As we all know, Jacob (also called Israel) had twelve sons. You probably also know from the tragic story in Genesis 34 that Jacob had a daughter as well. Her name was Dinah, and she was born to Leah in Genesis 30.
But did you know that Jacob had other daughters?
If you didn’t, you’re in the majority. A first step to learning about the women of the Bible is focusing on the big names—Eve, Sarah, Deborah, Mary, Priscilla, etc. But it’s important to go further. It’s important to notice the numerous other Bible women, the ones who are easier to miss. Jacob’s daughters, like too many Bible women, often go unnamed, are mentioned only in passing, or both.
The Bible tells us twice that Jacob had daughters. After the (presumed) death of Joseph, we read, “All of his [Jacob’s] sons and daughters got up to comfort him . . .” (Genesis 37:35, Common English Bible). Later we read, “His [Jacob’s] sons and grandsons, his daughters and his granddaughters—all of his descendants he brought with him to Egypt” (Genesis 46:7, CEB).
Jacob’s sons are prominent throughout the Bible, including the New Testament, but are his daughters mentioned in the New Testament? That depends on what translation you’re reading. The Woman at the Well says to Jesus in John 4:12, “You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock” (CEB).
The word “sons” here toward the end of John 4:12 is a translation of huioi, which is indeed a common Greek word for “sons.” But this word can also mean “children.”
Consider, for example, Luke 16:8, “. . . the children [huioi] of this world are in their generation wiser than the children [huioi] of light” (KJV). Notice that I didn't have to go to a modern translation to find “children” rather than “sons” for huioi. Even the KJV, from hundreds of years before the gender-accurate translation debate, recognized that “children” is appropriate here.
Luke 16:8 is far from the only example. In fact, the KJV Old Testament uses the phrase “children of Israel” over 600 times, even though the first word of the phrase in Hebrew is a common word for “sons.”
Back to the Woman at the Well, context is our only guide for whether she meant “sons” or “children” in her comment to Jesus. I suggest she meant “children.” Why? The most obvious reason is that she, as a woman who frequently visited Jacob’s Well, had no reason to associate it primarily with men. Furthermore, Old Testament well stories frequently include women (Hagar in Genesis 16, Rebekah and other women in Genesis 24, Rachel in Genesis 29, Zipporah and her sisters in Exodus 2).
Here in John 4:12, a minority of translations should be applauded for mentioning Jacob’s “children,” rather than only his “sons.” These include, for example, the KJV, the Good News Translation, and the New Life Version. It is no surprise that the ESV, HCSB, and CSB use “sons” here. In my opinion, it’s unfortunate that those translations that have taken significant steps toward gender accuracy (NRSV, NLT, 2011 NIV, CEB) also say “sons.”
Yes, this article is narrowly focused on the translation of one word (huioi) in one verse (John 4:12). But the ramifications are far-reaching. Jacob’s children and their descendants are frequently viewed as representative of God’s people. One example is the address of the New Testament letter of James: “To the twelve tribes who are scattered outside the land of Israel” (James 1:1 CEB).
Clearly, God’s people include sons and daughters; it is good to be reminded that Jacob had daughters too.