Old Testament

Was Caleb the Son of Jephunneh an Israelite?

Photo of hypothetical Caleb leading camels

Caleb the son of Jephunneh is a very interesting 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).

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. Joshua 14:6-15).

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.

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.

It is possible that the people known as 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). However, it is also possible that the Kenizzites mentioned in Genesis 15 are a people group we don’t know about, except for the mention in Genesis 15.

Alternatively, it is possible that reference to Caleb as a Kenizzite is not a foreign reference at all. In this case, Judah possibly 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.

In the end, we cannot answer the question of Caleb’s ethnic identity with a high degree of certainty. Although I think each view is hypothetically possible, I lean toward Caleb being identified as a foreigner whose family has joined Israel. 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, I am open to that, but am skeptical.

The big take away is that Caleb 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.

Photo by Ryan Cheng on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

One Comment

  • Sven Brown

    There is a difference in spelling in vowel points of K’naz and HakK’nizzie in Hebrew. If we remove the definite article and the plural ending we have the name K’niz(z). There is a Pathac in K’naz and a Hireq in K’niz. There are some English translations that use Kenazite Instead of the more proper Kenizzite as a translation. This appears to be the source of confusion. The Kenizzites of Gen 15 are spelled exactly like the uses with Jephuneh in Hebrew They existed in the time of Abram and were probably people living closer to the River of Egypt than the land of traditional Israel because they are not listed amongst the people that Joshua would conquer but part of the land promised to Abram by YHVH.

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