Who was Caleb, the Son of Jephunneh? Although I think we often assume he was a naturally born Israelite, there may be evidence to suggest his family had joined Israel at some point. This might explain the unique references to the title, Kenizzite.
Brief Background on Caleb the Son of Jephunneh
Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, is a captivating character in Scripture. Caleb is most well known for being one of the 12 spies who explored the land of Canaan after the Exodus (Num 13:1-16). Out of the 12 spies who entered Canaan, only Caleb and Joshua trusted in God’s power to deliver the land to Israel (Num 14:6-10). They were faithful to Yahweh, while the rest of the spies gave a discouraging report and the people wanted to return to Egypt (Num 14:4).
Caleb is well known for a variety of other reasons as well. Because of Caleb’s devotion to Yahweh, God promised to bring him (and Joshua) into the promise land, while the rest of Caleb’s generation perished (Num 14:24, 30). Furthermore, when Israel was conquering the land of Canaan, Caleb (who was 85 years old at that time) aggressively led his family in the conquest of the hill country, conquering Hebron (cf. Josh 14:6-15).
One of the small details we often overlook is that Caleb’s conquest assignment was against the Judean hill country and the sons of the Anakim (Josh 14:12). I have proposed elsewhere that Goliath was of the Anakim, and was descended from a family that had moved to Gath during Judah’s conquest of the Judean hill country. In other words, Caleb was pumped to fight against the Anakim in their own fortified cities (all at the age of 85)!
Caleb is one of those men in Scripture we associate with heroism. He trusted his God against all odds and did great and mighty things! One of the underappreciated aspects of Caleb’s life may be his family history.
Who are the Kenizzites?
Caleb is referred to as, “Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite” in multiple places (Num 32:12; Josh 14:6, 14). Who are the Kenizzites?
The first mention we see in the Bible of the Kenizzites is Genesis 15:19, where the Kenizzites are listed alongside the Kenites, Hittites, Canaanites, etc. These people groups are said to possess the land which will be given to Abraham’s descendants in 400 years down the road. But we don’t have a lot of details about them.
It is possible that the Kenizzites are descended from Kenaz, who was the grandson of Esau (cf. Gen 36:11; 1 Chron 1:36). The difficulty of this view is that Genesis 15:19 would be a bit of an anachronism, mentioning the Kennazites before they even are supposed to exist (having been descended from Esau).
I think it is more likely that the Kenizzites mentioned in Genesis 15 are a people group we don’t know about, except for the mention in Genesis 15. And, if Caleb is one of their descendants, that means at some point before Israel’s Exodus, his father, Jephunneh (or perhaps an earlier grandfather), brought his Kenizzite family to Egypt and they joined themselves to the Israelites. This would explain why the narrator regularly mentions that Caleb was the son of Jephunneh and a Kenizzite (similar to how Ruth is regularly referred to as Moabite).
Alternatively, it is possible that the reference to Caleb as a Kenizzite is not a foreign reference at all. In this case, Judah could have had an unmentioned descendant who was named Kenaz, from whom the Kennazites were identified (as a subgrouping within Judah). This might explain why Caleb had a younger brother named Kenaz (Judg 3:9, 11), and why Caleb’s grandson was named Kenaz (1 Chron 4:15). But, the significance of those names could also be explained by foreign ancestry as well.
Caleb the Kenizzite or the Israelite?
In the end, we cannot answer the question of Caleb’s ethnic identity with a high degree of certainty. Although I think there are multiple understandings of Calbe’s identity as a Kenizzite, I lean toward Caleb being identified as a foreigner whose family has joined Israel prior to the Exodus. I think this best explains the mention of Caleb as a Kennizzite, since this people stands out in Genesis 15:19. Whether or not those Kennizzites are related to Esau, that seems more unlikely to me.
If Caleb was from a Kenizzite family, he completely and full-heartedly embraced his new identity with Israel and completely trusted God to fulfill His promises. If he truly had been a foreigner, he had turned his back on his former life and embraced Israel and the God of Israel. Amazingly, God used him at 85 years old was instrumental in removing the sons of Anak from the hill country of Judah.
Photo by Ryan Cheng on Unsplash