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KENITES (kē'nīts, Heb. ha-qênī, smith)

KENITES ken’ īts (קֵינִי, הַקֵּינִי, LXX, Καιναιοι, Κιναιοι, meaning metalworkers, smiths). Clan or tribal name of semi-nomadic peoples of S Pal. and Sinai. The Aram. and Arab. etymologies of the root qyn show that it has to do with metal and metal work (thus the Heb. word from this root, “lance”). This prob. indicates that the Kenites were metal workers, esp. since Sinai and the Wadi ’Arabah were rich in highgrade copper ore. W. F. Albright has pointed to the Beni Hassan mural in Egypt (19th cent. b.c.) as an illustration of such a wandering group of smiths. This mural depicts thirty-six men, women and children in characteristic Sem. dress leading, along with other animals, donkeys laden with musical instruments, weapons and an item which Albright has identified as a bellows. He has further noted that Lamech’s three children (Gen 4:19-22) were responsible for herds Jabal), musical instruments (Jubal), and metal work (Tubal-Cain, or Tubal, the smith), the three occupations which seem most evident in the mural.

General references.

It is clear that references to the Kenites are not to a tightly knit group living in a narrowly defined area. The name rather applies to a number of loosely related groups possessing common skills or perhaps claiming a common ancestor. At times the term is used quite narrowly in the Bible and at other times more widely, but at no time must it be applied to all Kenites. The land of the Kenites is promised to Abraham’s descendants (Gen 15:19). This would be the territory of a certain Kenite clan, prob. S of Hebron. Similarly, it is a particular group of Kenites which is condemned in Baalam’s oracle (Num 24:21, 22) while another group is praised for having been kind to the Hebrews in the wilderness (1 Sam 15:6). The exact cause for Baalam’s condemnation is not given, but in the context it appears that these Kenites had allied themselves with Amalek against Moses.

Relations with Moses.

The exact identity of Moses’ father-in-law is very complex. He seems to carry three personal names: Jethro, Reuel and Hobab. In Exodus and Numbers he is called a Midianite (Exod 2:16-21; 18:1; Num 10:29), but in Judges 1:16 and 4:11 a Kenite. Albright has proposed the following solution: Jethro, a Kenite of the Reuel clan, was living in Midian (well-known for its rich copper lodes) when Moses first met him. Later, during the Exodus, Moses’ son-in-law (hatan instead of hoten) Hobab, also of the Reuel clan, was asked to act as guide for the Israelites. Whether this reconstruction of the relationship of the names is correct or not, it does appear that Kenite was the actual tribal affiliation, while Midianite refers to location only. It may be that the skill of Moses and Aaron in smelting and casting (the golden calf, the brazen serpent) was gained through Moses’ association with the Kenites. It has been proposed that the essentials of Yahwism were learned from the Kenites. Julian Morgenstern (HUCA, 1927) claimed that the earliest document of the Pentateuch was the K, or Kenite, document. Despite the fact that many scholars espoused such a position at one time or another, no evidence within Scripture or without can be adduced to show that the Kenites were Yahwists before Moses.

During the Judges period.

According to Judges 1:16, the descendants of Jethro (LXX B) allied themselves with the Israelites and settled with them in the Negeb near Arad (S of Hebron and E of Beersheba at the S edge of the Judean wilderness). Instead of “they settled with the people” (הָעָֽם), some scholars have read (הָעֲמָלֵקִ֑י), “...with the Amelekites.” This change was occasioned by the reading of a few Gr. MSS, but perhaps more by 1 Samuel 15:6 where Saul, before attacking Amalek, tells the Kenites to depart from Amalek lest they be destroyed as well. This may simpy mean that a nomadic group of Kenites was living among the Amalekites at that time rather than having been settled for many years. The nomadic character of the Kenites is clearly seen in the fact that one family (not a whole tribe, as Dan), that of Heber, had migrated northward to Galilee (Judg 4:11). The fact that the Canaanite general Sisera took refuge in Heber’s tent “because they were at peace” (4:17) shows that Kenites were expected to live among a people (in this case, the Hebrews) without having partisan loyalties. In this situation, unfortunately for Sisera, Heber’s wife Jael did possess such loyalties (Judg 5:24-26). The fact that the Philistines had a monopoly on iron workers (1 Sam 13:19f.) may indicate the Kenites worked only with copper and bronze.

The early monarchy.

During this period a significant concentration of Kenites was located in the southern Judean territory. This is clear from 1 Samuel 15:6 cited above and also from David’s relations with them. While David was a Philistine vassal, he attacked the enemies of Judah in the S, telling his superiors that he was attacking Judah, the Jerahmeelites and the Kenites (27:10). Not only was he not attacking Judah and her friends, he was sending them gifts from his spoils (30:29). The fact that the villages of Jezreel and Carmel, from which came David’s two wives (25:42, 43) are listed in the same group with Kain (Josh 15:55) has caused some scholars to say that David’s wives were Kenites. However, there is no certainty that all the villages in that group were inhabited by Kenites. Recently, R. North has attempted to link David with the Kenites in another way. He argues that the Kenites were the musicians of the day, and that it was because David was a Kenite that he introduced music into the Temple worship. While the Kenites may well have been musicians (note that Jabal, Jubal and Tubal are all based on the root ybl “To lead in [festival] procession”) the relationship with David is most tenuous. Much of the argument rests on the fact that David sends gifts to “his kinsmen” (RSV “friends”), the elders of Judah and, among many others, the Kenites (1 Sam 30:26-31). The tr. “Friends” or “brothers” (in a common cause) is much the most likely interpretation.

Postexilic references.

In 1 Chronicles 2:55 the families of scribes living at Jabez are said to be Kenites. Apparently, during the kingdom and exile periods, certain Kenites had given up nomadic smithing and had taken on the more sedentary, but equally honorable, profession of scribe.


H. Schmökel, “Yahwe und die Keniter,” JBL, 52 (1933), 212-229; W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (3rd ed., 1953), 98, 99; W. F. Albright, “Jethro, Hobab and Reuel in Early Hebrew Tradition,” CBQ, XXV (1963), 1-11; R. North, “The Cain Music,” JBL LXXXIII (1964), 373-389; R. K. Harrison, Old Testament Times (1970), 139.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The word qeni in Aramaic means "smith." Professor Sayce thinks they may really have been a tribe of smiths, resembling "the gipsies of modern Europe, as well as the traveling tinkers or blacksmiths of the Middle Ages" (HDB, under the word). This would account for their relations with the different peoples, among whom they would reside in pursuit of their calling.

In Josephus they appear as Kenetides, and in Ant, IV, vii, 3 he calls them "the race of the Shechemites."