. I love making visuals like you to figure out who belongs to who. One of the cool things I found was that King Saul could be related to Mordecai in the book of Esther due to them both being Benjaminites and related to Kish (Saul’s father and listed as an ancestor of Mordecai.) As interesting is the fact that Haman, the Jew hater, is called an Agagite, probably a descendant of Agag, the king whose life Saul spared whom God had directed Saul to kill. If true, Mordecai, Saul’s descendant, redeemed his family by being responsible for bringing about the death of Agag’s descendant and Israel’s enemy Haman. Please keep up your postings!

  8. Isn’t it strange? I was reading Ruth again this morning for the ‘umpteenth’ time and, like you was caught up by the term Ephrathite which I’d never really noticed before, so like you I checked out the bible references to Ephrah and the Ephrathites. But having failed to resolve the issue to my satisfaction I ‘googled’ it and came up with your article. And there it was, all done for me – thank you very much!
    I know we are warned in the New Testament letters not to get caught up in fruitless genealogies, yet I’m sure we can at times find ‘God in the Margin’ in this way. Here I believe it gives us an insight into the background of Bethlehem Ephratha and it’s people, ordinary people like us, with their various stories. Men and women with and without faith whose city it was to which God brought Joseph and Mary because he was of the house and liniage of David, Ruth’s descendant. And it was here that God chose for his son Jesus to be born, fulfilling the prophecy of Jacob in Gen 49:10 ‘ The sceptre will not depart from Judah …’ And onwards through Perez, Hezron, Caleb, Ruth and David. It’s all there for us to see, how God chooses and moves in an ordered and patient way.
    I know it is pure speculation but I can’t help wondering whether these were some of the things the risen Jesus shared with the two on the road to Emmaus and with the disciples in the upper room when he opened up the scriptures to them, showing them the things that referred to himself.

    1. I’ve had all these thoughts, too. I love how God works through the Bible on us, and I love how he stops us and makes us see things. I pray all the time that He will “open my mind to understand the scriptures” like he did for the pair walking to Emmaus. Little bunny trails that lead to surprising questions and discoveries are just part of what makes Bible study so, so engaging, fun, and rewarding. Thanks for reading!

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